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Good things 4: the anchovies of Cetara

15.03.2015. Best of the Coast

Around halfway between Amalfi and Salerno, Cetara is, from the coast road, no more than a watchtower, a splash of colourful houses and a fishing port. It’s the latter that still provides many cetaresi with their livelihood – and makes it one of the few villages on the Costiera that is not dependent on tourism. Look carefully and you’ll see some serious seagoing vessels among the jaunty wooden fishing boats. The largest are the tuna trawlers, which ply the Mediterranean, sometimes venturing as far as Sicily and beyond. Other boats land octopus, pezzogna and squid, among a huge variety of fish and seafood that end up on the tables of some of the coast’s leading restaurants.

Cetara 01

But it’s the unassuming anchovy, or alice, that is Cetara’s real speciality. Fished between March and August, and either preserved in olive oil or salted and packed in small wooden barrels or terracotta jars, these once provided much-needed protein right through the winter, when the fishing boats were often confined to port; they were also easily transported to Naples and further afield. The real delicacy, though, was something that until recently the cetaresi kept to themselves: colatura di alici. Closely related to the celebrated Ancient Roman fish sauce known as garum, this powerful concoction was a by-product of the anchovy salting process, as over the course of several months each barrel would produce a small, intense fish juice run-off, of a lovely amber colour, which Cetara families would bottle in small phials and exchange as Christmas presents.

Today, the fame of colatura has spread and it is now produced commercially, though still in minute quantities – not surprising given that you need 40 kilos of fish to decant just 5 litres of the sauce.

Cetara 02

Nettuno, run by Vincenzo and Giulio Giordano, is one of the leading producers of salted anchovies and colatura. It's also a founder member of Amici delle Alici ('Friends of the Anchovies'), an association dedicated to preserving, documenting and spreading knowledge about Cetara's age-old association with the versatile oily fish. Giulio explains the salting process to me: after being scapezzate (cleaned and de-headed), the anchovies are laid head to tail in traditional small chestnut barrels, alternating a layer of anchovies and a layer of salt, then covered with a close-fitting wooden lid, the tompagno, that is weighed down by a rock or large river pebble. At regular intervals, the liquid that gathers on the surface is gathered and placed in jars that are exposed to direct sunlight, concentrating the sauce. Finally, generally towards the end of October, this liquid is poured back over the anchovies in the barrel, picking up even more flavour and intensity as it trickles down. It’s gathered once more via a small hole that is drilled in the bottom of the barrel with an implement called a vriala.

Cetara 03

Giulio shows me proudly around the small workroom where his helpers, signora Angela and signora Raffaella, work patiently through a glistening heap of silver anchovies. A decade ago, Cetara’s celebrated colatura di alici was registered as a food praesdium by Italy’s Slow Food organisation – a status awarded to traditional food products that are on the endangered list, or in need of marketing and distribution support. This is an important recognition, but it also carries a responsibility, as traditional methods must be followed for the product to qualify for the presidio label. “That’s not a problem for us”, says Giulio simply. “We make our colatura and we salt our anchovies just as our grandfathers did”. He leaves me with a southern Italian saying that anyone who has seen Giuseppe Tornatore’s early film Stanno tutti bene will recognise, and there’s a twinkle in his eye as he says it: “Il vino si fa anche con l’uva” – “You can make wine with grapes too”. The subtext being, why try to cut corners and fool your customers when, with a little more effort and a lot more self-respect, you can make genuine products the way they’re supposed to be made?

Nettuno, Corso Umberto I 64, Cetara; tel +39 089 261 147

Pictures: © Roberto Salomone

P. IVA IT: 02397010659