Long overlooked in the U.S., except as a pizza topping, or as a critical ingredient in the best Caesar salads, anchovies have been considered a delicacy by Europeans for centuries. These preserved fillets of the small fry of a herring-like fish (the Boquerones) have been produced in Europe, North Africa, and South America for centuries. Imagine a world with no pan bagnat, no Provencal lamb stew, and no pasta puttanesca. These dishes would lack that essential whiff of the ocean, that burst of sweet pungency and nutty aroma that, when used properly, is hard to identify, and impossible to substitute. In the early 1500’s, Charles V, with his notorious appetite, was delighted with anchovies, and even suggested erecting a statue in honor of them. Columbus had barrels of anchovies on board the Santa Maria.
The Greek and Roman ruins of Ampurias near the Catalan town of La Escale on the Mediterranean Coast Brava (Northeast Spain) include the remains of an ancient salting plant – the courtyard where the fish was cut and prepared, large containers where it was salted, and the storehouse where it was packed into jars. The salting process is part of the legacy left by the Romans in the countries of the Mediterranean basin. It was via the Mare Nostrum that the technique for preservation first came from Spain.
In fact, the production of salted anchovies became established along the North coast of Spain - the regions of Cantabria and the Basque Country, long after the Roman occupation of Spain, reaching its peak during the 19th century. At first, the fish were just salted, and only later were they produced in the form of small fillets in oil. The expansion in production was the result of increased catches of anchovy in the Bay of Biscay.
While the process of salting fish to preserve them has been practiced for thousands of years, preserving them in olive oil is a more recent invention. In the 1800’s, a man named Vella established a preserved anchovy business in Laredo in Cantabria (along the northern Atlantic coast of Spain, where fishing has long been a major industry). He first skinned and filleted them, then salted them according to the traditional process, and packaged them in small tins. He tried preserving them in pork fat, butter and eventually olive oil, the form in which they are today most commonly found. You can find them packed in both soya/sunflower oils, too.
Anchovies come in many sizes. In Russia, the large anchovy is often smoked; in France/Italy the fresh anchovy is popular. In the Orient, anchovies are often used as a dried ingredient. In the “Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery”, published by Holt Rinehart Winston, A.J. McClane writes that the anchovy’s oldest claim to fame is as the basis for garum, a fermented sauce used in Roman cookery. Since Greco-Roman times, when anchovies were made into an all-purpose condiment called liquamen or garum (to which today’s Asian fish sauces bear a remarkable resemblance), cooks the world over have capitalized on the flavor-boosting properties of the fish. Like herbs and spices, anchovies in a dish can deepen and heighten the flavor of other ingredients while adding a subtle taste of their own.
The Moroccan anchovy, Engraulis Enchrasicolus, is 6-7 inches long, and weighs less than one ounce. Ideally, the optimal size for fillets is from 12-15 cm long, and a weight of 25 grams for a live fish. The salt ratio should not exceed 15% of flesh. While there are 16 species of anchovies in American waters alone, all anchovies used in the U.S. are imported. There are over 100 species and sub-species throughout the world, each with different culinary grades/qualities/value. The anchovy Engraulis Enchrasicolus swims in the Mediterranean and off the Atlantic coasts of Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.
Other varieties can be found in varied parts of the world; Argentine (Anchoita), Chile and Peru (Ringens), North Pacific (Mordax), Japan (Japonicus), Australia (Australis), and South Africa (Capenses).
Our Moroccan packer uses only Engraulis Enchrasicolus, while our South American packer usus Engraulis Ringens. There is as much difference between anchovies as between an extra virgin olive oil and ordinary vegetable oil.
Physically, anchovies may be treated much like garlic. They can be chopped and stirred into a marinade, or whisked into a vinaigrette. The fillets can be pounded to a paste in a mortar and pestle, and dissolved into a sauce or a mayonnaise. Anchovies are often sautéed whole with other aromatics, and when a liquid is added, they melt away, their fragile meat loosened apart.
In flavor, the anchovy has an equivalent range. It can be used to season fiercely, as it is in bagna couda, a “hot bath” made of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter that is served as a dipping sauce for vegetables like fennel, radishes and carrots. And it can be made to whisper, as it is in a risotto recipe from “Second Helpings From Union Square Café” (HarperCollins) by Michael Romano and Dann Meyer. Roasted eggplant, chopped mint and anchovies dissolve into the rice. The eggplant thickens, the mint freshens, and the anchovies keep it savory and succinct without making themselves known.
