Fish tales: part two

Categories: Product stories, Expert guidance

In the second instalment of a series in which he explores all things anchovy, Luke Mackay talks about his fascination with the processing method, and the fish’s many forms and culinary uses

I have a soft spot for women (it’s always women—I don’t know why) of a certain age who process certain seafood in a certain way. A few years ago, on a sourcing trip, I watched the picking of crabmeat in Cornwall—St Mawes, to be precise. These women pluck the sweetest meat from every limb and carapace in a fraction of the time of the most decorated chef or skilled fishmonger. In Morecombe last year I watched a similar thing; this time, the peeling of the tiny brown shrimps that are boiled and packed in spiced butter ready for your hot toast.

Though separated by hundreds of miles and dealing with entirely different species, there is commonality: fingers as nimble as the greatest concert pianist, working over the shellfish, never missing a beat and never taking a false step—an economy of movement and a skill that only comes with repeating the same job thousands of times over decades and decades. In not too distant times, I can imagine them drawing a cigarette down to the butt without the prissy need to remove it from the lips, thus interrupting the work.

Though I have not seen inside an anchovy processing plant in real life, I have just spent a happy hour watching the action on YouTube and as I suspected, it’s exactly the same: whether on the Amalfi Coast, the Bay of Biscay or the shores of Vietnam. Shimmering baskets of stiff-fresh anchovies, a large table and lots of women, concentration etched on their faces as they grasp handfuls of the tiny fish and in one swift movement, without tools or knives, remove heads and spines and slap the fillets into wooden barrels in immaculate layers, interspersed with pristine sea salt.

Brackish colour, funky aroma
This curing process is the most common way of processing anchovies for human consumption and certainly the most satisfying to watch. A lid is placed on top of the barrels of anchovies, which is then weighted down with presses. Once pressed, the anchovies rest for between five and six months at a temperature of 18 to 25 degrees, until they acquire the appropriate brackish colour and funky aroma. The ladies (I can’t find out if they’re the same ‘de-spining’ ladies or different specialists) unpack the anchovies, rinse and clean them and re-pack them, always manually (womanually?), in cans or jars with olive oil.

Fresh anchovies are to be found across Mediterranean Europe, dredged in flour, fried ‘til crisp and spritzed with lemon juice. I find the vinegar-soused ‘boquerones’ style much less interesting and versatile than the cured versions described above, but goodness me they have their place in the world: namely a thousand tapas bars across Spain, where they are incredibly popular. Pristine white, tangy with vinegar and studded with garlic and parsley, they make a tremendous beer snack.

I find their inherent astringency and ’fishiness’ makes them a tricky ingredient to add to other dishes—though for the ultimate caesar salad, you could use cured anchovies in the dressing and then drape, oh-so-artfully, garlicky marinated anchovies over your leaves. Forget the chicken though. It is an enduring fascination that cured anchovies are so versatile, while marinated are obstinately not.

Savoury and delicious
Salted anchovies are a recent revelation from my time spent with the fine gentlemen of De Calabria in Borough Market. These are caught and processed in Sicily. Bone in and packed in wet, grey sea salt, they are deeply unappetising to look at initially and much more work than just opening a jar, but deeply savoury and delicious.

Should you come across smoked anchovies on your travels, these are best enjoyed straight from the tin. They are brined, rather than cured, before smoking and are thus richer, more rounded, with less saltiness or astringency. Melt them in butter with sage and add to fresh pasta, if you like, or serve them on hot buttered toast.

Anchovies appear uncredited in any number of savoury dishes, adding a massive punch of meaty (not fishy) flavour. Don’t trust a chef that doesn’t have a stash of anchovies in their kitchen. Try adding a few fillets of good cured anchovies to a mulch of slow cooked red peppers and tomatoes to give it a huge umami kick, use those salted fillets simply with a little olive oil, or add them to veal chops with lemon zest or a slow-roasted lamb shoulder.

From Spanish Ortiz anchovies at Brindisa to Italian from Gastronomica and the aforementioned at De Calabria, Borough Market is well served for your anchovy needs. Next month I’ll cook my favourite anchovy dish and talk more about my utter love and appreciation of these incredible fish—but perhaps less about the old ladies who process them.