The history of salted fish goes back thousands of years. As discussed in my post on Trapani salt, the Phoenicians were known to have established sea salt pans throughout the Mediterranean Sea as a means of preserving their seasonal catch.
Salted anchovies are believed to have originated in Croatia along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. From there, they spread throughout the Mediterranean Sea, wherever anchovies were to be found in abundance, notably the Adriatic coast (of course), Sciacca in Sicily, the Amalfi coast, and the Catalan coast. There are now major anchovy fisheries along the Atlantic coasts of Morocco, Spain, and France. Sadly, many of these fisheries are now considered to be over-fished past the point of sustainability. Decline in anchovy fisheries impacts other species that prey on the smaller fish. This has led to more defined harvest seasons, to avoid harvest of juvenile fish, and controlled origin of product denominations. Given the small size and rapid growth of anchovies, it is hoped the fisheries will rebound under the management structure.
The Adriatic anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) fishery (and other fisheries in the Adriatic) has been managed for some time now, about 30 years. As a result, Adriatic anchovies are a good option. This is a good thing since the Adriatic anchovies are known for their delicate taste.
Salted anchovies belong in every food lover’s pantry. I know, I know, so many people are revolted by anchovies. In fact, they are eating anchovies in many foods that I am sure they will claim to adore. Caesar salad, Pasta Puttanesca, Worcestershire sauce, they are all flavored by the tiny salted fish.
My refrigerator always holds a tin of Acciughe Salate from Sciacca. They are a great snack on their own, as a pizza topping, or an ingredient in the foods named above. Upon opening the tin, you see little whole fish neatly arranged in the coarse sea salt. I pry a pile of fish from the tin, give them a quick rinse to remove some of the salt, pull of the head (if present), run a finger down the body cavity to remove any entrails, another rinse, then a gentle squeeze to pull the delicate fillets from the spine. The fillets are then ready to use.
Why are they so good? Anchovies are rich in glutamate, the very same chemical of MSG note. The very same natural chemical that abounds in many foods such as broccoli, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. You eat it every day; it is responsible for the umami flavor that makes foods flavorful and savory.
Glutamic acid is one of several essential amino acids in anchovies. These amino acids are needed by your body to grow and maintain good health. Additionally, anchovies are rich in vitamins, essential fatty acids (Omega 3, for example), and minerals. All the salt aside, they are good for you.
For a few years, I have seen fresh Adriatic anchovies at local seafood markets in December. They are relatively inexpensive. Certainly less expensive than the tins of anchovies I buy (and I always bring one home when I travel to the Mediterranean region). 3 pounds of anchovies amply fills a quart jar.
They are quite simple to prepare, just requiring the fish and some good salt. I have a good supply of Trapani salt on hand.You can keep the heads on and the entrails in place, but the anchovies will tend to get soft faster then. Also with the heads and guts left in, fewer anchovies fit in the jar. (Next time I make this I plan to use the heads and guts to make some homemade fish sauce.)
I give the whole fish a quick wash with cold water. Sort out any bycatch; there were some small squid and what appeared to be a horse mackerel in with the anchovies. Pop off the head and pull the attached gut out in one motion. Place the fish in a colander to drain.
Put a layer of salt in the bottom of a jar. Layer in the fish. Add 2T salt to each layer. Repeat until the jar is filled. Gently press down to force out any air bubbles. Top with a good layer of salt. Put the jar in a cool place. They are ready to eat in about a month. When you take some fish out, make sure the top remains covered with salt, adding more as needed.
To eat them, give a quick rinse to wash off large pieces of salt. Give a gentle squeeze at the spine on the head end, and pull the fillets from the spine. The taste of these morsels is a world apart from the little oily tins from the supermarket