Monday, March 09, 2009

An Impromptu Anchovy Tasting

My buddy Adam loves anchovies. He eats them absentmindedly while reading, the way some of us might eat crackers. They appear regularly in his excellent cooking, although you wouldn't know this unless you ask him how he achieves that deep flavor, that savory something at the core of the dish. And because he takes food and drink quite seriously, Adam has tasted many anchovies, trying to determine the best brand in the NYC market.
He thought he had this all figured out until just a few weeks ago - he likes the 230 gram jar by Filetti di Alici, anchovy fillets that are brined and then packed in olive oil and that retail for about $13. But then while poking around an Italian food importer's store in Carroll Gardens he saw a large can of anchovies packed in salt, the same brand too, Filetti di Alici. The proprietor warned him that these fish would require cleaning and filleting by hand, but Adam is never deterred by such things. He bought the whole can - 1 kilogram for $20.
The other night I was at his house and Adam was telling me about how delicious the salt-packed anchovies are, how much better they are than the oil-packed fish. But also how huge of a pain they are to clean and fillet. "How much better could they really be," I asked. "Is it worth it?" He looked at me as if to say "What's wrong with you!" and said "Of course it's worth it. Like good wine and great wine."

Adam then proposed that we taste the two types of anchovies side by side so I could see for myself. He prepared a simple salad as a foil, and allowed the fish to come to room temperature - he had already prepped quite a few of the salt-packed kind and stored them in oil in the fridge. You can sort of see from the photo on the right (all pix taken on Adam's I-phone - we did our best) that the salt-packed anchovy on the left is more rosy in color than the oil-packed fish on the right. And there was, in fact, a big difference in flavor. The salt-packed anchovies felt completely unadorned, they were the purest essence of anchovy, each fish a delicate brush of umami against the tongue and the roof of the mouth. The oil-packed anchovies were delicious too, but were saltier and felt cluttered compared with the spartan grace of the salt-packed fish. Okay, I was convinced.

"But wait - how much work is it to prepare these," I asked. So of course Adam gives me 5 or 6 salt-packed fish so I can see for myself. It was definitely painstaking work, fit only for those who enjoy detailed labor, like roasting and grinding spices, assembling a photo album, or building a deck for a house. But it was satisfying work too, and I got into a good rhythm after the first fish. When I was finished (10 minutes?) we took the lovely fillets and set them in a pool of olive oil.
And what to drink with such a feast? Adam decanted a bottle of 2004 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Poulsard, Rosenthal Selections, $24, a strange and utterly delicious combination. The bright red fruit in this wine is clear as a bell, the texture is so light, the wine is crystalline in its purity. Yet there is solid tannic structure that provides the firmness to stand up to the umami of the fish. The fruit and the acidity are gentle enough to compliment, not overpower the delicacy of the anchovies. A Poulsard with anchovies...who knew?

As excellent as this was, I currently have no plans on enjoying salt-packed anchovies anywhere other than Adam's house.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is awesome!

Weston said...

Ah Anchovies one of those foods I just started using in cooking, Don't like them on their own, and don't like them when you can taste them. But as a Umami they are beautiful I make this Smoked Onion Puree and it has star anise and anchovies (star anise making foods taste more meatier) now just don't put to much in so you can taste it like half a star anise per onion.

Brooklynguy said...

thanks anon. i love knowing who it is leaving the comments, especially when they think something is awesome. who are you?

what's up weston? warmer yet in the vancouv? have you tried a really high quality anchovy on its own? i didn't think i liked them either...

Weston said...

No we just get local sardines here, warmer hah Funny you mention its snowing! and it doesn't snow in vancouver just rain and its snowed twice! crazy.

I think they are best used as a umami group. you know italian pasta sauces with lots of cheese to mask the fishiness hah. and Im a sous-chef in a fish restaurant

Do Bianchi said...

mouth-watering post... Poulsard with anchovies... Who knew? I love that wine btw... great post...

Italian Wine Blog said...

Evil!

Anchioves.... just anchioves.

You are hard blokes.

Cliff said...

I can see that being a great marriage. What a good, unconventional idea! I often turn to Riesling for Mediterranean food but don't think I've ever tried anything Jurassic, and I love the wines.

mrfroopy said...

SALT packed are indeed vastly superior.

ty said...

Was reading "Inspiring Thirst" over tea this morning and came across this quote from Alice Waters:
"Cut a thin slice of good bread. Toast it. Rub it with raw garlic. Saturate it with your best olive oil. Filet an anchovy (packed in salt). Rinse it well. Place the anchovy..." From Kermit's brochure in 1981!

peter said...

The salt-packed ones are much better, and worth the extra work. Sounds like a fun exercise.

FYI "filetti di alici" just means "anchovy fillets."