Their roles in anchoyade, or puree of anchovy, olive oil and vinegar, and tapenade, the mixture of olives, anchovies, capers and lemon juice, are but two examples of the key part that anchovies play in French and Mediterranean cooking. McClane says German cooks regularly utilize anchovies, and Mark Bittman, in “Fish – The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking”, published by Macmillan, reports that the small water dweller is distilled into the fermented fish sauces, such as Vietnamese noac nam and Thai nam pla, that are vital to Southeast Asian cuisine.
The sandwich is always a bellwether of tastes, and at ‘Wichcraft in Manhattan’, which specializes in them, they’ve had great success selling a sandwich layered with marinated anchovies, soft-cooked eggs, roasted onion and frisee between slices of country bread. Grilled shrimp with anchovy butter has lasted on ‘Prune’s’ small menu for years. At ‘Esca’, David Pasternack, the chef, tempers bitter dandelion greens with an anchovy vinaigrette, then for emphasis, lays white anchovy fillets, marinated in vinegar, atop the salad. Somewhat famously, Wylie Dufresne at ‘WD-50’ layered anchovies and foie gras, a pair about as harmonious as bacon and peanut butter, and diners came flocking.
Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, is traditionally Day One for the anchovy fish season off the coast in the Bay of Biscay (North Central Spain). In early spring, the sea temperatures are around 10-13°C/50-55°F, and in April the fish have just the right organoleptic characteristics (aroma, taste and color), so this is the ideal month for the boats to go out. In the Bay of Rosas on the Catalan Mediterranean coast between La Escale and Rosas (Northeast Spain), the anchovy season starts later, halfway through spring. From time immemorial, this part of the Mare Nostrum has been a rich fishing area. By the month of May, the fish have gained sufficient fat to face the summer, making this the best time for the fishermen to cast their nets. The anchovies from La Escale are often smaller than those caught in the Bay of Biscay. Over 90% of the Spanish production of anchovies comes from the Bay of Biscay, and 25% is exported. The countries that consume the largest quantities of Spanish anchovies are the United States, followed by Switzerland, and Italy.
The schools of anchovies are detected with radar and attracted, no longer with flaming torches, but with the special lights that are typical of inshore fishing. Anchovies are caught in nets, never with hooks. Average weight per fish is 38 grams (1.33 ounces) so that every kilogram contains 26-27 fish (12 to a pound).
Tourism has mushroomed in the past few decades, intruding on the fishing industries of most areas, and seriously diminished the anchovy harvest. Anchovy producers are very concerned about the falling levels of anchovy catches. Fishing, outside the season, is the greatest enemy of the anchovy industry. In 1990, the Catalan regional government instituted a 2 year closed season in winter, which was subsidized equally by the Generalitat and the EU. A further closed season was agreed upon for the period of 1996 – 2000, during the months of October-December (at a cost of 100M pesetas, nearly $1M U.S.).
Typically, Argentina, Morocco and Spain produce most of the anchovies shipped to the U.S. The impact of tourism, combined with the painstaking work and hand-crafted nature of anchovy processing, along with rising labor costs, naturally results in higher prices for these products.
Preparing anchovies is an art that dates back to Roman times. It requires careful selection of raw materials, care and expertise. While labeling the tins, and skinning the anchovies is now mechanized, much of the anchovy production is still unavoidable hand-work, and is thus known as an “artisan” process. The young fish are caught in nets during the spawning period. The anchovies are preserved whole and unfilleted. We use only fresh fish, no frozen.
When the catch is brought into port, the anchovies are placed in large buckets of brine where they remain until all the blood has drained out. The anchovies are then hand-sorted by size, the heads removed, and the fish gutted. It is most important to not remove the thymus gland that keeps the anchovy fresh for the first few days – any fish losing it tends to rot quickly.
The fish are then laid out on huge trays for classification/selection, and the real salting process begins – converting the fresh fish into anchovies as we know them. It is here where the anchovies are analyzed (for histamine, bacteriology, and organoleptic characteristics). If the fish fails, it is rejected. The fresh fish arrival form details the date purchased, port of origin, transport conditions and temperature.
The processors layer the fish with salt to absorb the fish fat, and to prevent bruising of the flesh. The anchovies are kept carefully packed in barrels, layered with salt and covered with brine, while pressure is applied, to ensure that no microorganisms will survive the curing process. Barrels are turned precisely, barometric pressure monitored, and temperature controlled. Temperature and weather conditions can have a significant impact on the anchovies, because they affect the ripening of the fish during the curing period. The curing process typically takes 6-10 months, depending on the type of fish, and the temperature. Heat speeds maturation, but it must never exceed 25°C (77°F). The osmotic pressure resulting from the contact of the salt with the fish leads to the dehydration/maturation of the fish, turning them into anchovies. They can be preserved in barrels for up to 1 ½ years, as long as the temperature is kept at 10-15°C / 50-55°F.
