An unhappy brown anchovy in oil next to it’s bigger, pinker salted Bay of Biscay cousin
Opinions on anchovies are pretty much polarised – either loved to the point of obsession, or reviled and grimace-inducing at the mere mention. I fall firmly into the first camp, but I really believe that most people can enjoy anchovies at least as an ingredient to bring out the flavour of other foods.
Most people’s negative opinion of anchovies probably comes from an early experience of some sort of seafood pizza draped liberally with the soggy brown strips, the outstanding memory an overpoweringly fishy and salty flavour. Anchovies are most easily found in oil – they should still be slightly pink and firm, and not taste overly salty. Find a good quality jar of anchovies in oil, lock yourself in the kitchen, and settle down to reacquaint yourself with these little darlings.
As the first step in anchovy rehab, I would recommend following the Gascony tradition of studding a leg of lamb with anchovies and garlic all over (and rosemary if you can fit it in there). The anchovies melt away to give the meat an amazing richness with no discernible fishiness. Alternatively try this light pasta recipe by Nigella, who promises to convert ‘the most squealing of prejudices’!
Once the first hurdle has been overcome, the next step is to bring in more anchovy flavour. A couple of anchovies chopped with butter to melt on lamb (the ideal companion) or beef steaks. Then perhaps a rough tapenade or salsa verde; chopped with capers, olives, garlic and parsley. At this point, you’re really getting the flavour of the anchovy, not too fishy, not too salty, just very tasty.
Are you converted yet? Putting anchovies in everything you eat? I thought as much – well hold back, there’s something else you should know. NOT ALL ANCHOVIES WERE BORN EQUAL. That’s right, those little pinky brown fellers you’ve grown to love are in fact the runt of the litter. Around the Bay of Biscay comes the very best salted anchovies; sold as ‘Anchoas del Cantabrico’ under a variety of brands, they are packed whole in salt and a small amount of brine. After filleting the fish and removing the back bone (not as fiddly as it sounds – see here for a guide), you are met with a firm, rose pink fillet that is surprisingly much less salty than the oil variety and tastes beautifully fresh, as though it were caught that same day.
These anchovies should not be cooked, but enjoyed fresh such as with waxy new potatoes in a salad; if you insist on cooking with them, they should be added at the very end of cooking or treated like a dressing. They are very expensive (a jar costs around £10-15 upwards), but they’re worth it for an occasional luxury treat. I bought mine under the name ‘La Trebuca’ from La Fromagerie in Marylebone, central London, but you can find them online from Brindisa (£39.95 for 850g!) and in other specialist markets and retailers.
Despite my intentions to give everyone an addiction to anchovies and then lead them on to the hard stuff, I’m sure many sceptics will remain; which is fine, leaves more for the rest of us. And we need them – anchovy stocks are being depleted by the the ridiculous use as a feed for farmed salmon – requiring 5 kilos of anchovies to produce 1 kilo of salmon! Give me the anchovies any day…