Anchovies: history and recipes of a versatile Mediterranean icon

Anchovies, once known as the "sea bread", represent a fil rouge linking the Ligurian-Provençal and Piedmontese-Occitan cuisines

Anchovies - Camogli, Liguria

Sardines vs anchovies

Anchovies, classified by Linnaeus as Engraulis encrasicolus, are easily recognizable from stockier, protruding snouted sardines. This Mediterranean and Atlantic fish, rich in proteins, lives in crowded shoals and “migrates” to the Ligurian coasts from spring to autumn (winter is the season for deep waters). A maximum 12-15 cm, nearly 65 per kilo, is the ideal choice for salt preserves.

Traditionally, anchovies can be canned in oil, salted or reduced into a creamy paste, the ideal companion of pizza and canapés – please note that the smell of fresh anchovies rapidly degenerates into rancid. The Italian ministerial list recognizes two varieties as indigenous/traditional: the acciuga di Monterosso and the alice di menaica (costiera salernitana).

Recipes along the anchovies route

Anchovies represent a tasty fil rouge linking the Ligurian-Provençal and Piedmontese-Occitan cuisines. Due to their abundance and versatility, they were once known as the “pane del mare” (sea bread)Hence, a universe of recipes, their names evocative. In Liguria, acciughe all’ammiraglia, acciughe ripiene (i.e. stuffed), acciughe fritte (fried), bagnùn di Riva Trigoso with sea biscuits, tegame di Vernazza, machetto al mortaio (a mortar sauce which most probably derives from ancient Roman garum)… In Piedmont acciughe al verde, in rosso, with Alpine butter, bellpeppers, bagna caöda (a challenging pièce de résistance for digestion...), vitel tonné… The ecomuseo degli acciugai (called anciué), located in the mountains of Celle di Macra (Val Maira) celebrates the hard work of the anchovies traders of bygone days.

In the following video I outline the history and wine matching of iconic fried anchovies

Processing salted anchovies

In Liguria salted anchovies boast EU PGI certification. Processed in the first hours following the catch, excess blood removed, they are always cleaned by hand and - lastly - cured for at least 40 days in barrels or terracotta vessels. Constant temperatures and brine levels checking are a must. When the curing period is over, anchovies are set into transparent arbanelle (local dialect for cylindrical glass jars), where they are packed (net weight 2-3 kg), layer after layer, with marine coarse salt. A weight (usually slate) is placed on top of the layers to keep the fish pressed. Final packing includes sealing to prevent contaminations. From then, calculate a maximum 24 months for consumption. The MIPAAF (i.e. Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism and the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies) has recently modified the strict regulations of the PGI so that steel and food plastic tanks can be used in the process (not to forget about a better definition of the production area.

Salted anchovies: preparing your arbanella

Anchovies love rapid cooking times as well as the company of quality EVO, dry white wine, aromatic herbs (especially oregano), not to forget about hazelnuts and almonds.

Elaboration of my English abstract of the article by Umberto Curti as published on Liguria Food in July 2018
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