Despite their tiny size, cured anchovies make a tremendous contribution to the taste of a dish. This makes them especially important in meat-free dishes although not, of course, for strict vegetarians. In the meat world, bacon performs a similar service. What they have in common is a high level of the free glutamates that give the taste “umami”. When eaten fresh anchovies are remarkably mild in flavour but, being a pelagic fish, when they are caught they are caught in large numbers and so preserving them is the norm. Cured fish have been used as a seasoning ingredient since Roman times, although the methods of curing vary.
Anchovies swim mainly in warmer waters. The Mediterranean is their heartland, they are the staple diet of tuna so you will always find them where tuna swim. In the summer some anchovies do make it to our shores and as far north as Denmark, but the fact that they feature so often in traditional British cookery is thanks to their being preserved and then transported. There is an apparent anomaly in one of the best-known anchovy dishes, Jansson’s Temptation, coming from Sweden but this is explained when you learn that the fish used in this dish are not actually anchovies but sprats. If you want to make this dish you need to buy Swedish “anchovies”, apparently Ikea sells them, and you will find they are sweet pickled, like miniature rollmops.
Curing anchovies in vinegar is also a tradition in Spain. Elisabeth Luard describes their link to the silk trade in European Peasant Cookery. The mulberry trees on which silk worms feed grow in the hill villages of the Alpujarras above Granada. As soon as the fresh anchovies were landed on the coast, donkey-boys would set out for the hills with their panniers laden, arriving by mid-day. There, they would trade the fish for silk worm cocoons and return to the silk merchants in town. The highly perishable fish were then cleaned, beheaded and gutted in one swift move – by pulling the head through the belly with the backbone still attached. Laid open and skin side up in a shallow dish the anchovies were then sprinkled with salt and covered with sherry vinegar, diluted with an equal quantity of water. Covered and kept cool the fish were ready to eat in a couple of days and would keep for a week. Prepared this way, anchovies are known as Boquerones and are still popular in every tapas bar. They can be bought here, but the quality depends very much on the vinegar that has been used as sometimes this overpowers any taste of the fish. Good examples can be found, but more usually where they have been freshly prepared. They also differ from the Swedish variant, firstly in being the true anchovy rather than the larger sprat and secondly in the cure.
The form of anchovy with which we will most be familiar is filleted, salted and then stored in oil. Actually there is another form, bone in and salted, which need soaking and filleting before using. I find these too salty. And sometimes unsalted anchovies (and therefore grey rather than red/brown in colour) stored in sunflower oil are imported from Holland. But back to those stored in olive oil. Italy tends to pack them in jars whilst Spain favours cans. From a taste point of view it doesn’t matter which vessel is used, but personally I prefer to buy by the jar so that I can use just a couple at a time. Unlike sardines, anchovies do not improve with storage so checking the date and buying the freshest is one quality consideration. Prices do vary considerably and this is mainly dependent on the size of the fish, the quality of the filleting and the oil in which they are stored. If you are going to eat the anchovies whole it is worth paying more, and Ortiz is widely recognised as the best, although you may well find others that suit your palate just as well. If you are using the anchovies in cooking it is nigh on impossible to detect differences so you can save your money here. There are also several readymade options that you can use to bring the umami flavour of anchovies to your cooking, e.g. Patum Peperium’s Gentleman’s Relish, Watkin’s Anchovy Sauce and Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce, all of which have long established positions in the English kitchen. Nam pla is the Indonesian equivalent that has found its way into several dishes here.
So when would you use anchovies in cooking? You can see from the list of proprietary preparations that it is very wide ranging. Although an anchovy is a fish, it does not add a particularly fishy flavour, in fact it enhances meat better than it does fish. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, it is their contribution to non-meat dishes that I have focused on in my recipe selection. From classic summer salads such as Caesar and Niçoise, to the hot Bagna Caoda dip for winter vegetables, broccoli & anchovy sauce for pasta, Pissaladière and British savouries such as Scotch Woodcock, the anchovy provides a depth of flavour that compensates for the absence of meat.