Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021

© Cinda Chavich

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More anchovies, please

Authentic Italian flavour begins on the Amalfi Coast

Salty anchovies are one of the world’s elemental flavours: the savoury secret to a classic Caesar salad or Neapolitan pizza, and the jolt of umami in your Worcestershire sauce.

But have you ever wondered how each tiny fillet finds its way into those little jars, standing as stiff as soldiers behind the glass?

Exploring the world of anchovies in Cetara, a fishing village along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, answers that culinary conundrum and more. This is ground zero for a food lover’s exploration of anchovies, where the flashy little fish, in all of its guises, turn up on nearly every plate.

Our first stop is Delfino Battista, an artisan producer of the cured fish. We comb through the little shop and sample traditional products, nibbling salted anchovies on crusty bread and drizzling it with pungent colatura, the golden extract that has been pressed from salted fish since ancient Greeks and Romans first created garum, the original fermented fish sauce.

Salted anchovies, marinated white anchovies, alicette di Cetara with hot peppers and garlic — the Battista family has been producing these gourmet delicacies for more than 60 years. And to say that preserving and packing perfect anchovies is a “hands-on” process is no exaggeration.

We stop to watch a small group of women prepare the salted anchovies, removing the skin and bones by hand. The brick-coloured fillets are then carefully placed, one by one, in the small jars, their tails hanging over the rims to keep them upright as the vessels are filled. Each woman sits at a stainless steel table, a pile of finger-sized fish and a small scale at her side, a tangle of tiny skeletons in her wake.

In another corner, one woman is packing the fresh, silvery fish with handfuls of coarse sea salt, the first step in creating the regional specialty, colatura di alici. The local Cistercian Monks first developed this golden Italian fish sauce, layering the anchovies with salt in small chestnut kegs called terzigno and pressing out the fermenting juices. After several months, the bucket is tapped, releasing droplets of the amber liquor, just 1000 litres are bottled here each year.

In southern Italy, it’s liquid gold, the essence of anchovies that is the secret ingredient of Campania. We taste it tossed with olive oil, garlic, crushed chilies, lemon and parsley in the region’s famous dish, spaghetti Colatura, sprinkled on garlicky sautéed greens, drizzled over boiled potatoes and used to season the holiday dish of linguine with broccoli rabe. Like Asian fish sauces, even a few drops add a jolt of savoury flavour to food.

Coastal pleasures

Tuna has also been fished and preserved in the region since the Middle Ages so we feast on other local dishes like pasta with tuna, tomatoes and olives, and hearty fish and faro soups. But anchovies are king and landed all along the picturesque Amalfi Coast and define the cooking of the region. We savour the intense local pesto of chopped pine nuts, olives, anchovies and salted capers, and order fresh anchovies, anchovies that are stuffed with ricotta and deep fried, or rolled and marinated with citrus juices using another Amalfi specialty, lemons.

The Strada Statale 163 that winds along the southern Italian coastline offers spectacular views of Amalfi’s terraced lemon groves that cling to steep, rocky cliffs which plunge nearly vertically into the blue Mediterranean Sea. It’s no surprise that the state road that connects Cetara to Positano is considered one of the world’s finest drives.

In Maiori, where Romans once crossed at Ponte Primario, we climb ancient stone stairs into orchards where the prized local Sfusato Amalfitano lemons and thick-skinned Cedro lemons hang heavy on the trees under wooden pergolas. There are 300 small growers in the consortium and pickers still carry the fruit down from these rocky heights in heavy boxes on their backs to the buyers in town.

We stroll the central plaza along Corso Reginna and admire the colourful majolica tiles covering the massive dome on the church of Santa Maria a Mare then duck into a small restaurant for spaghetti dressed in anchovy sauce with black olives and bitter lemon, fresh cheese grilled in little sandwiches of charred lemon leaves, and sponge cake oozing sweet lemon curd, served with a shot of locally-made limoncello liqueur.

At our overnight stop at Hotel Villa Maria in the stunning hilltop town of Ravello, we cook our own dinner at a cooking class with chef Vincenza Amatruda, steaming local mussels with garlic, and braising small Muscardini octopus with olives, cherry tomatoes, capers and dried anchovies, Luciano-style.

The rich and famous have long chosen Ravello as a hideaway. Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Jacqueline Kennedy holidayed here, and cruising the Amalfi coast brings to mind the romantic era of the Grand Tour. When we arrive in Amalfi itself, the sun is just about to set, the warm light saturating gelato-coloured houses along the waterfront.

We climb the steps of the Duomo di Sant’Andrea, its bronze Byzantine doors glowing beneath the intricately-patterned marble façade. The clouds hanging over the rocky coastline turn from pink to fuchsia while we watch local fishers dip their long rods into the sea from spots along the historic ramparts. It’s a last reminder of the maritime history of this popular resort town, one of many along this spectacular coastline still dependent on the wild tuna, mackerel and anchovies of the Mediterranean.

And it’s the best place to discover Italy’s finest fish products, especially those little anchovies, packed so perfectly into every jar.

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