Food, Food Artisans

Eating Great Anchovies

To understand just how readily Mediterranean peoples eat anchovies you really have to visit one of the many wonderful markets, say in Marseilles, Barcelona or Genoa. In the Mediterranean people shop for anchovies with the same sort of regularity that Americans buy breakfast cereal. In each you’ll see market stalls offering not one but four, five, six or more brands of anchovies, often displayed in large, usually quite colorful tins. Alternatively, look off to one side or up on the shelves behind the counter and you’ll probably find a few dozen varieties packed in olive oil. You’ll find large anchovies—up to four or five inches long and a couple inches across—small anchovies, or even teeny, tiny anchovies that are barely over an inch in length.

The three main options are anchovies in coarse salt, anchovies in oil, and anchovies cured in vinegar.

anchovy-sketch-copy  Anchovies in Oil

There’s no getting around the fact that these are easiest way to eat anchovies when you’re in a hurry. There are some very good anchovies available in oil. The best will be basically free of dark spots (bruises) and bones (hand removed). They won’t be excessively salty. As with butter or cured ham, excessive amounts of salt are used either to compensate for lack of flavor, due to hasty (read sloppy) handling, or to safely ensure long shelf life in marginal products.

The best buys (I mean from a flavor standpoint, not price) in this category are going to be those packed in better oil. “Olive oil” is better than lower end offerings (sunflower or soybean) but my choice will always be fish that are packed into extra virgin olive oil. Granted, in theory some producer might well pack bad fish in good quality oil. But, given the cost differential, I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who cared enough to use extra virgin, wouldn’t be so vindictive as to use it as an excuse to palm off poor anchovies. We have a whole host of high-end, deeply delicious, well-handled and carefully cured anchovies in this category.

Ortiz, Cantabrian style anchovies
Working from their home base of Ondarroa in the Basque Country, this is probably first family of cured Spanish fish. If you wanted to take a chance on trading up to better anchovies, Ortiz would be the number one option. The curing tradition actually came to the Cantabrian Coast and the Basque Country with a series of fishing families who emigrated from Sicily, back in the day when the now- Italian island was part of Spain. The Ortiz staff buys only spring anchovies—there is a fall season but the fish’s fat is different and the cured anchovies don’t taste as good. And they buy the best fish they can get on the docks purchasing them first thing in the morning (anchovy fishing hap- pens at night). Right after arrival the fresh fish are gutted and put quickly under coarse sea salt. “It’s very important to get them under salt the same day they leave the sea,” I learned from Jacopo Múgica, the long-time export man- ager. The anchovies are then cured for about six months.

The Ortiz’ classic anchovy in oil is their Cantabrian style— it’s cured to yield a much firmer textured, maybe a bit meatier, anchovy. I have no idea how many jars of these I’ve eaten over the years but it’s many hundreds, I’m sure.

Ortiz, L’Escala style anchovies
Crossing to the Catalan coast on Spain’s east coast, not along ago the Ortiz family also began curing anchovies in the slightly more delicate but still delicious style of the town of L’Escala. The town might be to the anchovy world what Darjeeling is to tea; a place that’s gained great notoriety within the somewhat obscure circles of specialists that are actually interested in these sorts of things. Of those who are in the know about either name, only a handful will actually have been to see the places in person. Fortunately, the fish travel the world so we don’t have to go all the way there to taste them.

Nardin Anchovies
A very small producer with a very big reputation. In the coastal Basque town of Getaria, the family is in its fourth generation of commercial anchovy-curing. They do all the good things the Ortiz crew does, but they add some special twists to it that I can’t actually explain, that yield a particularly delicious, very firm Cantabrian style anchovy. Particularly meaty, with an impressively, well-balanced, but appealingly powerful flavor. Quite delicious, hard to get and highly recommended for the anchovy lover!

anchovy-sketch-copy  Salt-Packed Anchovies

Salt-packing fish has been done in the Mediterranean since ancient times—it’s the most traditional of natural preserving processes. The salt preserves the fish while naturally maintaining their flavor. The problem over here is that, to the uninitiated, anchovies packed in salt look about as appealing as a canned corned beef hash to a deli aficionado. Anchovies in salt are the first choice for Mediterranean mavens. Just as capers in salt retain more of their natural character than those that are packed in vinegar, anchovies in salt carry more of the fish’s original flavor.

Let me say that everyone—and I do mean everyone—I’ve asked that actively eats anchovies in the Mediterranean quickly and confidently acknowledge that while they sell more and more fish in the form of filets in oil, the most flavorful fish are those that are salt-packed. (Amazingly, they’re often less salty than low quality anchovies sold in oil.) We get the lovely long anchovies packed in sea salt by the Ortiz family, following all the good fishing and curing techniques I’ve touched on above. If you’re into celebrity endorsement, actress Gwyneth Paltrow has apparently plugged the Ortiz salt anchovies on any number of occa     sions.

Granted, anchovies in salt are a bit more work for the home cook—if time is of the essence you’ll probably want to stick to those in olive oil. But if you’re up for a little extra effort in the interest of increased flavor, give theses babies a try. To use them all you have to do is rinse the fish in water to remove excess salt. Under gently running water, insert your thumb into the center of the fish and gently remove the bone from the center of the fish. Rinse the filet of any excess bones or skin. Once you’ve cleaned and boned ‘em, you’re on your way to all sorts of good eating; fry ‘em, add ‘em to pasta sauces, or, arrange ‘em atop a homemade pizza. Easiest of all, simply arrange the fish on a plate and dress with good extra virgin olive oil.

Ortiz’ Gran Anchoa: the best of all anchovy worlds?
If you want the big flavor from the biggest anchovies, but aren’t up for the work of cleaning them before you cook, you might opt for what the Ortiz family calls Gran Anchoa. The consistently creative Ortiz clan designed a special, significantly larger tin that can hold the salt-packed anchovies. They then do the work of cleaning some of their best, carefully selected, salt-cured anchovies, pack them in extra virgin olive oil, and seal them up in these jumbo-sized plastic and aluminum, flip topped “tins.” Easy to use, great flavor.

anchovy-sketch-copy  White Anchovies

Go into almost any bar in Spain and these are the anchovies you’ll be offered. “Boquerones” they call them. I have no idea what the per capita consumption is in Spain but it’s got to be pretty big. Everyone eats ‘em. At the tapas bars these are often savored with a glass of sherry or wine in one hand, standing up, speared with wooden toothpicks off of small white plates. The white color of the anchovies comes from washing the fish with fresh water, which must be done within hours of their being caught. If you don’t pack quickly, the blood leeches out of the veins and into the body of the fish, which are then impossible to get white (unless you use artificial bleaching agents, which supposedly is done by some big companies).