Fish tales: part three

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Luke Mackay on why anchovies would be his desert island go-to

If I were to be cast away in the manner of Desert Island Discs, I would spend hours and hours choosing my eight favourite pieces of music, about 10 minutes choosing my favourite book and mere seconds deciding on my ‘luxury’ item.

I have no interest in Egyptian cotton, or goose down pillows; I can sleep anywhere, I could sleep on a washing line if I had to. I’d have no use for moisturisers or similar potions and could happily survive without iPhones, TV or other technological gizmos. I suppose a picture of my kids would be nice, but here’s the rub: you can’t eat that. My luxury would have to be edible—I find comfort in food, inspiration in cooking and joy in eating and I think I’d require all of these, should I find myself alone, tired and hungry on a desert island.

And so I’d ask for anchovies. Tins of them, jars of them, barrels of them. An endless supply of tiny fish, cured, brined, smoked or salted. It’s obvious isn’t it? Why doesn’t everyone on Desert Island Discs ask for anchovies? I could catch wild goats (with my bow and arrow skills?) in lieu of lamb and roast its haunch over my fire, studded with my anchovies and wild garlic. I could grow wheat (ha ha) and make pasta with cliff-foraged gull (?) eggs and dress it with anchovies and prawns caught in my handmade nets (LOL, sure). Okay. I haven’t thought this through, have I? I’d just end up eating anchovies out of the tin, which is inherently no bad thing but would eventually give me gout (it’s the purine acids) and get boring after a bit. So I’ll take the picture of the kids.

Barbecued monkfish
But! The point is that anchovies are the most useful, indeed crucial ingredient in any self-respecting cook’s armoury, assuming you have a fridge full of food rather than a jungle and a spear. There is something magical about them—something ephemeral, astonishing. So versatile too. Delicious just on some sourdough toast with good butter and perhaps a thinly sliced shallot, but also as a back note to a roast chicken, a lamb chop or a barbecued slab of monkfish. That they melt down to nothing but enhanced umami flavour in a low pan with garlic should alone make them indispensable. The best quick supper is pasta, cooked al dente and swirled around the aforementioned pan with a little of the cooking water. You could add a grating of parmesan if you like, but it doesn’t need it. Maybe a twist of lemon juice. Perfection.

They work astonishingly well in emulsions, too—perhaps my favourite way to use them. A mayonnaise or aioli is greatly improved by the addition of a few blitzed up anchovy fillets and can then be used as a stunning accompaniment for everything from roast lamb to crudités (a perky radish dipped in anchovy aioli is heaven). You could spread this ointment heavily on a roast chicken sandwich or loosen with a little water to dress the most exciting of salads.

If your experience of anchovies is the stuff you pick off your pizza because they’re ‘too fishy’ then get yourself to De Calabria or Brindisa and experiment with the abrasive charms of these glorious little fish, so small yet so full of flavour and magic that for me, they are the most important ingredient in my kitchen.