Giving Anchovies a Second Chance

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Photo by Citrat/Wikimedia

It's funny how many people don't like anchovies. I guess it's up there with goat cheese. So many people's first experience with these little fish was by being offered outstandingly bad versions of them that they form their entire opinion from that understandably negative impression. I can't really blame them--there are a lot of bad anchovies out in the world. And it's safe to say the odds are exceedingly high that nearly every anchovy that the average American is likely to have had encountered wasn't a very good one.

There is, of course, a really big difference among anchovies. And a great deal of the difference has to do, not shockingly, with the quality of the raw fish. You don't have to be an expert to figure out that if you start with South American anchovies (rather than the far more highly prized ones from Cantabria or the Mediterranean), pay less-than-top-of-the-market prices to get something subpar (because "no one will notice"), and aren't fanatical about freshness, the resulting anchovy just ain't gonna taste too good. Period.

I've continued my high anchovy consumption, eating them as is with a bit of bread and some olives before the meal, on salads and pasta, or with fresh mozzarella.

Northern Spain, by contrast, is one of the anchovy capitals of the world. I ate more good anchovies in a week on a recent trip there than I probably have in any week of my anchovy-eating life. It didn't hurt that we got to spend a day with the Ortiz family, who are, pretty much without question, the kings of the anchovy world. The Ortiz family buys only spring anchovies--there is a fall season but the fish's fat is different and the cured anchovies don't taste as good. And they buy the best fish they can get on the docks, purchasing them early in the morning (anchovy-fishing happens at night). They're immediately gutted and put under salt.

"It's very important to get them under salt the same day they leave the sea," said Jacopo Magica, a long-time export manager. The anchovies are then cured in coarse salt for about six months. We get great anchovies from Ortiz in the form of fillets. We opt for what they call their "old-style"--skin left on and packed with parsley. And we also get the traditional whole anchovies still in coarse salt. While both are excellent, the latter are still, to my taste, the best if you a few minutes to filet them (it's very easy!). They're bigger fish, and those tend to taste better.

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Photo by vcalzone/FlickrCC

The bad news of the season is that the renowned and much-relished Cantabrian anchovies for which Ortiz is most famous aren't available this year. The stocks are very low, and the government has banned their fishing till next year. To their credit, the Ortiz family actively supports the ban, working as they have for so long to do the right thing for the long term. To keep their supplies going--and to keep supplying those of us who need our anchovy fix--they went to the Mediterranean coast town of L'Escala (the other big area for anchovies in Spain) and bought an anchovy plant.

The fish are different, as is the cure--the Cantabrian fish and a bit of difference in the curing style--the cure is longer in Cantabria. Together these factors combine to make the traditional Cantabrian anchovies a bit firmer and drier, the L'Escala-style Catalan fish slightly softer in texture and flavor. Both are very good. I've continued my high consumption in the months since I've been back, eating them as is with a bit of bread and some olives before the meal, on salads and pasta, or with fresh mozzarella.

To purchase the Ortiz family's anchovies, click here.