At no point in the process are the anchovies heat-treated. That is why anchovies/paste are semi-perishable and should be kept in a cool place, and stocks rotated regularly.
The characteristic features of any anchovy salting plant are the pungent smell and the damp, cool air. The fish from the Bay of Biscay require less time for maturation, for instance, than those from La Escale. This makes anchovy production in north central Spain more economical as the production period is shorter.
When the perfect state of “ripeness” has been achieved, they are traditionally rinsed in brine. The anchovies are laid out on cotton cloths in parallel rows, and rolled up inside the cloths. The “parcels” are then centrifuged to remove any excess water before being packed or canned. The anchovies usually lose up to 55% of their moisture during the process. Too much salt ruptures the fish, too little, shortens the shelf life; keeping the fish under salt too long softens the fish, keeping it too short, leaves the fish hard. Anchovies are then inspected, washed, skinned, filleted, scaled, trimmed, and either lined up symmetrically and flat, or rolled delicately with capers in glass or tins. Anchovies can be packed in spicy sauces, but are generally packed with aluminum tin or tin plate or glass, labeled, put in cardboard boxes, arranged in master cases, and shrink-wrapped with film.
Normally the largest fish are packed whole in salt (salazon). In Cantabria they use large cans of different sizes (holding alternate layers of fish and salt). In the Bay of Rosas, especially in La Escale, although the process is the same, the anchovies are packed in large glass jars. These whole salted anchovies are generally packed on the day they are caught, and are designated, using the Italian term anchovies “alla vera carne”. The custom in Spain is to place the fish on a slice of bread, and sprinkle over a few drops of olive oil. The anchovy fillets from Cantabria are flatter than those from La Escale because the stones used to weigh down the fish in the Bay of Rosas are not a heavy as those used in the Cantabrian factories.
The color of an anchovy, along with its smell, is a good indicator of its freshness, chef Anton Mosimann writes in his “Anton Mosimann’s Fish Cuisine”, published by Ten Speed Press. Although the sides are silver, other body parts are green while in the water, but turn blue after being exposed to air, and eventually become black as the fish ages. A properly cured anchovy should be reddish-tan in color, firm (but not hard), and the oil should be clear. Aged product will become soft, and gradually decompose --- with the oil particles from the fish floating in the tin.
People have asked: “What are white anchovies?” They are the fish delivered to the plant where the head is cut open and the fish bone taken out. The meat is pink. The fish is then plunged into an acidic liquid, (lightly salted water, vinegar and lemon). This process makes the meat white, and ready to be consumed. The meat is put into hermetically sealed containers with a little added oil. The anchovy is then kept between 35-40°C, for no more than 30-40 days.
Now that you know what a “white” anchovy is, do you know “black” anchovy?
What cognac is to France, the pungent, fermented fish sauce in vats is to Vietnam: A national treasure that shouldn’t be produced anywhere else. And everyone agrees that the best fish sauce, or nuoc mam, comes from the island of Phu Quoc. The islanders use only top-grade black anchovies, natural inputs, and traditional storage methods to make their sauce, as they have done for a century or more. Wherever you travel in Vietnam, you’re never too far from a bottle of fish sauce. It’s a protein-rich staple of the cuisine, and a companion to any savory dish. Other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia, produce their own sauces, but nobody does it quite like the Vietnamese. Every morsel that people put in their mouths is either cooked in fish sauce, or dipped in it. It has a sharp nose. Nice warm hues, and the taste is, well, sour, salty, and unmistakably fishy.
But Phu Quoc is changing, and so is the fish-sauce industry. Until the 1980s, when Vietnam began to tinker with its socialist economy, producers sold their sauce to the government at a fixed price. Private traders then took over. As demand increased, more families entered the business. Today, there are more than 80 producers on the island. Producers began to complain, though, that traders on the mainland were diluting their premium products with low-grade fish sauce, and passing of the result as Phu Quoc sauce. Eventually, Vietnam’s government took notice. In 2001, it ruled that only sauce produced and bottled on Phu Quoc could use the island’s name, giving it the kind of territorial copyright that European wines and cheeses enjoy.
Then a protein-rich staple and a companion to any savory dish. It is most popular in Thailand and Cambodia, but nobody does it quite like the Vietnamese.
How it is made: The sauce is prepared in tall wooden vats in open-air warehouses. The vats are 10 feet in diameter, and can hold several tons of anchovies. For every 3 tons of fish, a ton of sea salt is added, before the container is sealed at the top. After 1 year of fermentation, the first extract is sampled – a process that is akin to the first pressing of olive oil.
