Anchovies are small saltwater forage fishes from temperate seas. These small shiny fishes of the Engraulis family are found in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, as well as in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Whether they come from Cetara on the Amalfi Coast, Sicily or Liguria, Italian anchovies are superb, as are their Spanish cousins from the Cantabrian Sea in the Basque countries, the noblest expression of this fish species.
Anchovies are available fresh, marinated and preserved in oil or vinegar but this article is dedicated to the ones preserved in salt. This ingredient is considered to be a flavour enhancer and is used to preserve fish, meat and vegetables. Using salt to cure anchovies dehydrates both the fish themselves and any bacteria. If you’re salt-curing your own anchovies, then two weeks in the fridge should be enough, but the longer you can leave them, the more flavour will develop. To eliminate any risk of botulism, gut and clean the fish entirely before salting them. Contrary to common belief, salt is not the predominant taste in anchovies preserved in salt. The 'perfect' salt-cured anchovy has a bone that is quick and easy to remove and its thick consistent fillet is hardly salty at all once rinsed in water.
Anchovies are often used to give a punch of flavour to dishes. Here are some tips for pairing them with other food, in order to enjoy them at their best.
Anchovies: classical pairings
- Toasted bread cut no thicker than 10 millimetres (any thicker and it would outweigh the other ingredients) with unsalted Echiré butter from the Loire valley and anchovies.
- The savoury notes of anchovy team up beautifully with the pungency of garlic. To conjure up the 'flavour of pizza': tomato, a touch of garlic, oregano and anchovy. Or try this combination: sweet peppers, anchovy and garlic.
- If you want to add personality to a rather dull mayonnaise, add an anchovy and your T-bone steak will be in seventh heaven.
- Scorching hot, boiled white potatoes, dressed in butter previously melted with de-salted anchovies and white truffle. Alternatively: potatoes, hot sauce of cream, anchovy and Beluga caviar.
- One of the combinations that works best is when anchovy is teamed up with the bitter-sweet notes of cruciferae vegetables: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and puntarelle (young chicory shoots).
- Anchovy, goat’s cheese or buffalo mozzarella and thyme.
- Anchovies are considered to be one of the best ways of flavouring all those meats which have a sweet aftertaste but are not particularly rich in umami. For example, try lamb and anchovies pairing.
Anchovies: original pairings
- Toasted bread, de-salted anchovies, slightly mature goat’s cheese and acacia honey. Because the intense taste of the sea teams up well with cheese, with fattiness mitigating and honey compensating the end result.
- Anchovy, orange, lemon and grapefruit in the form of grated zest or extracted juice: the resulting freshness will take you by surprise.
- Anchovy and pineapple. This may sound a bit outlandish but one of the most famous dips in Vietnamese cuisine is nuocnam sauce which calls for finely chopped pineapple, garlic and chilli pepper. Perfect for accompanying beef or fried fish.
- Anchovy and beetroot, for the sweetness of the latter which compensates the saltiness of anchovy.
- Anchovy and coconut milk. One of the most successful pairings offered by South East Asian cuisine.
Top chef pairings
One of Thomas Keller’s better known sauces is his Sweet Onion Tapenade in which anchovies, previously soaked in milk, are teamed up with olives, sweet pink garlic and spices.
Many of the stand out dishes from Mauro Colagreco, the chef from Mirazur in Menton, include anchovies. Like his dish inspired by the colour black, with squid ink, black olives and an oil emulsion with marinated anchovy fillets.
Even Brett Graham from the two Michelin starred Ledbury in London includes anchovies among his ingredients. For example, in his dish based on hand-dived scallops with green asparagus and anchovy cream.
If there was an Oscar for the best tapas-experience, among the candidates would certainly be Albert Adria's tapas from Tickets in Barcelona: an apparently very simple apparently simple crouton, with an anchovy and tomato base with garlic scent.
A simple and classic anchovy dish, French anchoiade dip is delicious spread on fresh bread or served with crunchy crudités and crackers. These fishy flavour-powerhouses are also great simply layered on slices of bread with other ingredients such as Spanish tortilla and ham to create umami-packed open sandwiches.
The ideal wine pairing has to effectively counterbalance the saltiness of anchovies. So, we should be looking at dry, lean-edged wines with a pronounced mineral content, such as a Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC, with a well-defined aroma of almond, typical of this varietal. Its finish reveals a hint of greenness. Its taste is characterised by a complexity of aroma, length and, above all, a pronounced tangy tone which determines the length and elegance of its capacity to develop; its finish, fresh and pervasive, reveals an agreeable citrusy after-aroma.