Fish tales

Categories: Expert guidance

In the first of a three-part series, Luke Mackay looks into the culinary history of the anchovy

I shall write later in this series of my personal appreciation of the not-so-humble anchovy and give you my favourite anchovy recipe (a near impossible task). Until then, by way of introduction, I have been thinking a lot about the culinary history of this mercurial wee fish. I don’t think that it’s hyperbole to suggest that aside from perhaps salt and sugar, the anchovy has done more to flavour more food from more cultures from more civilisations than any other ingredient in history.

Wonder at the brave Phoenician who first mashed up some oily anchovy intestines, left them to ferment in salt and then poured the resulting mulch not only on his food, but also into his wine. That must have been quite a day and quite a stench. I can’t help but wonder what Mrs Phoenician thought was going on in whatever the ancient Phoenician equivalent of the garden shed was.

This pungent condiment, ‘garum’, was developed and enjoyed first by the Phoenicians and Greeks—but it was the Romans who came to crave it and considered it so essential that vast trade routes spread across the Empire to ensure that no obstacles prevented the journey from fishery to plate. The finest garum, like wine, truffles or caviar today, exchanged hands for vast sums of money and was used ubiquitously, in a multitude of savoury dishes, as well as some sweet (!) and in wine. In modern terms it was considerably more popular than say ketchup or even salt and pepper.

I have, at home, a well-thumbed copy of a collection of recipes by Apicius, considered to be one of the oldest cookbooks in the world and compiled in the fourth century. This recipe jumped out because it looks genuinely fantastic. I’d definitely cook this now!

Apicius’ Parthian chicken
Dress the chicken carefully and quarter it. Crush pepper, lovage and a little caraway suffused with garum and add wine. Place the chicken in an earthen dish and pour the seasoning over it. Add fennel and wine. Let it assimilate with the seasoning and braise the chicken. Sprinkle with pepper.

That could be straight out of the recent fantastic Borough Market cookbook: braised chicken with anchovies, lovage and fennel—what’s not to like?

Sadly for medieval European gastronomes, the fall of the Roman Empire also led to the decline of this once-revered condiment—although perhaps the closest approximation to garum, fish sauce, has been made in many south-east Asian countries for thousands of years.

In terms of sustainability and conservation, despite having occasional shortages historically, anchovies have short life spans, reproduce quickly and are resilient to fishing pressure. The main variety (out of 140 species) that we use for human consumption is the European anchovy, which is currently plentiful and thankfully considered a ‘best choice’ by The Marine Conservation Society.

Greatest delicacy
Only a fraction of the world’s anchovy catch is actually eaten by humans: most are processed into fishmeal and fish oil for use in animal feeds and fertilisers. But the best ones we eat are one of the world’s greatest delicacies and are the perfect example of when a wonderful natural ingredient meets human ingenuity.

From fermenting, to canning, to marinating in oil or preserving in salt, next time I shall look at how the anchovy hits our kitchens, what to do with each type, and where you can buy the finest examples of each.