The industry faces the issue of sustainability. Fishermen are fishing it harder to catch the prized black anchovies in the waters around Phu Quoc, and are forced to sail farther afield. But there’s a new game in town : tourism. In recent years, as newly affluent Vietnamese take more vacations, beach-front property on Phu Quoc is being turned into resorts. The island is abuzz with rumors of foreign investors snapping up land, and local officials are promoting Phu Quoc as the next big destination for holiday makers in Southeast Asia. Both Quoc and Tinh have joined the rush by openig their own hotels, where guests can also buy bottles of private-brand sauce. Both hotels are close to the beach – and far from the pungent vats of fermenting fish.
People frequently ask questions about fish oil, and Omega-3 fatty acids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in 2004 that sellers of fish and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids can now add labels saying research shows that eating foods containing the important fat “may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease”. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA typically are found in oily fish such as salmon, lake trout, tuna and herring. Scientific studies have found that people who eat diets rich in foods containing these fatty acids have a lower incidence of heart disease. The FDA-approved labels must list how many grams of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are contained in one serving of the food. The foods also must meet FDA limits for saturated fat and cholesterol content. Consumers are urged not to consume more than 3 grams of the fatty acids a day and, of that, no more than 2 grams from supplements. The new food labels should help consumers as they work to improve their health by identifying foods that contain these important compounds.
If oil-packed anchovies are special, fresh ones are even more so. They’re totally different from canned, like another beast entirely. The “true fish flavor” of fresh anchovies – have a sweet taste, a slightly oily texture, and very delicate flesh. To be appreciated fully, anchovies should be treated simply: a dusting of flour, some sizzling olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon are plenty.
If you can’t get fresh anchovies, but want a change from canned fillets, try salted whole anchovies sold in Italian and Greek markets. Salt –packed anchovies tend to be more plump because they were not pressed, but they have to be boned; just rinse off the excess salt, soak the fish in several changes of cool water, then remove the head, and either lift the fillets off the bone with the point of a knife, or simply use the small ones whole.
Anchovies that come in jars have an advantage over those in tins. Once you open the jar, you can reseal it and keep it in the refrigerator. If each time you want to use anchovies you have to open a tin, it is only natural that you might avoid using them.
The good news, chefs say, is that there are plenty of uses for preserved anchovies.
Chef Judy Rogers of Zuni Café in San Francisco, and many other chefs, prefer salt-packed whole anchovies to the canned goods, but when using either product, they suggest rinsing off the original salt or oil and repacking in fresh oil. Their deep, briny flavor is indispensable to a good Caesar salad. They’re a necessity in Piedmontese bagna cauda, anchoiade and tapanade, pasta puttanesca and vitello tonnato, pissaladiere and salade nicoise, the nuoc mam and nam pla found in Southeast Asia and even the creamy Swedish potato casserole known as Jansson’s Temptation – all owe their very existence to anchovies.
Still, fish sauce and garum are much different from anchovies. They are fermented essences whereas anchovies have both essence, and flesh…and that is what makes them so engaging in the kitchen.
To fillet whole, fresh anchovies, many chefs remove the head and tail, slit the belly and use their thumb to slide out the viscera and backbone, resulting in a butterflied product. Most chefs do not bother removing the hairlike “feather” bones, because their texture is virtually indiscernible from the flesh, and some leave on the skin because it is edible.
Contrary to other canned foods that are heat-sterilized (retort cooking), the biological process of curing continues after the product is canned…this is the reason that canned anchovies should be kept cool. Anchovies are not submitted to temperatures above 100°C / 212°F, so are considered semi-preserves. Ideally, anchovies should be kept in a refrigerator at 5°C / 41°F, and under these conditions should be good for 6 months.
Total production has been on the increase, and Canada, Europe, and the United States remain significant consumers of this delicacy.
Nowadays, anchovy preparation requires a special attention to the safety of the products and of the manufacturing process. To be entirely safe, a manufacturer needs to invest extensively in modern buildings, refrigeration, machinery, organization, and training of personnel. The size of the fish/species, the condition of the catch, the waters fished, time of year, local weather – all are factors to be evaluated. Our anchovies are aged correctly, packed by hand, stored carefully, and graded by color, firmness and taste. Our packers have put in place fully developed “HAACP” programs at their plants, two years before it became an FDA importing requirement. The FDA’s Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point standard for fish products went into effect December 18, 1997.
Our anchovy fillets are a natural product – no pasteurization, sterilization, and/or preservatives…a natural technique, both and art and a tradition. We use only sea salt. Salt preserves because it absorbs water. It dehydrates the fish, which eliminates all bacteria. Our Moroccan packer has temperature controlled workshops in the harbors of Agadir, Medhia, and Safi.
All Napoleon anchovies are purchased under contract to our strict specifications – we allow no purchases from the spot market. Our packers are kosher approved suppliers. We can custom formulate/package.
It’s the ugly little fish that could.