The Humble Anchovy
Anchovies, acciughe, alici, or whatever else you'd like to call them, are the symbol of Liguria. In fact, they are known as the bread of the sea, il pane del mare. Their slippery, silvery skin glistens under the warm sun. They are humble in size, being the prey of many larger fish, yet are able to stand their ground, gastronomically speaking. Used in plenty of ways, from freshly caught to preserved in salt to marinated in vinegar, they can then be stuffed, be fried, or fill savoury pies. When preserved, their bold flavour is concentrated and a careful handling is needed, to prevent an excess of saltiness in the final dish. When fresh, they are light and delicate, yet always nod back to the sea.
For this recipe, we travel a little further south in Italy to the region of Campania -- particularly, to the Amalfi coast. It is here, in the little seaside village of Cetara, from the month of March until July, that anchovies are caught in throngs. After a short rest, they are placed into wooden barrels, layers of anchovy and sea salt alternating until the barrel is full. The barrel is covered with a wooden lid which is weighed down by sea stones. Slowly but surely, due to both the pressure and the maturing of the fish, a liquid forms on the surface. This is what we want! Periodically removed, the liquid is transferred to another container and placed directly under the summer sun. The colour deepens and the flavour develops. A few months later, for its final journey, the liquid seeps through the matured anchovies in the barrels, slowly falling, layer by layer, until it is collected and filtered.
This liquid, with its amber colour and intoxicating aroma, is called colatura di alici. Mainly used as a sauce for pasta, the salty and umami flavours suit its use as a seasoning in a variety of dishes. It is similar to some Asian fish sauces, although the process can differ and various other fish and/or extra ingredients are commonly used.
Pasta with colatura di alici is a simple dish, yet exorbitantly rich in flavour -- a true gem of Italy, the Amalfi coast, and tiny Cetara.
Pasta with colatura di alici
- 400 g spaghetti or linguine
- 24 g (2 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, sliced finely
- 1 bunch fresh parsley
- 24 g (2 tbsp) colatura di alici
- 1 chili pepper (peperoncino)
In a large, wide bowl, add the olive oil, garlic, and about 20 leaves of parsley. Whisk well.
Add the colatura di alici. Whisk until an emulsion is formed (the colour should become opaque with an even consistency).
Cook the pasta in water without salt until al dente.
Add the cooked pasta straight into the bowl with a ladleful (about 1/3 cup) of the starchy cooking water.
Mix very well with two forks until the pasta is coated with the luscious sauce.
Distribute into individual plates and sprinkle with more parsley. Nothing else.