My second name, after my granny, is Alice. The Italian for anchovy is acciuga or alice.
I was devoted to anchovies long before I came to Italy. When I say anchovies, I am of course talking about preserved ones – I was in England remember – fresh anchovies like the ones above, came much later. The anchovies I knew were imported from Italy or Spain, fresh from the sea once, but subsequntly gutted, brined, matured and the curious pinky-brown fillets packed in salt, or more commonly olive oil. We bought anchovies in olive oil, neatly tucked into slim, oblong tins with a key and a roll back top.
My devotion, my taste for little salty fish actually began a few years before the slim tins, when I was a small girl. It began with a pot, my Dad’s pot, of Gentlemen’s Relish. Gentlemen’s Relish for those of you who aren’t acquainted with this marvelous concoction, is a paste of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices also known as Patum Peperium. It was created in 1828 by an Englishman called John Osborn. It comes in a very particular round, squat pot – that used to be ceramic but sadly nowadays is made of plastic. The paste is a dull greyish brown but has the most wonderfully distinctive flavour; strong, salty and hardly surprisingly, a heady fishy taste. My Dad used to have it – he still does – on toast. Just as I write in my parents kitchen in London, my Dad, sitting across the kitchen doing the crossword, is peering over the top of the newspaper, brow furrowed and insisting in the same voice he adopts when talking about the perfect cup of tea or the best bitter orange marmalade. “Quite thin slices now, you don’t want great big thick doorsteps. no, no. You want thin slices of hot buttered toast onto which you spread a cautious layer of Gentlemans Relish“. Gentlemens Relish is also title of the terrific BBC drama about the Victorian painter, pornographer and photographer Kingdom Swann. But I digress.
When my first proper boyfriend pulled a face at the anchovy on his pizza, it cast a big black cloud over our future. Could I really go out, could I even like never mind love, a boy who didn’t like anchovies? The relationship ended soon after, there were clearly irreconcilable differences. It was amicable but we haven’t remained friends.
I was thinking about this post as I walked across the park yesterday, on my way to teach small Italian children English songs. It stuck me that anchovies are indispensable, that they are the splendid and intensely savoury seasoning in many of our favourite things. Vincenzo calls them le palle (the balls). They appear in green sauce (salsa verde), on pizza marinara and pizza Napoli and in Salad Niçoise. Anchovies are the kick in the heady dressing for Puntarelle, the punch in tapenade and the oompapa in montpellier butter. Draped over hard-boiled eggs, melted into butter for bagna cauda, tucked into courgette flowers along with mozzarella, with roast lamb, squashed on bread and butter, great things all of them. Anchovies melted in olive oil provide the distinctive foundation for four of my favourite pastas; pasta e brocolli, Pasta alla puttanesca, Spaghetti with tomato and anchovy sauce and Pasta with sardines and anchovy breadcrumbs.
And then there are fresh anchovies.
I’d never seen fresh anchovies until I came to Italy, or perhaps I had – after all they are not unheard of in The UK and we had enough French holidays – I just hadn’t noticed. I spotted anchovies at the fish market in Naples first, it must have been my second or third day in Italy so everything was still a blur. I saw vast crates of them in Palermo and Messina, but it was in the fish market in Catania, early one morning, where I had my first close encounter of the fresh anchovy kind.
