Whole fish, caught in the Bay of Biscay and preserved in the Basque Country
“Keep it simple.” When it comes to cooking, this phrase has been used so often and for so long that by now it has sailed past wisdom, through cliché and off into some far-off realm ripe for exploration by the Starship Enterprise. The thing is that sometimes it happens to be true.
That is definitely the case when it comes to the whole salted anchovies that can be found in the Brindisa chiller cabinet. “This is a wonderful fish,” says David, who works at the stand and who, despite the Anglo-Saxon appearance of his name in print, is a true native of the Iberian Peninsula. “These are something we use at home all the time, but they are a bit different from the anchovies that some British people might be familiar with,” he continues. “Being whole fish, they are meatier than the anchovy fillets and hold together more. They are so full of flavour, really intense and delicious, but not overpowering. The best thing is not to do too much to them, because you could lose all that.”
David offers as an example a Catalan dish of grilled vegetables called ‘escalivada’. It is based around aubergines, red pepper and onions (some people add garlic), mixed with some really good olive oil and then grilled. “Once the aubergines and peppers are nice and soft, you let it cool down and eat it with some bread,” he says. “That is the basic dish, but if you fillet these anchovies and then lay them across the top, you have something wonderful.”
Pablo, one of David’s colleagues, suggests using the filleted anchovies with the classic tapa ‘pan con tomate’. “Toast some good bread and rub in some garlic and some soft juicy tomatoes and then layer the anchovies across the top. That is how they serve them in my home town in Spain.” His other (less Spanish) suggestion is to use a crisp little gem lettuce leaf as a holder, add the anchovy and some crumbled blue cheese, then splash with olive oil and vinegar. “It is really delicious.”
Cantabrian anchovies, caught in the heart of the Bay of Biscay, are among the best in the world. When the fish arrive at the Ortiz factory in the Basque Country they are sorted into five different sizes. The heads are removed but not the innards, as the enzymes they contain are vital to the curing process.
Skill and knowledge
The fish are layered in barrels, covered in sea salt and then pressed under the weight of around 100kg. Over the first three days, the fish will lose over 20 per cent of their volume as the salt and pressure combine to remove a significant amount of water. After that, the level of weight is reduced but the fish remain in the barrel. Quite how long they will spend in the salt is determined by the skill and knowledge of those controlling the process. Barrels of larger fish will sit for longer. All will be left for at least six months and some will be left to cure for up to a year.
When you want to eat them, “you just need to soak them in water for about 10 minutes and then rinse them under running water to remove some of the salt,” David says. While it is under the tap, open the anchovy from the top, then with the help of your thumb, separate the two fillets and remove the bone. “And then they are ready.”
Throw some of these anchovies into the picnic basket with your bread, tomatoes and ice cold beer, and you’ll have some very delicious simplicity indeed.