Illustrated Step-by-Step: How To Salt Anchovies, Ligurian-Style

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  • 01 of 05

    Start with fresh anchovies

    Acciughe, Fresh Anchovies
    Acciughe, Fresh Anchovies. Kyle Phillips © 2006 Licensed to About.Com

    The coastal region of Liguria boasts some of the most rugged topography in Italy, a steady succession of high mountains plunging to the sea, and as a result the population lives mostly in the valley mouths, drawing some sustenance from the flatter parts of the valley floors, and the remainder from the sea. One of the most important seasonal catches was the anchovy: For most of the year anchovies are pelagic fish that live far out to sea in deep water.

    However, during the mating season (summer) they move closer to shore and school, especially at night, and Ligurian fishermen discovered that though they are drawn to the light of the moon, they will also come to a lantern. At Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre, the catch was especially important; they would set out in several rowboats, and while the small boats with lights brought the fish together, another would row around the school, dropping a net with floats above and weights below that formed a circular curtain, as it were, which could be drawn tight from beneath to form a fish-filled bowl.

    The fishermen would scoop their catch, which was called Pan do Ma (bread from the sea), into barrels, and bring it home.

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  • 02 of 05

    Prepare the anchovies

    Salting Anchovies: Beheading Them
    Salting Anchovies: Beheading Them. © Kyle Phillips Licensed to About.Com

    The anchovies thus caught were used in all sorts of ways, with a significant fraction of the catch being salted and packed away for less fruitful times.

    "The salting must begin as soon as possible after the boats reach shore, and not more than 12 hours from the time the fish were caught," said Simone Bava, professor of Marine Fishing Biology, who also works with the Osservatorio Ligure Pesca e Ambiente (and did the research that led to the Acciuga Sotto Sale del Mar Ligure's obtaining IGP status), when he demonstrated the technique at Slowfood's Salone del Gusto.

    The anchovies to be salted should be fairly large, a bit less than an ounce, and Simone said the custom is to count them -- 50 to a kilo, or about 22 to a pound. The fishing families salt anchovies by the barrel. You will likely not have this many, but you will want at least 5 pounds and possibly 10 pounds.

    In addition to fresh anchovies you will need coarse-grained pickling salt, and a container (wood, glass, or a terracotta pickling crock).

    Take your first fish, grip it at the level of the eyes, and bend the head back.

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  • 03 of 05

    Remove the heads

    Salting Anchovies: The Mandibular Arch
    Salting Anchovies: The Mandibular Arch. © Kyle Phillips Licensed to About.Com

    The head will snap off, bringing the intestines with it. Do not worry if something is left behind, because the salt will sterilize everything in any case.

    If you have done this correctly, the mandibular arch will remain, as shown here, forming a smooth curved surface. Do not twist the head side-to-side or forward, because doing so will tear away part of the fish. Wipe the anchovy clean (or rinse it and pat it dry) and put it in the salting vessel, on its side.

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  • 04 of 05

    Pack and salt the fish in layers

    Salting Anchovies: Layering Them
    Salting Anchovies: Layering Themm. © Kyle Phillips Licensed to About.Com

    Remove the head of the next anchovy and put it next to the first, oriented the same way, leaving just a little space between fish. When you have finished with the first layer (if your container is broad you will also have rows, nose to tail), sprinkle enough salt over them to cover them partially -- you want to be able to see the fish through the salt.

    Arrange the next layer of anchovies perpendicular to the first, sprinkle salt over them too, and continue until the jar is full. Set a weight (for example a heavy plate) over the fish; the weight will keep the fish from expanding, and will also keep them submerged by the brine that will form as the salt draws moisture from their flesh. In alternative to a weight, if you are using a small container of the size pictured here you can use one of the plastic depressors that go between lid and food, and serve to keep the food submerged.

    In terms of how much salt, it is difficult to give exact quantities, but Dr. Bava said an egg should float in the brine.

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  • 05 of 05

    Cure and serve

    Ligurian Salted Anchovies: Ready!
    Ligurian Salted Anchovies: Ready!. © Kyle Phillips Licensed to About.Com

    The fish should cure for at least 40 days, if it's warm - but not too hot - and for about 60 if it's cooler, and Dr. Bava says that in really warm weather they're best kept in the fridge. Once cured they will keep for a year.

    To serve the salted anchovies, rinse them off, bone them to obtain anchovy fillets, sprinkle good extra virgin olive oil over them, and serve them at the beginning of the meal. Or, serve them on toast, as a tasty antipasto or party food.

    Note: This technique is not exclusive to Liguria. Catanians do something very similar with the anchovies they catch in the Golfo di Catania (though they sometimes season theirs with pepper in addition to salt), and I think one could also salt sardines or other small blue fish using this technique.