It's time I debunk the notion that salt-packed anchovies are better than oil-packed anchovies. It simply isn't true.
The other day, I was flipping through one of my favorite cookbooks, the award-winning The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, when I came across the following passage: "We use commercial salt-packed anchovies extensively.... They are far more delicate than most commercial oil-packed fillets.... Commercial oil-packed anchovy fillets are usually quite salty and sometimes taste metallic, bitter, or muddy, or all three. The oil they are packed in generally starts out or becomes dreadful tasting."
How often have I heard and read that familiar refrain?
As recent as 10 years ago, this assertion was true regarding the paltry state of anchovies imported into the United States, most of which came from Italy. Alice Waters has specified salt-packed anchovies in all her cookbooks since her first, published in 1982. And before that, Marcella Hazan touted them in her first cookbook in 1973. However, when Judy Rodgers, a chef I hold in high esteem (and whose signature recipe for house-cured anchovies is flawless), published her cookbook in 2002, the anti-oil-packed anchovy orthodoxy was outdated.
The best anchovies in the world come from the Iberian peninsula, particularly from L'Escala on the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia, where the little fish are known as anxovas, and from the region of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay west of the Basque region, where the fish are called bocartes. The best examples from these regions are invariably filleted and packed in extra virgin olive oil.
The good news is you can find these fine anchovies in many gourmet stores in the U.S. (I buy mine locally at the amazing Bi-Rite Market, and they can be purchased from many online sources including The Spanish Table and Tienda).
If you have never liked the taste of anchovies, the bocarte or anchoa del Cantábrico, more widely available than those from L'Escala, will be a revelation. It is the José Carreras of anchovies. Its rich, bold flavor expands across your tongue just as the Catalonian tenor's notes fill an opera house. These anchovies are not for the meek.
The little fish cannot hide the fact that it cured for months in sea salt before being filleted and packed in olive oil. The resulting texture is meaty and salty, reminiscent of that other Spanish favorite, jamón ibérico de bellota, the incomparable ham made from black-hoofed pigs fed on acorns. But, unlike its tainted cousins that have sullied far too many of America's pizzas, this oil-packed anchovy's salinity is balanced by a kaleidoscope of toasted hazelnuts, caviar, Gorgonzola, country ham, Cuban cigar and sea air. It is pure umami.
The Spanish anchovies are also far superior to the Sicilian salt-packed anchovies, whose big blue and white cans labeled Acciughe Salate line the pantry of every Chez Panisse acolyte in the Bay Area (heck, I bet even that rebel Daniel Patterson uses them on occasion). Not only are the flavor and texture noticeably better, comparable to the difference between Normandy butter and Parkay margarine, but they are far more convenient to use.
That bears repeating: these oil-packed anchovies are already filleted. Even if you have never had to soak, eviscerate and debone a 1-kilo can of salt-packed anchovies as I have (many times), you will still appreciate being liberated from this rather disgusting task. Best of all, if you buy the Ortiz brand (pictured above, available from Tienda), it comes with that cute little two-pronged fork to spear the tasty morsels from the jar.
Be forewarned that fish of superior quality and ease of use come at a premium price. A 3.5 ounce/95 gram jar (with only 2 ounces/55 grams of anchovies) cost about $11. When purchased at Club de Gourmet of El Corte Inglés, the best quality anchovies are just as expensive in their native country, starting at 8€. They may be expensive (although they're less than the price of 3 Starbucks double cappuccinos), but even for the most rabid anchoviholic, a jar should provide a month's worth of pleasure.
Also, be aware that the jar or can must be stored in the refrigerator and used by the expiration date, which is approximately 1 year after the fish are packaged.
These anchovies are so good that I often eat them naked (the fish is naked, not me), adorned with no more than a few drops of extra virgin olive oil. Another favorite is to lay one anchoa fillet beside one fillet of a boquerón, the white anchovy marinated in vinegar, on top of a thin slice of toasted baguette. The combination of crunchy bread, salt, sour and umami is outrageous!
In my next entry, I will share another surprising recipe that features these tasty little fish.