Photo by Juliette Tayar
In L’Escala, the landscape of the rugged Costa Brava and the rolling hills of the Empordà change. Hills flatten into plains, cliffs collapse to become long, sandy beaches and the sea is choppy with white horses whipped up by the infamous Tramuntanya wind, said to account for Dalí’s maniacal works along with other local maladies.
Beneath those same waves, the Mediterranean anchovy (seitó or anxova in Catalan), prospers. Above them, local fishermen, cooks and gourmands celebrate one of the most important culinary treats the big blue has to offer.
To understand their obsession, you must dive back millenia, to when the ancient Greeks first arrived on the Iberian peninsular establishing the nearby town of Empúries as one of their most important settlements and where they perfected the art of salting fish, quickly followed by the Romans who lost no time in establishing a garum factory. Garum was a much revered Roman salsa—the classical equivalent of Asian fish sauces like nam pla—that was used as a means of adding salty, savoury flavour to other dishes. The primary ingredient was the anchovies they fished out of these very waters, then salted, packed down in barrels and left to ferment until a heady, pungent brew had been procured.
The tradition continues, although not as a stinky fish sauce, but in the ritual. To this day when the catch comes into port it goes directly to a warehouse and is packed down in salt in heavy wooden barrels, where it is left to mellow and mature anywhere between six months and a year. Only then are they ready for a Catalan table. First desalinated in several changes of water, then filleted and de-boned, perhaps marinated in a little olive oil with fresh thyme and bay leaves before gracing the top of a crust of rustic bread rubbed with the flesh of a juicy ripe tomato. Ah, the dinner of champions. Or should that be Romans?
Well, fashions come and fashions go. And during the early Seventies, when nouvelle cuisine was making its mark in the form of the bizarre, rebellious and misinformed, simple pleasures like these took a back seat. Serious gourmands were making for the border for their gastronomic kicks and forgot, momentarily, the treasures of their own villages.
It was a short-lived melt-down, for had these silvery blue, slinky little fish not been a cult already, they soon would have been thanks to the culinary passions of one Jaume Subirós who took over the innovative Motel Ampurdán in Figueres in the late Seventies. He now also has the Almadraba Park Hotel, and both reserve a special place for the local delicacy on their menus, which they fish and salt themselves.
As time has gone by, L’Escala anchovies have quietly continued to enjoy the same status that might be accorded caviar or foie gras in other circles. Aficionados far from home speak of them with longing. Critics write poems and local food lovers will use nothing else, be they salted in barrels, bottled in oil, or butterflied fresh in the markets, dredged in flour, seasoned with salt and pepper and fried. What matters is that they come from L’Escala.
The rivalry between these and Cantabrian anchovies from the Bay of Biscay, which are a little less plump and a little more dark than the Mediterranean type, runs deep. It comes second only to the rivalry that exists between the major anchovy landing ports that run along the Costa Brava including Cadaqués, Palamós and Sant Feliu de Guíxols, each of which boast merits of their own.
Whichever of these one prefers, over the years, I have seen Catalan anchovies make converts of innumerable friends and acquaintances who had claimed they didn’t like them. And like most things in life, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I could, like their numerous fans, wax lyrical about the unique and commendable qualities of anchovies for pages. Or I could simply share their myriad ways of serving and cooking with them, and make converts of us all.
In October 2008, the Marine Conservation Society issued a warning about the consumption of anchovies from the Bay of Biscay as their numbers are under threat. For more information see: www.fishonline.org
All of the following ingredients are easily available in supermarkets
Boquerones en vinagre
One of the most cheek-suckingly fabulous snacks on the planet, they are even better if you make them yourself. Take 12 fresh anchovy filets and halve each one. Add a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley, one finely sliced red onion, a cup of sherry vinegar and one finely sliced lemon. Mix together and leave to marinade for 30 minutes or so.
Pimientos del piquillo con anchoas
This simple tapa is bright and colourful on the plate, adding wow factor at drinks parties. Skewer together a whole grilled red pepper with one anchovy packed in oil, and a thin slice of fresh garlic. Serve with a cold beer or a shot of bone-dry Jerez.
Rita Hayworth’s appearance in the 1946 film Gilda caused outrage for its spiciness (which saw it banned for a time in Spain), and gave these feisty little tapas their name. They pack an almighty punch and work best washed down with a shot of Basque or Asturian cider. Skewer together a rolled up anchovy, one green guindilla pepper, a boqueron pickled in vinegar, and an olive. Down in one for maximum effect.
This is naughty stuff (don’t think about the cholesterol or the calories) especially melted over lamb and, curiously, with white fish. Pound together 2-3 anchovies in a pestle and mortar and whip together with 4-5 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley. Chill until ready to use.
Coca de anchoa (serves six)
Served cold and cut into small slices this is great served with refreshing glasses of juicy rosé wine. Sauté 3 large, finely sliced sweet onions in olive oil for about 15 minutes. Add 3 crushed garlic cloves, season and cook on low for an hour until golden and sweet smelling. Prick a sheet of ready-made pastry (shortcrust or puff) and bake for 5 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius. Spread the onions over the top and arrange 12 anchovy filets in a criss-cross pattern across the top. Place a pitted black olive in the centre of each square, sprinkle with torn sage leaves and bake for a further 10 minutes to finish off.