indignant crumbs


The problem with breadcrumbs, is that they are breadcrumbs. They like to gather in the rubber seal at the top of the fridge door, and in between the tiles, meaning I crunch as I move around the kitchen. Most days I make some sort of attempt at sweeping them up, but it always feels as if I am simply shunting them around our small, awkward kitchen in much the same way you do coins in a shove penny machine: hopelessly. ‘Mum ants are taking our bread‘ Luca said as we pressed our chins to the crummy, sticky floor (the problem with squeezing orange juice is orange juice) in search of a lost car the other day. He was right, under the sink a trail of ants were carrying crumbs towards a hole in the wall. ‘Hungry ants‘ said Luca. Helpful ants I thought.

Our crummy kitchen isn’t just the result of everyday bread cutting and eating – although that plays a part, we are a messy lot. It is a result of cooking more and more with breadcrumbs, which means we are getting better and better at reducing old bread into various sorts of crumbs, in various ways, ready for whatever.


This isn’t an entirely new thing, while I can be wasteful, I have alway been good at using up old bread. In England this mostly meant toast and more toast, then if I got my act together bread and butter pudding or crumbs for bread sauce (I adore bread sauce). Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen.

We make two sorts of crumbs. Softish ones from the inside of the bread, la mollica, which are ideal for adding to meatballs, or the various vegetable dumplings I chuck together on a weekly basis (the principle is always the same: boil a vegetable until soft, mash it, add crumbs and grated cheese, possibly herbs, an egg and mould into balls.) We also use the softer crumbs as a crust or sicilian-ish stuffing for fish, meat or vegetables and in various pesto-like sauces. Any soft crumbs I am not going to use straight away I put in small plastic bags that then get lost at the back of the freezer along with the end of a bag of ancient peas and single serving of tomato sauce. Having pulled out the soft crumbs, I then bake the crusts in the oven until crisp so I can smash/rolling-pin them into a fine breadcrumbs, or pan grattato – which is of course nothing like as fine as shop bought stuff, but that is fine by meI use these fine-ish crumbs to dust meat or vegetable balls that are going to be fried, and to coat meat or fish that is going to be shallow-fried or baked. I keep dry pan grattato in a jar, bringing it back to life and crunch with a little jig around a hot pan.


If Vincenzo, a Sicilian, whose widowed grandmother Lilla ran a bakery (an extraordinary thing in profoundly traditional, rural Sicily in the 50’s and 60’s) had it his way, there would always be a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs on the table for sprinkling on wherever: pasta, veg, salad. I first I thought it a very odd habit, especially the crumbs on pasta, which felt somehow double. Then some crumbs that had been tossed around a hot pan in olive oil until golden and crisp were sprinkled on my pasta with greens and anchovies, others on my spaghetti with oil, garlic and chilli: I was won over. Then I discovered breadcrumbs and anchovies. Which brings us to today’s recipe, one of my absolute favourites, pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs.

Anchovy breadcrumbs are –  I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Unami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.


This is one of those satisfyingly simple pasta dishes that comes together, with minimal effort, in minimal time. While the pasta rolls and steams the kitchen windows and your face, you warm the oil (I like a little butter too), add the anchovies and then nudge them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the anchovies have disintegrated and the edges of the oil and butter are just starting to foam, you add the crumbs, raise the heat and jig them around the pan until they are crisp and golden. Once the pasta is ready, you drain it, tip it into a bowl, tip over most of the crumbs and parsley if you fancy, toss properly and divide between bowls. You finish each serving with the last few crumbs from the pan, before you enjoy your tangle of spaghetti ensnaring an anchovy rubble –  delicious stuff.

Later that day you could well find anchovy crumbs in the seal of your fridge, don’t ask me how.


Spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs

Most recipes – if you can call them that – call for soft breadcrumbs. We prefer an uneven rubble made from old crusts, baked until crisp them smashed with a rolling-pin. Drier crumbs need less time in the pan than soft crumbs. As with so many pasta recipes, you want a little residual pasta cooking water clinging to the pasta – not dripping wet – which lends moisture to the dish. This is why tongs are helpful, allowing you to lift the pasta from the pan into the bowl with water clinging to it. Like so many very simple dishes, the key is practice, once you have made this a couple of times you will get the knack.

serves 2

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small knob of butter
  • 6 – 8 oil packed anchovies drained or 4 salt packed anchovies, cleaned and de-boned
  • big handful breadcrumbs from good bread that is at least a day, ideally two old (appox 50 g /1 cup)
  • 300 g spaghetti or linguine
  • black pepper
  • a handful of finely chopped parsley (optional)

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil over a full flame. Salt the water, stir, the add the pasta and cook, storing from time to time, until al dente.

Warm the oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet over a medium-low heat. After a minute add the anchovies and nudge them gently around the pan until they disintegrate and dissolve into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, raise the heat a little and fry until the crumbs have absorbed all the anchovy infused fat and are golden and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Drain the pasta and tip into a bowl, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parsley if you are using it, grind over a little black pepper, toss and serve immediately with a glass of cold, white wine with enough acidity to hold its own against the anchovies.




Filed under anchovies, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Sicily

63 responses to “indignant crumbs

  1. Christine

    I always think that there are people who LOVE anchovies and the rest who just haven’t had them properly yet. My mother used to bake round loaves of crusty bread that we would split and stuff with good anchovies, generous drizzles of olive oil, and plenty of black pepper.

    And now I want this for dinner.

  2. JC

    My mother is Sicilian American and breadcrumbs are basically a food group in my family! This post made me smile.

  3. Kitty Travers

    U are a genius xx

    Kitty Travers La Grotta Ices

    Sent from my iPhone


    • rachel

      I wish I could take the credit. This would have been the most perfect lunch if their had been a la grotto ice cream to finish it off sweetly x

  4. Adore this classic approach to “needs must” meals. Once again, simple is almost always satisfying. And the visuals are as beautiful as ever.

    • rachel

      HI C – I agree, in fact I am starting to think that needs must is where some of the most delicious food begins. Hope you are all well? x

  5. laura

    Oh, I could rumble with your rubble! Thank you!

  6. Oh, yum. I can’t wait to try this! Lovely post.

  7. Amy

    What is this magical bread sauce you speak of?

    • rachel

      Hi A, it is a thick savory, English sauce made with bread, milk, nutmeg and butter, which probably sounds very odd but is actually delicious especially with roast chicken

  8. It’s happened again! Half an hour before seeing your post, I look in the bread bag, and think ‘what am I going to do with all this stale bread’, and then in the fridge, which has piles of anchovies in it! Synchronicity! x

  9. Ahh your photographs are lovely and it’s 8 am and I still want to eat this immediately! xx

  10. I’m sure Val will verify that we too have a crumb problem in the house, and she is the queen of sweeping up the briciolini on the floor…send some ants this way please…! Delicious pictures…looks like excellent vino as well.

    • rachel

      Ha, we can send you ants. Trust you to spot the good vino, yes very good, cantina gardino vino bianco, good everyday stuff. lets drink soon x

  11. Excellent. I like your breakdown between using the interior crumbs and the crust crumbs, something I often scratch my head about.

    • rachel

      Ha, you love a definition. I hope I got it right. Gillian Riley has a good bit on crumbs in her book of Italian food – do you have that ? x

  12. The first time I saw my husband’s family sprinkling fried bread crumbs onto their pasta I thought it was strange to put bread on carbs too. I quickly learned to appreciate it and have come to love that addition on many of the dishes my Sicilian mother in law cooks. I have never, however, tried the anchovy version and have been thinking of it since I saw your picture on IG of the anchovies and butter melting away in a pan on your stove.

    • rachel

      It sounds like we had a similar first crumb on pasta encounter, and then a similar falling for them. Do try the butter/anc it is v v good.

