Anchovies (Engraulidae) are found in many of the world’s temperate zones. From Worcestershire sauce to nước mắm, places as different as England and Viet Nam have a history of bashing, mashing and squeezing them into some form of flavour enhancer. That aside, economically as much as gastronomically, the anchovy is foremost a fish of the Mediterranean and its cultural catchment areas: the Iberian Atlantic and the Black Sea. You don’t need special map-reading skills to glimpse the backbone of the Roman Empire through today’s main anchovy production areas. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Türkiye vie for top spot; Greece and Croatia line up behind them.
Silky filetes de anchoa of the Cantabrian Sea, off northern Spain, packed in collectable period tins. Colatura di alici from Italy’s Amalfi coast, heir to the prized Latin extract garum, kept alive through the centuries by Cistercian monks. An anchovy swirl over a dollop of burrata with a side of puntarelle, the curly Roman salad, dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette – all of it then tossed over sourdough pizza. A couple of cured fillets, stirred into olive oil on the hob until they melt to bequeath a warm savouriness, in the way of a scent after its wearer has left. Or a Neapolitan street snack, consisting of a pile of the fish – tiny, whole but for the heads, and fresh rather than filleted and cured – rolled in flour, deep-fried and served in greaseproof paper. The anchovy is ancient and modern; swish and homely; it is, like ripe cheese, both jolting and refined. Salty, no doubt – but no more so than a bag of crisps, and much more nutritious to boot. Anchovy is rich in niacin, an essential B vitamin, and in selenium, which protects against cell damage.
The analogy with cheese is not gratuitous. Anchovy does go with dairy, in a way that a lot of fish doesn’t. This is not to say that haddock, for example, isn’t good steeped in milk, or that canned tuna won’t work well topped with grated cheddar and shoved under the grill. Still, the tiny, feisty anchovies win the versatility contest. Pair them with butter, with cream, with gooey stracciatella or slivers of manchego; with garlic, vinegar, olives and chillies; with pale foils or fiery equals – all make good partners.
Strictly speaking, anchovies fall into well over 100 species, though only six or so register commercially. Differences can be minute: anchovies are universally small and slender; silver in colour, with an occasional greenish tinge; and closely related, in both looks and genetics, to the larger herrings, sardines and pilchards.
Immensely gregarious and, given their diminutive size, low on the marine food chain (almost everyone preys on them), anchovies move in schools so vast and tight as to darken entire portions of the sea. One school that snaked for three days off the beach in La Jolla, California in July 2014 may have been the largest ever observed: untold millions of individuals appeared to form a giant shadow crossing the water’s surface. The school’s presence so close to shore, and in waters so warm, baffled scientists – and it still does. We may, in other words, have been eating anchovies for thousands of years, but we’ve yet to fully unpack their cryptic allure.
Whether whole, filleted, preserved in brine or vinegar, or cured in salt and nestling in olive oil, you will often buy your anchovies in a tin or a jar. Castilian Spanish, in fact, has three separate names for the anchovy depending on its state: bocarte when fresh, anchoa when salt-cured and boquerón when preserved in vinegar. Prices rise in line with geographic origin – a Cantábrico or Cetara label, from Spain and Italy respectively, will add to the expense – but also with the amount of labour and skill deployed to fillet the fish. Anchovies that are hand-processed (it will say so on the tin) and packed within hours of being caught will set you back the most. If getting your anchovies fresh, expect to find them 10–15 centimetres long. Some countries set a minimum legal length: in Türkiye, where our recipe comes from, this is 9 centimetres. In early 2021, when Black Sea catches started returning shorter-than-usual fish – a combination of poaching and climate change was blamed – the Turkish authorities instituted a temporary fishing ban to allow longer-sized stocks to rebuild. When buying fresh anchovies of any provenance, a shiny, silvery colour and a clean marine smell are good indicators of freshness. Torn fish, excessive messiness, hints of mould and, above all, any stench of rot should put you off.
Probably. I end up there a lot, although I’m not sure that’s the setting that I find most flattering.
Remember that I speak for my tribe. We travel in huge packs, and there’s strength in numbers. Around the Mediterranean, we’ve wowed the crowds for thousands of years. And we pack more flavour than sardines, though of course I wouldn’t want to disparage anyone. We cost more too.
I don’t have to be seen. If you dissolve me in a sauce, or grind me into a vinaigrette, or emulsify me in a bagna cauda with cream and garlic, I provide depth of flavour without anyone being able to spot me. Perhaps that’s the kind of influence I relish most.Do you get mixed up with a sardine much?
Sadly, it does happen. But we’re from different families – Clupeidae for the sardine, Engraulidae for me. The sardine looks a little bloated. I’m slimmer. My flesh is darker. Also, you asked about pizza. Have you tried putting a sardine on a pizza? I didn’t think so.
Please teach your children to like me! I’m nutritionally great for kids (though do watch the salt content if I’m preserved).