Long considered a ‘poor’ fish compared to the lobsters, soles and sea breams of this world, anchovies have gained in favour in recent years as the health benefits of oily fish have become apparent. Rich in vitamin A, omega 3, calcium and potassium, among other substances, they also have one of the most delicate flavours of all the Clupeidae, or herring-like fish, and are well-suited to preserving in oil and salting.
British food writer Jane Grigson laments the fact that fresh anchovies are rare sights in fishmongers outside of the Mediterranean countries. This has little to do with the distribution of the species (the Atlantic is teeming with anchovies) and a lot to do with tradition and culture: “although there are plenty of them”, Grigson writes, “no one bothers to catch them”.
This needs changing. Lobby your local fishmonger, and in the meantime, to whet your appetite, here’s a recipe for a simple yet delicious anchovy antipasto or starter courtesy of Le Sirenuse’s executive chef, Matteo Temperini. The difference from most other Italian oil-and-lemon marinades is that in this case the lemons are preserved in a solution of sugar and salt – lending them a perfumed, sweet and sour taste that perfectly complements the fishy tang of the anchovies. Bear in mind that these need to be left to marinade for around 40 days. If you’re lucky, the fishmonger may even have tracked down some anchovies by then.
For the anchovies:
For the preserved lemons:
First, several weeks in advance, prepare your preserved lemons. Make a sugar syrup using 100g of the sugar and the 200ml of water. Bring it to the boil, and leave to cool. Cut the lemons into quarters along their lengths, leaving them attached at the stem end so they open like reluctant flowers. Mix together the remaining salt (20g) and the sugar, and rub this mix vigorously into the inner, cut surfaces of the lemon. Place them in a glass jar so that they fit tightly, and pour the sugar syrup over them to cover (if you find you don’t have enough syrup, make up some more using the same proportions – half the weight of sugar to water). Put the jar in the fridge and leave for at least 40 days.
When you are ready to make the marinated anchovies, clean the anchovies (or ask your fishmonger to do so), removing the heads, the tails and the fins, then, using your thumb, open out the fish along its belly into two fillets, removing the backbone but leaving both fillets joined at one end.
Place the fillets on a shallow dish, sprinkle the fleur de sel salt and the sugar over them, and leave for 15 minutes. Wash them, pat them dry and put them into a sealed container with the oil and thyme to marinade for an hour or so. Then lay them out on a plate.
Then take one of the lemons from your preserving jar, cut off two of the quarters, and scoop out the pulp, removing the tough membranes, and finely grate the zest. Sprinkle the fragments of pulp and the grated zest over the anchovies, adding more thyme, oil and pepper to taste.
Note that the preserved lemons are delicious in other recipes too – to give an exotic twist to a mixed salad, or on spaghetti with plenty of parsley and good olive oil.