  13. Oh, I’d completely forgotten about this dish, which was indeed served to me in Italy. But what to do? My husband hates anchovies. Anyone want to come round for a meal? We can fob him off with bread and cheese 😉

  14. Ava

    Wait, can you talk more about those vegetable dumplings? They sound delicious and so versatile and maybe even something my kids would eat! What do you do with them after mixing in an egg? Fry them? Boil them in soup? Please share!

    • rachel

      Hi, they are just veg polpette I suppose and I make them with carrots, cauliflower, courgettes (you need to squeeze at the water out) pumping and broccoli. I some times fry them, other times poach them in tomato sauce. Yes, very very good for kids too.

  15. I love your commentary on crumbs… so true! It’s a constant battle, and really not sure if I’m winning the war, especially with three kids who seem to spend most of their waking hours in the kitchen. But I bet a recipe like this makes it all worth it, sounds wonderful, can’t wait to try!

    • rachel

      I am one of three so I know about the extraordinary quality of crumbs that can make,… as a mum of 1, I salute you. I hope you do try, it is simple and v good.

  16. Can’t wait to try this! Thank you!!!

  17. Ana

    I feel so identified by this…especially the part about crumbs getting everywhere and stepping over them, and carrying to the rest of the house on the soles of your feet! Nevertheless the pasta looks simple and delicious so I will try it the next time I make pasta!
    As ever, love your posts.

    • rachel

      That is nice to hear, the crumb empathy i mean and thanks for reading along, I am very lucky to have you all here making it such a good place to be.

  18. Katherine

    I made this today for lunch with spicy anchovies – delicious! When is your book going to be available in the US?

  19. What a genius idea indeed ! making some for lunch tomorrow, can’t wait !

  20. You know how I feel about anchovy crumbs… 😉

  21. Such a good tip on making two kinds of breadcrumbs using the inside and the crust – thank you I will be trying this.

  22. Breadcrumbs are so simple, yet they make the plainest of dishes into something delicious. This post is making me hungry 🙂

  23. Beautiful pics! Love the format too.

  24. Margit Van Schaick

    Long ago, when I was a 5-year-old refugee in WW2 Germany, my mother kept us from starving, by sewing for the German farmers and using every available scrap of food. She made big fat noodles from scratch, cooked them in boiling water, then mixed them with breadcrumbs, fried as you describe. I watched her prepare this meal many times, so hungry I could hardly bear it. After eating my share, I felt full and much loved. Rachel, you bring back memories—–

    • rachel

      Hello Magrit.

      thank you for sharing that evocative memory with me. Your mother sounds like an extraordinary woman and I feel touched that my writing stirred such an important memory. thank you too for reading along.


  25. Pingback: 10 Favorite Reads on Italy this week: Mar 9, 2015 - BrowsingItaly

  26. Vegetable dumplings? I really want to hear more…

    And this – I didn’t like anchovies for a long time but slowly I have been coming around, some anchovy butter here, some very good anchovies eaten straight from the tin there… And breadcrumbs – we always end up toasting the ends of our loaves and this makes me think i should keep a loaf especially to make into breadcrumbs to freeze or stash in a jar. It isn’t quite in the spirit of it but needs must!


    • rachel

      Hi G – how are you? So they are just veg polpette really. Mashed veg, with crumbs, cheese and an egg to bind. I sometimes fry them, other times poach them in sauce. I have also thought about baking them. Best veg are caulk, broccoli, pumpkin and courgette (which I use raw, squeezing herd to get rid of water and then add ricotta too)

  27. Definitely making this for lunch, and another request for more about the vegetable dumplings please! I’m intrigued…

  28. I am very glad to know this blog

  29. I only just found your blog and I love it – the writing, the photography, the living in Italy, everything! I love using breadcrumbs (I love using anything that seems to have no use) and so I have another breadcrumb recipe for you, which I just posted it a few days ago.
    (If you want to check it out, here’s the link: )

  30. Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to leave what seemed like a plug for my blog. Please delete if it’s offensive!

  31. Pingback: Toast, basically | storiesandspice

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