In Italy there is a village in Campania region, where the sky is more intensely blue than anywhere else on the Amalfi Coast. In this hamlet of timeless charm, once part of the Ancient Maritime Republics of Amalfi which, together with Genoa, Pisa and Venice, ruled the Mediterranean sea, fishing is the main source of livelihood.
More important still, it is here that they produce an ingredient which has no equal anywhere in the world, an Italian delicacy fruit of a remarkable alchemy: the anchovy sauce known as colatura.
What is anchovy "colatura" sauce?
This special version of anchovy sauce is an amber coloured liquid, generally sold in tiny 100 ml bottles, owing to its preciousness: it could also be described as an anchovy “precipitate”, but for those of you who are not familiar with the secrets of chemistry, we could simply define it as a liquid distillation of the sea. A few drops are all it takes to add flavour to our dishes.
Where does it come from?
As far back as Ancient Roman times, the people living on this stretch of coastal land used to produce a similar sauce, called “garum”. Its production was then recovered by the Cistercian monks of the area and the local inhabitants caught on to the technique. The anchovies used in its production are fished around the Amalfi Coast in the period between 25 March – the Feast of the Annunciation – until 22 July, the Feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene.
Today, colatura is a Slow Food Presidium, which emphasizes the importance of where the basic ingredients come from: anchovies fished by night with the aid of a lamp to attract the fish, within the delimited area of the Gulf of Salerno and only in Spring. Because it is only in these months, owing to the temperature of the waters in the Gulf of Salerno and the particular phase in the life cycle of the fish, that anchovies have a low fat content and are particularly suitable for the salting process.
How it is made
Colatura is a precious ingredient, like a Barolo wine of an excellent year’s production because, in both cases, time is the all-important factor. It is the women who remove the head and innards of the freshly fished anchovies; after resting for 24 hours under salt, they are then transferred to small chestnut or oak barrels (called terzigni), alternated with layers of salt. The barrels are then weighted down, less and less heavily as the process takes place. The exertion of this pressure, as the fish matures, causes a liquid to rise to the surface: this is the substance destined to become anchovy sauce.
The liquid obtained is stored in large glass containers under the sun for four or five months. And yet the lengthy process is not yet over: between late October and early November, all of the liquid collected is transferred once more to the barrels containing the anchovies and slowly allowed to drip through small holes bored in the bottom. The final step? That of filtering the anchovy colatura through linen cloths so that it will be ready for use in early December, with a shelf life of around 18 months.
How to serve anchovy sauce
It is used one spoonful at a time, whenever there is a need to add a more intense flavour to a seafood dish. It can be enjoyed at its best, however, with the spaghetti typically served at such times as Lent, when a meatless low-fat diet is preferred: in Cetara this dish is traditionally consumed on Christmas Eve and is a must for any gourmet’s dinner table. Nowadays, anchovy colatura is also being rediscovered by celebrity chefs from the region of Campania, such as Gennaro Esposito and Antonino Cannavacciuolo.
The perfect pairing
Anchovy colatura loves any shape of pasta and the right bottles to enjoy it with are the DOC wines of Ravello and Tramonti which, together with Furore, belong to the Amalfi Coast family. And, to top it all, a glass of limoncello liqueur made from Sfusato di Amalfi, the celebrated variety of locally grown lemons.
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