FOOD & DRINK / Worth their salt: Fresh, cured or marinated: there's no fish so versatile as the diminutive silver anchovy. Geraldene Holt investigates

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The Independent Culture
FRESH anchovies were on sale in the south of France last summer. They suddenly appeared in my local market, a heap of slim, pale silver fish just three to four inches long. We bought some, and after beheading and cleaning the fish, tossed them in flour and quickly fried them, Greek style, in olive oil until their skins were crisp. Fresh anchovies taste delicious, with a peppery, delicately gamey flavour.

One of the smallest members of the herring family, the anchovy, Engraulis encrasicolus, has long been an important catch in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. It occasionally appears off the south coast but is regarded as of little value here. But in Greece, the gavros seller with his baskets of freshly caught anchovies balanced on his motor scooter supplies the main ingredient of psaria tiyanita, a popular inexpensive dish of fried, small fish.

Greece has always prized anchovies. The ancients doted on them, according to the Classical scholar and American food writer Waverley Root, who observed that aphye is the fish most often mentioned in Greek texts. For centuries in the Mediterranean, anchovies have been preserved by layering them with salt, which imparts a fine intensity of flavour.

In Crete, the traditional method of brining is still practised. Fresh anchovies with their heads and innards removed are covered with heavy brine and left in the sun until the brine crystallises. Then the fish are packed into barrels and left for up to a year while the curing process turns the white flesh to reddish brown. Rosemary Barron, author of Flavours of Greece (Ebury pounds 17.99), says that a good anchovy packer uses the same brine several times and the secret of Greek anchovies lies in this recycling.

In open markets round the Mediterranean salted anchovies are sold straight from the barrel. Shops in Cyprus also sell whole anchovies in flat, round blue tins, the fish packed like the spokes of a wheel. In Turkey the anchovies all seem to be bigger; they are crammed into large, flat oblong tins. French packers specialise in small glass jars for brined anchovies which are stored chilled. Before being eaten, each fish needs to be well rinsed in cold water and filleted.

Increasingly, this operation has become part of the fish canning industry of the Mediterranean. The rinsed anchovy fillets are packed into jars or small shallow tins and covered with olive oil and exported worldwide. I think good olive oil considerably enhances the flavour of the anchovy and it also softens the flesh and counteracts the saltiness.

Some packers curl each fillet around a caper before canning, turning the fish into bite-sized appetisers. Anna del Conte recommends this apt alliance of Mediterranean flavours when storing salted anchovies. The fish are rinsed, filleted and patted dry, then layered in a jar with some capers and a little garlic and covered with olive oil. 'They keep very well, are much nicer (and cheaper) than tinned anchovy fillets,' she says. 'And the oil is delicious for dressing spaghetti.'

Yet not everyone appreciates the robust flavour of salt-cured anchovies. An American friend prefers what he calls 'white anchovies'. These are simply marinated: the fresh fish is filleted and steeped in seasoned vinegar for one to two days days until the flesh turns opaque. In Spain, the appetising boquerones found on the counter of every bar are marinated anchovies seasoned with garlic, parsley and olive oil: they taste at their best accompanied by a glass of chilled fino. Given fresh anchovies you can easily make these at home.

Lacking the fresh fish I set out on an anchovy trail to some of my favourite London delis. I tracked down 300g jars of marinated 'white anchovies' packed in a mixture of sunflower oil, salt, wine vinegar and water at Camisa & Son, 61 Old Compton Street in Soho. So I made my American friend his favourite Colorado-inspired salad. Simply toss together well-drained marinated anchovies with roasted red pepper cut in strips, and plenty of olive oil, some garlic, basil and flatleaf parsley leaves and season to taste.

Good though they are, marinated anchovies will never upstage the cured anchovy. In cooking, cured anchovies behave rather like garlic. Their gutsy, irreplaceable flavour is sumptuously good on its own yet it can also be an indiscernible but essential component in other dishes. At times the flavour has been so popular that fortunes have been made from sauces based on anchovies.

Yet nothing replaces the anchovy fillets. They are familiar enough strewn over pizzas, dotted across salade nicoise or melting into the wine-dark sauce of a Provencale daube. Try adding just a fillet or two, pounded until smooth, to a vinaigrette or some mayonnaise. Roughly chopped they add verve to a sauce for pasta or green vegetables. Encase them in thin puff pastry and serve piping hot from the oven with drinks. Or make anchovy butter by blending crushed fillets into softened butter. Anchovy buffs find all manner of ways of adding the fish to their cooking.

And if you are still seeking the ultimate anchovy then Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio's food shop in Neal Street is a kind of anchovy heaven. Here I discovered a splendidly garlicky green anchovy salad, a high-quality anchovy paste that's bliss spread on crostini, tiny piquant chilli peppers stuffed with anchovies, and even anchovy bread with small fillets embedded in the golden crust. But best of all was the jar of properly matured Zarotti anchovy fillets in olive oil; not cheap - 320g cost pounds 15. But they are some of the best I've tasted - a real treat for any anchovy lover.-

L'ANCHOIADE

Enough to spread on 8-12 slices of bread

70g/2oz anchovy fillets

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

milled black pepper or coriander seed

8-12 thin slices French bread

1 tablespoon capers

juice of half a lemon

Chop the anchovies and pound in a mortar or puree in a processor with the garlic until smooth. Gradually add the olive oil and mix to a paste. Season with pepper or coriander. Spread the anchoiade on the bread and toast under a very hot grill until the bread is changing colour at the edges and the mixture is piping hot. Strew capers over each slice and sprinkle with lemon juice. Serve at once to accompany a robust red wine.

WATERCRESS SALAD WITH ANCHOVY DRESSING AND PARMESAN CHEESE

Serves 4

150g/5oz trimmed watercress

2 anchovy fillets

1 clove garlic, peeled

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

freshly milled black pepper

freshly milled coriander seed

zest of a lemon

50g/2oz piece of Parmesan cheese

Wash and drain the watercress and transfer to a shallow serving dish or divide between four plates. Roughly chop the anchovy fillets and the garlic into a processor or blender and add the olive oil and vinegar. Whizz until almost smooth. Season to taste with pepper and coriander - usually the anchovies provide sufficient salt. Pour the dressing over the watercress and toss gently until evenly coated. Use a lemon zester to grate long shreds of zest from the lemon and sprinkle over the leaves. Shave the cheese into thin layers with a potato peeler or a cheese slicer and arrange on top of the salad.

SWEDISH JANSONN'S TEMPTATION

For each person:

walnut-size piece of butter

150g/6oz peeled potatoes

1/2 small onion, very finely chopped

4-5 anchovy fillets

salt

2fl oz double cream

Rub half the butter over the inside of a small gratin dish. Finely grate the potatoes - ideally with the grater of a processor - and arrange half in the gratin dish. Sprinkle on half the onion and arrange the anchovy fillets, cut in pieces, on top. Sprinkle over the remaining onion and cover with the rest of the grated potato. Season lightly with salt and spoon two-thirds of the cream over the dish. Dot with the remaining butter.

Bake in an oven preheated to 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 25-30 minutes or until the potato is cooked. Remove from the oven and spoon over the remaining cream and serve straight away. Follow with a crisp green salad.-

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