Little Fish Swimming Under Oil. Preserving Fresh Anchovies.

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:Ā  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.
  • garlic
  • herbs

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.Ā  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.

Miss Daisy, 9 years old, anchovy connoisseur. After school treats for the Kitchen Princess.

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.

 

 

Lost in Lake Como

Along the journey, I lost my way, though not in any real or physical sense. I lost my writing muse, a frequent visitor to my early morning half wakefulness. She still made some attempts, and suggested I take up the pen again but being out of touch with that older, and more time-consuming form of editing, I repelled her constant intrusions.

This drastic shift in daily habit came about due to the absence of WiFi. Our friend, SK, had generously offered us his house on Lake Como, and along with it, a non functional internet service. Ironically, this same friend is an IT programmer and when he left Como to return to London, he assured us that the internet would be up and runningĀ within a day. It didn’t happen, and while I don’t wish to sound terribly ungrateful for the opportunity to live in his gorgeous house just up the road from George Clooney, the internet free time had profound consequences.

During the first two days, I became extremely anxious and fidgety and came to understand my addiction as a physical thing, not unlike addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or obsessive behaviour. I felt totally lost and cut off and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had been permanently connected for the previous 12 years, including during visits to the Australian outback and along remote stretches of the Mekong River in Thailand. After some tearful moments, I was ready to leave Lake Como.

Slowly things improved as I adjusted to the reality of the situation. We were staying in the small village of Laglio, some distance from the larger towns dotted around Lake Como. Our village was in November mode, with only one operating osteria and a tiny alimenatari with totally random opening hours, both a kilometre or so away. There were no internet cafes to tap into and the supposed community WiFi service near the bus stop was dysfunctional. So we walked, and asked more questions, and bought newspapers again, and read timetables on walls and at Batello stations. The nearest ferry stop was 2.5 kilometres away: the ferry left and returned three times a day and was the only reliable way in and out of the village. We never mastered the buses due to lack of faith or trust. We did have a car, but left it safely locked up in the garage, given theĀ Lake’s goat track and hair pinned roads and serious dearth of parking. Getting out of the village meant access to other towns, tourist brochures, and a variety of restaurants, often stumbled upon and not tediously researched. We walked at least 10 kilometres a day in our search for food, services and information.

Knowing how to relax. No phone.

And as the week went by, I noticed a few things. I slept really well. I thought nothing of walking the 5 kilometers round trip to catch a ferry, even in the rain. Or walking late at night to the only winter surviving restaurant at Laglio. I became fit. I read Italian newspapers back to back, and read the books laying idle on my Kindle. And then I stopped writing.

Don’t pay the ferryman.
Another village along the edge of Lake Como

In hindsight, I enjoyed the break and intend to do this more often. Even when reconnected once we arrived in Pavia, my addiction had abated and I rarely tapped into the service.

How do you cope, dear reader, when the internet is unavailable? Do you feel anxious, or relieved to have a break from constant communication and availability?

The Outback and The Black Sheep of Burra

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On the way to the Flinders Ranges and the South Australian outback, it is customary to stay in the historic town of Burra. In the past, and I mean less than ten years ago, Burra was a sleepy historic town: attractive, but definitely ‘olde worlde’. Ā Today, the town is buzzing with new energy. More old houses in the back streets are being restored, the Burra Hotel has a new publican and chef , and the arrival of an Italian Osteria in an old tin shed is an exciting addition to the town. One can sense the brio!Ā  Given that Burra is only 200 kilometres from Adelaide, it was bound to happen.

The Burra Hotel: Micheal the new manager is bound to do well.
The Burra Hotel. Michael, the new manager, is a friendly chap with vision.

After setting up camp at the central but extremely basic camping ground in town, we wandered the historic streets of Burra in search of a cleansing ale, or to be precise, a cleansing Coopers Pale Ale. Ā This search wasn’t long or arduous. The Burra Hotel is centrally located Ā and has had a makeover since our last visit, but still retains that old pub feel, Ā that is, spruced up but not gentrified. Michael, the new publican, had just taken over some days before and he certainly enjoys a chat. The menu looked great, and we would have stayed, but something caught my eye on the way : this sign, on this shed.

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An osteria, La Pecora Nera, in the middle of a little outback town? A beacon in the twilight. Off we trotted after our beers to find a packed and thriving authentic pizzeria and osteria complete with domed wood fired oven and a noisy, convivial atmosphere. We were seated at one of the larger communal tables. Wine is displayed on the wall shelving, so it’s a matter of choosing one and taking it to the table. Our 2009 Mt Surmon Nebbiolo from nearby Claire was the perfect wine for the occasion. Ā ( $35.00)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter ordering, a plate of rustic wood firedĀ bread, drizzled with good oil, arrived at the table. Really good bread, really good oil. Then a Pizza perfetta arrives, a Napolitana with a fine, thin crusted base, ( $17.00) large enough for two.

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We ordered a delicious cheesecake to share and then the lovely Clare did the rounds of all the tables with her limoncello bottle. Ā It’s mid week and no one wants to go home.

Clare and her partner Paolo run this successful osteria: Paolo is the pizzaiolo and Clare makes everyone happy with little extras. It is indeed authentically Italian. Suddenly we feel like guests at her party.

Clare of La Pecora Nera
Clare of La Pecora Nera

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI can’t wait to go back to Burra, but next time for a longer stay, to walk around the town at leisure and to stay in a little renovated Cornish miner’s cottage.