A deep love of food culture and ingredients has my mind flicking backwards and forwards as I go about my day. If my day has me in a space as splendid as Genoa, then you must expect some fire crackers. Just an hour or so from touch down I was into the central Mercado Orientale making my mental shopping list of what to bring back to London a few days later. Most was über-fresh, the vendors chatty, some a little too pushy – all you expect from a Mediterranean market in fact.
With a list already too long, I spied whole Puntarelle di Roma, a bitter, winter salad vegetable which we’d only bought as long spiked leaves minus their large inner heart in Venice. Puntarelle led me to think of the garlic and anchovy dressing – and a couple of stalls along, behold there was a box of the freshest, most silvery anchovies, not long landed.
In Ancient Rome they had their marble and stone lined pits, open to the air, where they fermented small fish – mostly anchovy – for months on end to produce a pungent liquid known as garum or liquamen. This the cooks would use to deepen the flavour of dishes – essentially it was an expensive condiment – a bit like the blue Iranian salt I had on a fish carpaccio a few days later in Genoa – expensive, exclusive, but special.
On Garum, my dear friends Gustiamo in Bronx, New York import a golden liquid called Colatura made by Nettuno in Campania – more of the same, as this is used to dress pasta, vegetables and more. Check out more on www.gustiamo.com.
If we think that fermenting fish was easy under the hot Mediterranean sun, it’s all the more surprising that these fermentation baths were built in their towns in northerly, cold Britain. To this day the Roman Italians have a modern day garum, much like the fish sauces of Thailand, Vietnam and China, or even Worcestershire Sauce and Anchovy Essence in 18/19th century England. History lesson over – thin as it was – and onto present day.
I know of no other fish that is used so widely in the kitchen. Eating them fresh and whole, innards and all, simply dipped in egg and flour before quick frying in olive oil is wonderful – something one really only does on the Mediterranean where they are caught fresh daily in good numbers.
Then comes preserving anchovies – either gutted and brined as are the Spanish boquerones (white skinned, not silver), or skinned and filleted anchovies in the classic Monagasque (Monaco) way before laying in those distinctive long, thin tins. Most of these fish come from either Monaco or Morocco.
Glass is overtaking the tin because the anchovy cans have become expensive as they have virtually no other use in the food business. Packing in cans and glass is relatively inexpensive when manufacturers use stock designs, shapes and sizes – the moment one strays into any bespoke design and the price rockets skywards.
The anchovy has everything going for it. First it’s an oily fish, so a big tick there. They are fast growing and plentiful, so no chance of the misery-mongers hitting out at catching them. Their flavour intensifies with preservation and this is their magic for me. For me, anchovies preserved in salt are the best – simply wash away the salt and dry the fish well before using as normal.
One of my favourite food writers, Jeffery Steingarten, wrote in ‘The Man Who Ate Everything’ that he had loathed anchovies until he visited the Mediterannean. Up to then his anchovy experience had been those cheap, hairy-boney dark brown, too salty strips on American pizza. Read Steingarten – he’s was a Harvard educated lawyer first until an interest in food took over his life. His columns in American Vogue were pure joy as he disected his way through whatever he was writing about. For me, one of great fans, he writes better than he speaks – he addressed us once in Oxford and I felt disappointed. His writing is par-excellence – he crafts his phrases rather than throws out random thoughts like me.
Use of anchovy in the past is too much to mention, from Gentlemen’s Relish and Worchestershire Sauce, plus many other flavour enhancing condiments of the 17/18th centuries in thse days before refridgeration when foods often needed the ‘lift’ of a strong condiment. Caesar Giardini’s genuine recipe did not include whole anchovy fillets as he felt the Worchestershire sauce was quite sufficient to deliver the sea flavour he sought for his Ceasar Salad.
All this came to me as I wandered – and wondered – along Genoa’s Via Sotorippa, the covered narrow walkway with ancient arches on one side and little shops, caffés, fish shops, triperia’s, salumeria’s , barber’s shops and more. Surpringingly, I didn’t spot a tattooist’s. I also work my way up to the Piazza di Ferrari through the narrow alleyways full of noise and Genovese life like this fish shop,
Once Blue Collar Gastronomy really goes skywards, we’ll begin affixing little plaques to walls like the Sotorippa’s as a pointer to ‘great food to be found here’.
