Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

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Size doesn’t matter

Anchovies are small, but they’re leaving more and more people satisfied

The next time you order a pizza, be sure to tell your server “don’t hold the anchovies.” Even if you have to hold your nose, the time is now to consume this rich, pungent fish before we lose it altogether. Never mind that hundreds of millions of tonnes of the critters are caught each year, fishmongers are finding it difficult, even impossible, to get any at all. “We get asked all the time for anchovies,” said Dylan McCulloch, co-owner of the Daily Catch (1418 Commercial Drive; tel: 604-253-3474; dailycatch.org) in Vancouver. “I’ve called all my suppliers, but we can’t get them.”

Instead of served up freshly grilled on toast or salted and cured in olive oil for making fragrant tomato sauce, the plentiful stocks of anchovies that are caught each year are turned into fishmeal to feed livestock and farmed fish or, given their high omega-3 content, processed for fish-oil supplements.

It’s no wonder: in a world dominated by bland farmed salmon and ho-hum shrimp, most of us have forgotten to enjoy the anchovy in all its olfactory glory.

But now a small group of fans is trying to resurrect a centuries-old tradition of dining on this oily and nutritious seafood. Some, like chef Lee Humphries formerly of Vancouver’s C Restaurant (2-1600 Howe Street; tel: 604-681-1164; crestaurant.com) have overcome a childhood hatred of the tinned fish. Raised in northern England, he buys as much northern Pacific anchovies as he can from small BC fisheries during the brief midsummer season each year. He and his staff clean, process, cure and pack the year’s worth of stock as soon as the catch — mainly fished for bait — is in.

“It’s a labour of love,” said Humphries, “but the anchovy is the perfect seasoning.” He uses it as a pasta-sauce base and on salads, and in lamb seasoned with mint and anchovy, a cold-weather classic. “It’s not fishy, but clean-tasting.”

Plenty of the anchovies in the sea

The northern Pacific anchovy is prized among some chefs for its superior flavour, but not all anchovies are created equal. There’s the European anchovy from Spain, Italy and Portugal. Usually packed in oil or salt, it’s a less odorous specimen, appreciated locally and abroad. When salt-cured and marinated in vinegar to produce a milder flavour, it becomes the so-called white anchovy, named for its colour.

But by far the most common species is the lowly anchoveta from Peru, which, due to years of industrial fishing and cheap processing, gained a reputation as a foul-smelling turnoff. “It tasted bad, looked bad and was badly packed,” said marine conservationist and Peru native Patricia Majluf.

Majluf directs the Centre for Environmental Sustainability at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima and is leading a collaboration with the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia to bring the fish back to the table.

Working with an international network of producers, environmentalists, fishmongers and chefs, the plan is to produce a premium product that will change public sentiment and rejuvenate small-scale fisheries in Peru. Processing is key; the fish are salted and put in a barrel to cure for six months. The result is far from malodorous. “They look and taste more like sardines, and a lot of people say when you open the can no one can tell they’re anchovies,” she said.

Peru’s fishlift

Peru once had the world’s biggest fishery, the anchovy industry, but overfishing nearly destroyed it. Even today, quotas need constant assessment to ensure stocks replenish. “We need to fish less anchovy and send more just for us [instead of for feed],” said Majluf.

It was impossible to get anchoveta in Peru for decades, however, because all of it went to fishmeal and supplements. But, in the six years since bringing quality anchoveta to the public, Majluf has seen an increase in demand.

Chef Gastón Acurio is an enthusiast. A culinary ambassador with dozens of Peruvian restaurants around the world — Astrid y Gastón in Lima made S. Pellegrino’s 2013 list of the top 50 restaurants in the world — he’s a vocal champion, serving it as tapas or in appetizers like olives stuffed with anchovy.

Majluf estimates that about 2 percent or 200,000 tonnes of Peruvian anchovies are now reserved for human consumption. “It’s very little, but when you look at it in terms of global marine catches, we managed to make this change very quickly.”

Majluf is ready to bring the anchoveta to North America — and it could solve a problem for Dan Donovan of the Hooked fish shop (two locations, 888 Queen Street East and Baldwin Street; tel: 416-828-1861/551-2755; hookedinc.ca) in Toronto.

Donovan loves anchovies but finds it difficult to get his hands on them, particularly because his shop, like C Restaurant and the Daily Catch, only sells responsibly sourced seafood. European anchovies are often on “not recommended” lists by watchdogs like Ocean Wise (oceanwise.ca), a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program that educates consumers about sustainable seafood, due to overfishing. (Donovan occasionally stocks European anchovies from sustainable supplies.)

Although Donovan knows “it’s hard to have feelings for an anchovy,” he urges clients to challenge their taste buds and give it a try.

But he also has a warning. “Abandoning these sources of fish protein as fishmeal puts enormous pressures on the food system,” he said.

He’s right. Reports show that farmed fish is on the brink of eclipsing wild-caught fish in human diets — and those cultivated species need unsustainable amounts of wild fish to grow. When you think about it though, why eat farmed flesh when you can instead relish the singular anchovy?

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