The Curious Cook

Anchovies: a love story

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One of my favourite food-related memories is a Sunday morning breakfast my mother and I used to love. We usually slept in and, still in our pyjamas, make tea and toast. Without giving it much thought, this was a habit that later became a ritual. It wasn’t a big deal, but the effortlessly chic way my mother did it is really quite memorable.

She would make Ceylon tea (in leaf form) in a Chinese tea pot with a bamboo handle. It was printed with chrysanthemums and a plumed pheasant in rusty colours. We poured the tea through a cone-shaped bamboo tea strainer that we got as a present from my Vietnamese aunt. With the tea we served some seed loaf toast, thickly spread with butter, which melted into it, and pungent anchovette, which didn’t. She always cut the slices along the diagonal so it was easier to pick up with one hand. When the weather was fine, we arranged everything on a lacquer tray and enjoyed it in the garden with the dogs, soaking up some sunshine. During the colder months, we just had it in her bed, throwing the lace bedspread to one side. And as I grew older, I would make it for the both of us.

When you think about it, anchovette is rather an odd sort of thing. Like Marmite, it is an integral part of South African food culture that we inherited from the Brits. An Ancient Roman precursor was allec, a liquid seasoning made from oily fish including anchovies used in almost every Apician dish. Nowadays anchovy paste forms part of the cuisine of the Philippines and is a major export of Morocco of all places.

As it turns out, the most memorable meal of my life included anchovies. When I was nine years old, we visited my uncle’s large stone house in the Catalonia region of Spain. My uncle’s neighbour, a jolly and corpulent farmer called Vicente and his reserved, rosy cheeked wife Lola invited us over for breakfast. The piece de resistance was a clutch of silvery fresh anchovies Vicente’s cousin had caught just the day before. Smacking of the sea, they were gutted but kept intact to be grilled over the fire in the hearth with a wooden toasting fork. Succulent with a charred and crispy skin, I have never, before or since, tasted such magnificent fish.

In fact, so much happened on that memorable day I kind of want to stop telling you about it. (You can look out for the full story at a later date!) I recently made a surprisingly simple yet amazing sauce for the first time – salsa verde. Made with both anchovies and capers, it doesn’t really taste of either. It just becomes something entirely of itself. This is the magic of anchovies, they can be quite overwhelming if eaten with something plain like pizza (which is why so many people don’t like them), but if you combine them with other strong flavours, they add a really special umami note to your dish.

A perfect case in point is roast lamb with anchovies and rosemary. Using a short, sharp knife, make little incisions into the raw joint, into which you tuck in turns a sliver of garlic, a sprig of rosemary or half an anchovy. This impregnates the meat with the most delicious flavours that doesn’t taste fishy at all.

But my most recent discovery gets the prize for using anchovies in the best way possible. I was thinking about anchovette and how I seem to have outgrown it. So how could I make my own? It was then that that I stumbled upon the simplest idea – to combine anchovies and parsley with soft butter. Unbelievably delectable. I am so in love with it that I jealously guard my little Arabia jam pot in which it now lives.

Try it on various types of toast: it’s perfect on sourdough ciabatta, more old-school on seed loaf and classic on rye. I love it with scrambled or boiled eggs, reminiscent of a classic British dish called Scotch woodcock. It elevates plain baked rice served with chicken or fish and it would be stellar served as a melting coin on a freshly grilled steak. Here’s how to make it.

ANCHOVY BUTTER

200g unsalted butter

60g of anchovies (about three quarters of a little jar-full)

A handful of Italian parsley

Allow the butter to reach room temperature. Add to a mixing bowl. Chop the anchovies fairly finely and add to the bowl. Chop the parsley very finely and also add. Using a wooden spoon, whip the butter until creamy and light, incorporating the anchovies and parsley as you go.

You can also use a food processor to do this, which will result in a more homogenous butter.

Decant into a jar or, if possible, a porcelain crock with a lid. This will keep in the fridge for a good long while and can be frozen. Bring to room temperature as required.

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