One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.
One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughe sott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughe sott’olio from an alimentari: they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.
Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.
Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.
- 1 kilo fresh anchovies
- course salt
- red wine vinegar
- EV olive oil.
First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.
Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container – I used a large earthenware gratin dish. Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.
As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.
Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.
The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.