A toast to the anchovy


I AM no great fan of Nigella Lawson’s TV cookery programmes, where she simpers her way through a recipe, licking her fingers in a culinary version of soft porn. Likewise, her publicity photos always remind me of the contrast with her decidedly unsvelte appearance in a burkini on Bondi Beach 13 years ago.

Having said that, the old girl is remarkably sound on one of the most divisive of foodstuffs – the anchovy.

I have been inordinately fond of this little fish ever since as a youth I sampled Gentleman’s Relish. Also known as Patum Peperium, the savoury spread was invented in 1828 by an Englishman, John Osborn. Produced by Elsenham Foods in north-west Essex, it is at least 60 per cent anchovies, with butter, herbs and spices. It is claimed, although I doubt it, that only one Elsenham employee at a time is entrusted with the ‘secret’ recipe.

On first tasting I was taken aback by its sheer salty strength, but I persevered and was soon an addict along with many others – getting on for a million pots a year are sold, mostly for export. Elsenham also produce a smoked-salmon-based Poacher’s Relish and a heavy-on-the-smoked-mackerel Angler’s Relish, but I’ll stick with the Gentleman’s, thank you very much.

In my opinion the addition of anchovies to a Caesar salad turns it into a dish to set before a king, giving it complexity and depth. I have, however, heard people in Pizza Express asking the waiter for extra dressing ‘and hold the anchovies’, tempting me to ask: ‘Can I have theirs?’

Similarly, what would a Bloody Mary or even a glass of plain tomato juice be without generous dashes of Worcestershire Sauce, whose flavour owes much to the anchovy?

There are more than 140 species, found in temperate waters throughout the world and ranging from an inch to 15 inches long. The European anchovy thrives in the Mediterranean and is a significant food source for predatory fish, marine mammals and birds, as well as humans.

In the Black Sea alone, some 300,000 tons a year are caught by the Turkish fishing fleet, mainly in November and December. That’s a hell of a lot of anchovies.

Traditionally the fish are filleted and brined before they are packed in oil or salt. They can also be pickled in vinegar, which makes for a milder flavour. No thanks.

A few Christmases ago I was given a copy of Nigella Lawson’s book Cook, Eat, Repeat. By the way, what a crappy title. I often repeat after eating, particularly black pudding, corned beef, mushy peas or cheese-and-onion sandwiches. Now where was I? Oh yes.

In a chapter titled A is for Anchovy, our Nige writes: ‘Few other ingredients arrive in the kitchen with such confrontational pungency, and yet manage to imbue so many dishes with transformational subtlety [does she really write this stuff herself?] The bacon of the sea (and how I wish I could claim this coinage as my own, or even remember whom to credit for it), the anchovy’s initial attack lies in its fierce and uncompromising saltiness, it’s true, but it packs a double punch: after that first hit of saline intensity comes richness and depth, that resounding, flavour-enhancing savouriness we have learned to call umami. I think of it rather as oomph, another word that is deliciously satisfying to pronounce.

‘The oomph of anchovies is undeniable. I am talking here not of fresh anchovies, the marinated alici of Italy or boquerones of Spain, but rather the salted or cured version, those mink-brown strips of almost caramelly saltiness that come chiefly in tins.

‘Much as I feel there is scarcely a savoury dish that couldn’t be improved by them, I am aware that anchovies instil disgust in many. The criticism generally levelled against them is that they are too fishy, which seems to me a slightly unfair way to criticise a fish. It’s true, undeniably so, that the pungency of anchovies can alarm many people, but melt them in olive oil at the start of making a stew and when you, hours later, eat it, neither pungency nor fishiness is the quality you’d detect. Rather, they dissolve into the dish bringing a rounded, almost oaky saltiness.’

One of the simplest ways to enjoy anchovies is on toast, and here Melissa Clark of the New York Times does it her way. Blimey, watching her tucking in makes me ready for my tea.

Back to La Lawson for how to transform a dish of red peppers, roasted in the oven and peeled. ‘I warm a little extra-virgin olive oil in a small pan, melt some anchovies in it – by melting, I mean add anchovy fillets and stir them around in the warm (not hot) oil until they dissolve into it, mince or grate in a clove or two of garlic and continue stirring for a scant minute, making sure that the garlic doesn’t colour. Take the pan off the heat and add some more olive oil and a drop of vinegar – Moscatel, red wine, sherry, whichever vinegar you prefer, or indeed lemon juice – and pour this warm dressing, murky, yes, but full of flavour, over the waiting peppers.’ Yum.

Do you remember when you couldn’t turn the telly on without seeing Antony Worrall Thompson’s craggy visage? That all changed after, in 2012, he received a police caution for repeated offences of shoplifting from Tesco in Henley-on-Thames. I am inclined to forgive him because a) he was a Brexiteer and b) came up with this recipe in his book The ABC of AWT.

Roast cod with anchovy and garlic. Preparation and cooking, 30 min. Serves four.


175ml (6 fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, cracked with a little salt

1kg (2¼lb) cod fillet, cut into 5cm (2in) cubes

4 tbsp chopped parsley

1 tbsp chopped capers

1 tbsp chopped tinned anchovies [I recommend more]

2 fresh green chillies, finely chopped

1 tsp lemon juice

Salt and ground black pepper.


‘Heat the oil in deep frying pan, add the garlic and cook over a moderate heat until it begins to colour.

‘Add the cod with half the parsley, the capers, anchovies and chilli and continue to cook until the oil begins to boil. Reduce the heat to low and swirl the pan so the pieces of fish move around in the sauce. This allows the fish to release its gelatine and the oil to emulsify, forming a sauce, about six minutes. Finally add the remaining parsley and season with lemon juice, salt and black pepper according to taste.’

This, I can confirm, is delicious. If only there were more fish eaters in our family I would make it every week.

Finally, an incredibly simple recipe from the French Kitchen Cookbook by Patricia Wells.

Anchovy Cream

Yield: ½ cup


• 1 2.82 ounce [80 grams] jar of Italian anchovy fillets in olive oil, about 20 small fillets
• 1 tablespoon capers in vinegar, drained
• ¼ cup single cream


Combine the ingredients in a food processor and reduce to a chunky consistency.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days. Use as a dip or sandwich spread, or bung it on a baked potato. 

Old jokes’ home

Last year I went on a ballooning holiday. Put on four stone.

A PS from PG

[The boxer]‘Alf Todd,’ said Ukridge, soaring to an impressive burst of imagery, ‘has about as much chance as a one-armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild-cat’s ear with a red-hot needle.’

PG Wodehouse: Ukridge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *