In his 1964 book, The Raw and The Cooked, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss explored the relationship between nature and culture on the culinary level. I have two copies of the book at home, one in English and the other in Italian, that I have not even leafed through. It is the sort of book that one supposes one will eventually get to read before dying but that, in the meantime, can feel good about owning since it really does have a portentous message to keep us going until such a time. And the gist of it is that nature and culture go hand in hand even in something as basic as the means for our physical survival. Through the study of myths, Lévi-Strauss charted the evolution of cooking techniques and rules, and how they applied to our understanding of cooking as a cultural process. If animals in nature eat whatever their biological make-up perceives as edible, when it comes to human beings the same underlying biology is put into practice by culinary rites that are acquired. Cooking is a cultural act. Society and convention determine what is ‘food’ and what is not food, what type of food we shall and can eat and what is instead taboo.
Until I was in my early forties, the very thought of eating raw meat or fish (except for oysters and caviar) made me shudder. I could eat snails (escargots) and a pig’s trotter (zampone) and even tongue with salsa verde and my grandmother used to feed me fried lamb’s brains as a child – but perish the thought of biting into meat that was not a deep brown colour or any fish that had not been cooked! It was my Italian husband who persuaded me to please at least give sushi a try … there was no blood to be seen anywhere and he was sure I would love it. And he was right … I fell in love with Japanese food and with raw fish. And I noticed that it was round about that time too that the trend for platters of raw fish (“pesce crudo”) started in Italian restaurants in and around Rome. So, who knows, maybe we have to thank the Japanese spread of sushi and sashimi for the introduction of pesce crudo in relatively recent times!
It dawned on me only recently that there had indeed been one fish that I had eaten raw all along without ever thinking of it as raw and that was because it just didn’t ‘seem’ at all raw to look at. The fish in question is packed with those omegas that are so good for one’s health, cheap to buy and plentiful all year round. I am talking of the humble anchovy. In Italian they are referred to either as “acciughe” (pronounced ‘achoo-gay’ which sounds like a sneeze!) or as “alici” or “alicette” . Since these fillets are so tiny, if you want to comment on how thin someone is, you would say that he or she is as thin as an anchovy (“magra come una acciuga”).
In South-East Asia, the one ingredient that will uplift and enhance a taste of any dish is of course soy sauce …. In Thailand it is the fish sauce known as nam-pla … and in Italy it is the humble acciuga which comes as an anchovy fillet preserved in salt or oil, or as a paste that comes in a tube to be squeezed out. Many people of my generation will remember a favourite afternoon merenda (snack) being “pane, burro e alici” i.e. bread and butter with an anchovy fillet or a squeeze of anchovy paste. In the United Kingdom too, there is a posh spread known as “Gentleman’s Relish”, again made up of butter and anchovies. An anchovy adds depth and a je-ne-sais-quoi to many a dish including chicken alla cacciatora, courgette blossom fritters, salsa verde, certain salads and soups, lamb cooked the Roman way and the bagna cauda dip from Piedmont. Anchovies are even great mixed into sliced vegetables cooked in the oven with bread crumbs and olive oil (verdure gratinate). It is a great shame that so many people shy away from anchovies pleading their saltiness as an excuse. Look around and switch to another brand. Find anchovies that are not salty and you’ll taste all the difference! I often buy salt-dried anchovies and by the time I have soaked them in water and cleaned them, the salt is almost inexistent. For the sake of honest practice, I have to point out that even in Italy some of the best preserved anchovies actually hail from Spain. When it comes to fresh ones, however, our very own Anzio near Rome is well known for its very own yummy anchovy.
Now … once upon a time I had a boyfriend who was a very good cook and spoilt me rotten – all I had to do was lay the table and enjoy the meal! Anyway, one weekend he decided that fresh fish was in order and as we chatted and got started in the kitchen, he handed me a whole fish (probably a sea bass) to clean and gut. Qui? Moi? I thought he must be joking but no … he insisted it was a good idea for me to learn, intimating somewhat critically that I was being a bit of a precious princess about the whole thing. Hmmm. There is no point going into further detail within the context of this post — suffice it to say that I married someone else. So … how strange is it that I should now be quite happy to gut and clean dozens of teensy weensy fresh anchovies even though I could get the fishmonger to do the job for me? I always say that it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind … especially when it’s for the better. Her nature is also subject to culture, you see ….?
The following is a photo of anchovies preserved in salt. Following that is a recipe for marinading fresh anchovies.
The acidity of lemon juice or wine vinegar is enough to interact with the flesh of a raw anchovy, changing its dark grey colour to pearly white. So the marinade for this dish is either lemon juice or vinegar … I use a mixture of both. The fresh anchovies need to be cleaned, their bones and heads removed, and butterflied open. In the photos, you will see that I put them in a metal container to marinade them … a glass one would have been preferable and I apologise for this small mistake. I don’t know what the chemical reason is … all I know that glass is better than metal for marinading. When the colour of the anchovies has been transformed to pearly white (about one hour at least), they are then very gently washed with water and patted dry. Now is the time to pour olive oil over them, together with slices of garlic and parsley leaves. And sprinkle with salt (raw anchovies are not salty!). Put in the fridge and marinade for another couple of hours. Remove from the fridge at least one hour before serving.
I have sometimes added capers to this dish … or pine kernels … thin slices of oranges …. even raisins! Fresh dill is not a commonplace herb in Italy but I expect it would pair very well with this dish. I like to add a little bit of fresh chilli to it too.
Because these anchovies are slathered in olive oil, you can put any leftovers inside a glass container and keep them in the fridge for about a week. Lay one of these anchovies on a toasted piece of bread for a snack to accompany your preferred tipple for cocktail hour and voilà … you can smugly remind yourself that OMG those omega 3s are soooo good for one’s health.
Just bought at the market ….
it looks a little gruesome, I admit. This is what the anchovies look like after I have cleaned them of their bones and heads…
Squeeze lemon juice and some vinegar: enough to cover all the anchovies … when the anchovies have been ‘cooked’ by the acidity of lemon and juice and vinegar (at least one hour), pour water over them to clean them again, drain them and pat them dry with a clean tea-towel or kitchen paper.
Here is one serving suggestion: on a white background with pine kernels and parsely leaves and lots of extra virgin olive oil, and salt and a tiny bit of chilli.
another background …. fiery sicilian ceramics.
Or you could go for a very minimalist glass platter :
leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
P.S. I write this nearly two years later and the reason is that I like to update my posts when new information comes my way. Only this morning I read that it is a good idea, once you have beheaded and trimmed the fresh anchovies, to place them in a bowl containing plenty of water and lots of ice, for 30 minutes. You then proceed to sprinkle salt and lemon juice and carry on from there.