A Taste of the Sea: Marinated Anchovies

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All photographs by Vincenzo.

Here on the southeastern Peloponnesos, the hot days of summer have begun. In the village, we walk along the streets’ shaded sides or gather in the shadows of trees and buildings to visit over tiny cups of Greek coffee, a cold beer or an icy frappe. During the heat of mid-afternoon, the streets clear and become quiet and still but for the thrum of the cicadas. People wake early, work hard and then rest during the hottest hours of the day, returning to the task at hand when the heat begins to ease.

As we tune our daily routines and rhythms to accommodate the heat, I find myself craving the freshest and simplest of foods: salads of tomatoes and onions; salads of eggplant and garlic; horta vlita, or amaranth, which grows profusely in gardens this time of year and is boiled and then served cool with a healthy splash of olive oil, a bit of salt and some lemon.

At the top of my list of favorite summertime foods is the marinated anchovy or, in Greek, gavros marinatos (γαύρος μαρινάτος). I’m not referring to the tinned anchovies one can buy in the supermarket, the kind that pack a fishy, salty, pungent (and to me, delicious) punch. I’m talking about fresh anchovies that are cured quickly and either eaten on the spot or saved, packed in oil, for future consumption. Compared to their tinned brethren, marinated anchovies taste of the sea, yes, but it’s a delicate flavor, one that is balanced with the flavors of the ingredients used to cure and finish the fish. Fresh anchovies are satisfying and refreshing. They’re a wonderful addition to lunch or dinner, but they can also stand alone as a meze and are delicious with a glass of wine or ouzo.

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As it turns out, the little fish are good for you, too. Like sardines, herring and salmon, anchovies are classified as “oily fish,” which simply means that their tissue contains oil. (No reason for alarm; I mean, the good, nutritional kind of oil.) Oily fish are rich in vitamins A and D as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to heart health and to the growth and development of the brain and nervous system.

Anchovies shoal in profusion across the world’s temperate waters and are rare in very cold or very warm seas. When we are snorkeling in the quiet bays along the shoreline here, we often see them swimming in silvery schools two or three meters beneath the surface. The species we encounter in Greece is the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) and although they thrive in the waters of the Aegean (who wouldn’t?), their range includes the Atlantic coast of Europe all the way up to southern Norway.

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Like the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth and the sea urchin, anchovies were considered by the ancient Greeks and Romans to have amatory powers, particularly if eaten uncured and uncooked. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that anchovies are the primary ingredient in pasta alla puttanesca or the “prostitute’s pasta.”) In ancient Greece and Rome, the anchovy was the main ingredient in the highly nutritious fermented fish sauce known as garos (or the Latinized, garum), which was produced in industrial quantities and served as a lucrative trade item. Since ancient times, the Greeks and, indeed, people from throughout the Mediterranean, have cured a variety of foods, such as capers, olives and fish, by salting, drying or pickling them, or by using a combination of those methods. Today, they still do.

This summer, marinated anchovies have become a bit of an obsession of mine, and every time we’ve eaten out, I’ve ordered them, but until recently, I only ate them while dining out. Lately, though, Vincenzo and I began to grow curious about making them at home and so we asked various friends just how to do it, beginning with our local fishmonger, Spiros.

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What we found was a variety of approaches, all involving salt and acid (vinegar for some, lemon for others and the two together for still others). Factors that varied from person to person included the amount of salt used and the time they allowed the fish to cure. It seems everyone we spoke to cures their anchovies overnight or longer. Vincenzo, however, who is Italian, has fond memories of eating the fish just a few hours after they were caught. The recipe his mother used was with much less salt than our neighbors use here, the quick curing dependent primarily on vinegar and lemon.

Here is a very basic recipe from Spiros. It’s the approach we wound up trying in the end and the results were absolutely delicious. Of course, it can be adapted to include other herbs and spices, such as peppercorns, oregano and red pepper flakes.

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Marinated Anchovies / Γαύρος Mαρινάτος

Ingredients:

IMG_acc3-6037-1-1500 grams (approximately 1 pound) of very fresh anchovies

Course sea salt

The juice of one lemon combined with enough red wine vinegar to cover the fish

4-6 garlic cloves, cut into very thin slivers

A generous handful of parsley

Olive oil

Cleaning the fish:

Fresh anchovies deteriorate quickly, thus it’s important to clean them as soon as possible. Begin by washing the anchovies under cold water.

Pinch the head with your thumb and forefinger and remove it.

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Gut the fish by running your thumb along its belly cavity. Open the filet gently, trying to keep the fish intact—like a butterfly—rather than dividing it in half. Carefully remove the spine.

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Once again, using a colander, give the anchovies a little rinse in cold water. Place them on a plate for preparation.

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Curing the fish:

In a nonreactive dish (glass, ceramic or plastic), sprinkle a pinch or two of salt. Then, stack the fish in layers, sprinkling salt between each layer.

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Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, thoroughly rinse the fish. Wash and dry your container and return the anchovies in layers to it. Mix the vinegar with the juice of the lemon. Add enough of the mixture to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator, allowing the anchovies to cure from 6 to 12 hours, or until they have turned white.

Once again, using a colander, rinse the fish. This time, pat them with a clean towel, trying to remove as much of the water as possible. Wash and dry the container and pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom (about 1-2 tablespoons) adding a scant handful of garlic and chopped parsley to the oil.

Proceed to layer the fish in the container again, this time topping each layer with a scant handful of garlic and parsley. Pour a generous amount of olive oil into the dish—enough to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator for 3 hours or longer. At this point, the marinated anchovies are ready for your enjoyment.

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Serve with a glass of wine or ouzo and, of course, in Greece watch out for the presence of hungry cats!

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