The fish market in Catania is a crude, noisy, rough and raw place. All my romantic notions about wandering through a Sicilian fish market at the crack of dawn were washed away with the bucket of bloody, murky fish water that was thrown, hurled rather, in front of my feet into a dark drain. But it’s an extraordinary place, full of life and soul, blood – and quite literally – guts. And of course, there is fish. There aren’t really stalls as such, a wooden bench here and another there. On one, a vast belly or side of tuna, beside it, a man brandishing a knife. On another table half a swordfish, sword skyward, as sharp as the knife hovering over it. There’s a man on a little stool, around him boxes of calamari and tiny neonati, like frogspawn and opposite him a woman with a baskets of tiny Calamaretti and moscardini. A very tall man presides over a table awash with sliver sardines, shining like newly minted coins. On a more orderly table sit lines of handsome, silver bream, Spigola, rose-red mullets and beside them, like something out of 2000 leagues under the sea, a disconcertingly large octopus. There are mysterious, foreboding but fascinating fish, unfamiliar to my English eyes. The curious, spiky, sea urchins ricci di mare make me shudder with delight. There are unruly piles of scampi, fat, grey and tempting but sallow next to piles of brilliantly coloured pinky-orange prawns. Nearby another man is crouched beside a plastic mat bestrewn with a vast, sprawling, shimmering heap of small, slender, slivery-blue anchovies.
Fresh anchovies have fragrant, delicately flavoured flesh. They are related to sardines and mackeral and have the same firm, slightly oily flesh but a notably milder flavour. Their size – they are generally about 3′ or 4″ long – means they are more tender and delicate. I have learned to prepare and cook anchovies with Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela. They are her speciality.
First the cleaning. Anchovies are a great way to get to grips with gutting and preparing fish if like me, you’re a novice. Along with artichoke taming and mixing the perfect batter, preparing these lovely little fish is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills I have acquired in the last couple of years. This may seem complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Sleeves up and no fuss! Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish – fanning it out like a butterfly – ready for the next stage.
As with preserved anchovies, Italians love, respect and do marvelous things with fresh ones. They grill them just so, they coat them with batter and plunge them into hot oil, they dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs and shallow fry them until crisp and golden. Our friend stuffs them with a mixture of breadcrumbs, herbs and parmesan, sprinkles them with olive oil and bakes them in the oven. Carmella fans them out; like the spokes of a wheel, in a shallow pan, sprinkles over olive oil and parsley, then cooks them very gently so they fry and steam at the same time. Delicious stuff.
But maybe one of the nicest ways to enjoy the delicate flesh of fresh anchovies is to marinade them in lemon juice, a slosh of red wine vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped garlic for about 5 hours. The acid in the lemon and vinegar literally cooks the flesh, turning it opaque and rendering it firm, tender and sweet. To serve, you pour over more olive oil, sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley and maybe a little crushed chilli. They are best eaten as an antipasti or simple lunch, nudging the fillets onto the corner of some crusty bread, mopping up the oily juices with more bread as you go.
There are many ways to make alici marinate, which are worth exploring if you like anchovies. Meanwhile to begin, this is Carmela’s recipe adapted by me.
The anchovies will keep for a few days but they are best made in the morning for lunch, or early in the afternoon in time for supper. These are one of my favourite things.
Marinated anchovies (Alici marinati)
Serves 3 for a light lunch with plenty of bread and green salad or 5 as a starter.
- 500g fresh anchovies
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- The juice of two lemons
- A generous 1/2 cup or 150ml of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
- a pinch of crushed dried peperoncino / chilli
First clean and prepare the anchovies; Take an anchovy in one hand, use the thumb of the other to slit open the body and then, grasping the head firmly between finger and thumb detach it together with the guts. Gently ease and prise open the body and pull away the spine and flatten the little fish ready for the next stage.
In a bowl mix the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic.
In a shallow glass or ceramic dish, large enough to accomodate half the anchovy fillets in a single layer, arrange half the anchovies – they will be quite delicate. Then pour over half the marinade. Arrange the second layer on top of the first and pour over the remaining marinade.
Cover the dish with clingfilm and allow it sit for at least 5 hours before serving. This is best done at room temperature, but if it is very hot, slide the dish in the fridge for 4 1/2 hours and pull out for the last 30 minutes.
Before serving, sprinkle over the parsley and pepperoncino (chilli) and pour over a little more oil. Bring the dish to the table and encourage people to serve themselves reminding them to spoon over some of the marinade to mop up with bread.