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It looks like a simple recipe but, in actual fact, it is a mixture of ingredients, manual skill and expertise handed down from one generation to another.
In Italy, off a short stretch of coast not far from Tuscany – the famous Cinque Terre – one of the finest examples of small-scale fish processing has been practised for centuries: Monterosso anchovies.
All about Monterosso anchovies
In Italy, anchovies go under the name of alici or acciughe but, don’t let this confuse you: they are one and the same thing. They belong to the great family of oily fish. The anchovy has a slender shape, a maximum length of 20 cm and its dorsum is blue-black and silver in colour.
It lives in the Mediterranean sea where it feeds off plankton, small crustacean and mollusc larvae. The sea water off the coast of the small municipality of Monterosso has a particular type of salinity which, together with favourable a level of humidity and average annual temperature, give the anchovies of Monterosso a firmer flesh, a remarkably intense taste of the sea and a unique sweetness.
This particular variety can be found throughout the region of Liguria but its most esteemed production area is that of the Cinque Terre: from Punta Mesco to Punta Cavo within 12 miles of the coast in La Spezia province.
The history of Monterosso anchovies
Anchovies come from the Atlantic ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, along the French coast and, in the early summer, they are present in the waters all along the Riviera from Ponente to Levante.
From 29 June, the feast day of St. Peter, to mid July, small crews take to the sea at night on boats which dot the sea with their lights: this is known as “lampara” fishing. Attracted by the plankton which becomes phosphorescent, the anchovies are trapped in the nets.
Until thirty years ago, fishing was the primary activity of Monterosso and then it started to decline. However, around the year 2000 in the Cinque Terre Nature Reserve a dozen or so women decided to continue production through the foundation of a cooperative society specialized in fish salting, the Cooperativa Le Ragazze del Parco.
How are they produced?
The preservation of food with salt is an ancient technique traditionally entrusted to women: the men go out fishing while the women are engaged in preserving the catch. From the moment the crates of anchovies arrive – the peak time is the June-July period – in the space of no more than three days the fish has to be placed in the “alborelle”, this being the name given to the pots in which they are preserved.
First of all, the head and guts are firmly detached and pulled out in one clean move. By no means should the anchovies be washed in water and neither must they be opened flat, but simply gutted. Then they are left to rest for a few hours sprinkled with salt. Finally, they are arranged in a radial pattern in chestnut barrels or clay pots, in overlapping and intersecting layers with salt between one layer and another. At the end of this phase, brine is added and a special wooden disc is placed over the last layer, topped by a heavy weight of about ten kilos.
The maturing process lasts 40/60 days on average. At the end of this step, the flesh should be firm and compact with a colour ranging from deep pink to brown. Once matured, in Autumn the salted anchovies are arranged in glass jars, called "arbanelle" and ready to be distributed for sale.
How to get the most enjoyment out of Monterosso anchovies
The fish preserved in this way should be consumed within one year. Remove the precious product form its jar, rinse it in water, flatten it and remove the bone. Now it can be used to add flavour to sauces and pizzas.
If you want to eat them like the locals, spread them out on a plate and season with oil, oregano and a hint of garlic.
But anchovies, previously cleaned and served on warm bread with a curl of butter is a paradisiacal experience within everyone’s reach, even those who haven’t a clue about cooking. They pair well with a fine fresh white wine from the Cinque Terre.