Anchovies: from the sea to the dining table
Anchovies: from the sea to the dining table
Anchovy or the Italian term ‘alice’. These names refer to the fish species of the Engraulis encrasicolus family. The Italian term ‘alice’ comes from the Latin halex or allex “fish sauce”, which is a sauce similar to the Garum, a sauce made with fermented entrails of salted fish; the word derives from the Greek ἁλυκόν halykón, to be compared with ἁλυκίς halykís “brine”. The anchovy is very common in our seas and for most of the year lives near the coast, mainly during the breeding season which runs from April to September, while in the cold seasons it moves to deeper depths.
This species, which belongs to the class of blue fish, has a delicate and nutritious meat, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (efficient in the prevention of cardiovascular and cancer diseases) and characterized by a good quantity of proteins and high levels of calcium, iron and phosphorus.
The color of the back of these small fishes is brown-bluish while, the color of the belly is silver and the two are separated from each other by a black side strip; they reach the length of about 12-16 cm and they live in all the European seas. Its fishing is active mainly in Liguria, in the Tuscan Archipelago, in Campania, in Sicily and in the Adriatic, places where the anchovies are generally fished during spring and summer, from March to August.
Anchovy fishing is a very important activity, entrenched since ancient times by the inhabitants of the Mediterranean Sea; it takes place throughout the all year with different fishing methods, ranging from the use of a vertical net (menaide), to the use of lampare ( a lightning up method) to the use of trawl nets from the coast (also known as a steering wheel system).
Regarding the various techniques, the fishing method of lampara is connected to some places of the Amalfi coast, specifically to the city of Cetara (Salerno), where it plays a leading role handed down for generations; it is a very regulated activity that embodies the essence of the traditional fishing.
It is a selective fishing activity, the anchovies are caught at night, in fact, in the dark they are attracted by the strong light of the lampara placed on a small boat in the middle of the sea and they are then caught using a purse seine net; it is forbidden within a distance of 3 miles from the coast or in some areas of the sea where it is less than 50 meters deep.
In the area of Cilento, principally in Marina di Pisciotta – a small village on the coast between Velia and Capo Palinuro – it is practiced the fishing with the menaica, originally known as the menaide. The menaica was built on the boats, a single-meshed net handed down from the time of ancient Greece, whose name identified the boat itself. With the advent of industrialization, the menaica (both the boat and the net) was nearly abandoned and today there are only six that continue this traditional fishing. This ancient fishing method make the anchovies get stuck with the head in the net, therefore only the largest ones get stuck, which have already been reproduced. Once they get stuck, in the wriggling they lose blood, as a result they are already bled once removed from the net; in this way the anchovies made in salt won’t have an acidic taste.
There are many ways of using and processing this tasty fish, which can be appreciated and declined in many preparations, fresh or processed, preserved in salt or in oil.
The conservative technique of salting is important and widespread; the antiseptic and dehydrating properties of salt are used to maintain the food for longer.
An interesting outcome is a product that derives from the salting of these small fishes, the ‘colatura cetarese’, a process that requires a lot of care and precision, related to the quantity and local catch, it follows the seasonality and it is done entirely by hand. The anchovies, once fished, are processed almost immediately, however no more than 8 hours; after the beheading and evisceration, they are left completely whole in order to make the taste of the finished product more intense. They are then put in salt for 24 hours, so that 80% of their liquid comes out, and only at this point begins the actual salting.
These small blue fishes are placed, in alternating layers and using sea salt, in the characteristic wooden terzigni (small truncated conical containers in chestnut wood with a capacity of 10, up to 25 kg), following a precise pattern. The anchovies are, in fact, placed on the stomach and back, in order not to leave any empty space, and fill the container entirely and adding a generous crown of salt on top of the last layer. The terzigno is closed with the tompagno, a lid on which a large stone is placed, in order to put pressure until the desired maturation period, which goes from a minimum of 9 months up to years.
The ‘colatura di alici’ produced, usually takes between 2 and 3 years of maturation and only after this time the fish will be reduced to pulp, giving as result an amber liquid and a strong and full-bodied flavor, obtained by the maturation of the anchovies with salt. This is how the ‘spillatura’ takes place, obtained by piercing the terzigno on the bottom and letting this precious liquid dribble slowly. After being collected into jugs of glass, it is bottled; 25 kg of contained fish give three liters of colatura. It is a condiment that can also be used instead of salt to flavor vegetables, pasta and even some fishes.
• Rizzoli I. (a cura di), R. Sadleir (Traduttore), Alice o acciuga? Storia, anedotti, curiosità e ricette del pesciolino in scatola più goloso del mondo. Ediz. italiana e inglese, 2015