Ari's Top 5, Cooking, Good Food, Travel

Anchovies and Butter, or as they say in Italy, Acciughe e Burro

An appetizer for the ages

In May, I traveled to Turin, Italy, to learn about the food and cooking of the Piedmont region, where I found a bunch of good things. Stay tuned for more. But one I can’t get out of my mind is the simple combination of anchovies and butter. Unsalted butter with top-notch anchovies. On good bread, man, it’s delicious. It’s really one of the tastiest culinary combos I’ve had in a long time!

Nils Bohr, the physicist who also wrote wonderfully about the quiet and effective power of the dialogue process, once said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Acciughe e Burro is just that—the coming together of two seemingly opposite, but equally profound in their excellence, culinary truths. It’s a marvelous, well-cured and well-curated take on Surf and Turf—Surf and Turf—the salty sea tang of good anchovies and the creaminess of high quality, cultured, butter. As one might say in Italy, “bellissimo!”

anchovies and butter on toast

Acciughe e burro is all about the quality of the raw materials. Pick up some really great butter—cultured butter (not “sweet butter”—cultured butter is the old school style where the cream is allowed to ripen for a few days, like good yogurt), spread thickly, onto good bread. The Deli has the 1889 brand of cultured butter from the Piedmont in stock—it’s excellent! I’ve been putting it on a French baguette from the Bakehouse, but really any of the breads would be excellent. (Those great chestnut baguettes for sure, as well the lovely Country Miche.) Then lay on some really good anchovies. Right now, the Gran Anchoa Ortiz anchovies from the Spanish Basque Country would be my top pick! If you want, you can stick a caper berry or a tiny sprig of flat leaf Italian parsley on it, or maybe a grind of good black pepper but that’s about it. Let the ingredients come to room temperature before you eat. Put a bunch out on a plate and have at it. Really, there’s just something about the creamy dairy deliciousness of the butter paired with the umami excellence of the anchovies that makes this so good that I can barely stop eating it!

Having eaten this regularly in Turin, it got me thinking about the origins of the dish. I have found little so far (though, you can be sure, I’ll stay on the search for a while still) about its history. It seems to me it would have to be a northern dish—people in the south of Italy would hardly ever have eaten as much butter in the old days, so it would make way more sense to have had its origins in a northern, dairy-rich region like Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, or the Piedmont. For the moment, I’m going to believe its beginnings are Piemontese—the region has a long tradition of anchovies. The story is that at various points in the past (some say centuries ago; one anchovy curer told me last week it was during WWII) salt was hard to get in the region and was also heavily taxed. In the way that Italians have with creatively getting around any rule, some smuggler figured out a way to top off boxes of salt with anchovies. Eventually, someone realized the anchovies were worth more than the salt. To this day there’s a host of anchovy-heavy dishes in this region which is odd, since the Piemonte has no ocean front property! My friend and food writer Elizabeth Minchilli says, “It’s definitely a northern thing since it combines butter (north) with a fish that’s preserved, not fresh. That said, it’s something you find all over Italy these days and is considered a delicacy. For instance, in Puglia, it’s always part of a ‘fancy’ antipasto spread in any restaurant. It’s also common in Rome, where Romans order it as an appetizer even when it’s not on the menu.” So there you have it! If you don’t already know it, and if you’re inclined towards anchovies (like I am) anyways, make this your go-to appetizer of the year!