The Sotorippa means something like ‘low edge’ as it’s the last street before the actual port quaysides. Over the centuries it’s been a rough old quartier - I imagine it being much the same even now on a Saturday night with a big football match playing, beers going down and the plasma screen on full volume.
The glistening silver anchovy is a special fish indeed. I ate a small plate, fresh and fried, served with half a big unwaxed Sicilian lemon, in one of the tavola calda bars on the Sotorippa. This got me thinking about how we couldn’t be without the little anchovy in all its forms.
A leg or shoulder of lamb for roasting is greatly heightened with anchovy – a technique almost as old as food writing itself, which we date to the 16th century with Hannah Glasse and probably older still with writings from monastries, grand houses, travellers and their likes.
Using anchovy fillets – always buy the best please – simply push 1-2 cms pieces of the fish into slits across the leg or shoulder before roasting. Make sure they are below the surface otherwise they’ll burn. How many depends on taste – for us, around 12-15 is good – best start cautiously and then do more next time.
All this revelation on the little anchovy also was heightened by finding the rare Puntarelle di Roma in the market in Genoa. Only once before have we found puntarelle in London – in an Italian owned greengrocer’s in Pimlico which is long since become a charity shop or estate agent. Puntarelle to those who’ve not tasted it, is fiercely bitter. If chicory or radicchio are on the edge of too bitter for you, then puntarelle is not a salad for you to explore.
In Venice we are usually only offered the leaves tied together in 1 kg bundles, or sold loose for you to choose. Mine in Genoa was complete and what a treat was that. The core vegetable is best described as 20-30 short green asparagus spears ‘glued’ together in the shape of a celeriac or cauliflower curd. Their flavour is mild compared to the prized outer leaf. That means cooking them differently.
I could find only one reference to puntarelle in our books at home – maybe for Ada Boni and others it has a different name because it’s certainly an ancient food, much loved by the Italians – and probably across the Adriatic by Croatians who’s cuisine I’m yet to explore, but one which Italian friends have urged me to taste in-situ.
Saveur’s ‘Authentic Italian’, edited by Saveur’s original editor and founder, Colman Andrews, gives the classic Roman salad where the leaves are washed, split and left to soak in iced water for a good 30 minutes.
The dressing is garlic pounded into a cream with sea salt, then anchovies added for a further pounding in the mortar. The ‘crema’ is then transferred to a larger bowl and transformed into a rich dressing by whisking in E/V olive oil little by little, until the consistency and taste are to your liking. That’s Puntarelle con Salsa di Acciughe, a winter salad from Rome. Those in the know find their puntarelle growing wild in the countryside, but most today is cultivated.
The central spears I cooked in with bucatini pasta (spaghetti with a hole through the centre – another classic of Rome, the Lazio, Campania and around to be found only in genuine Italian salumeria’s in GB). I cooked them together – the spears for slightly less time so they kept their slight crunch – and then dressed the whole dish with the same salsa di acciughe, with good Parmesan added at the table. One vegetable, two courses – we like that at no 19, so would every Italian Nonna.
Connétable, one of the very last Breton family owned fish canners (Chancerelle, established 1853), introduced anchovies in E/V olive oil to compliment their magical sardine range. In England they were a disaster – people opened the can only to find ‘slim sardines’ which were a little oilier in flavour – certainly not brown fillets for topping off a pizza. Poor Connétable withdrew them from the English market, not having the money to spend on an education campaign, nor an agent or retailer prepared to do it for them and so open a new market for canned fish. When next in France, seek them out – Connétable anchovies are in a pale blue flat fish tin.
So good is Connétable that their classic Sardines à l’Ancienne in E/V olive oil are served in the likes of my treasured Brasserie Lipp – there they do no more than peel back the lid, drain off some of the excess olive oil, place a side plate on top and flip it over in one quick movement. Et voilà, sardines Lipp-style – et très facile à faire. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon and black pepper – and a crisp white from the Loire.
I hope I’ve got you thinking of anchovies beyond the pizza. They are, without doubt, a quite remarkable little fish.