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Anchovies, anyone?

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 7.23.45 AMWho eats anchovies? Those salty, slimy, oily little fish sold in metal tins – no thank you. Many times before ordering pizza for friends or family, I’ve asked what they like on pizza. And often the reply has been, “Anything and everything, except anchovies.” I’d never consider anchovies on pizza.

The only way I’ve ever eaten these little fish is in salad. A few minced anchovies, combined with mayonnaise, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and Dijon mustard to make the dressing, adds zing to a Caesar salad’s unique flavor. It’s one of my favorite salads, but I can’t see the dark, reddish-brown, unappetizing minced fish.

And then I learned about fresh anchovies. While travelling in Italy recently, Lucca, our tour guide in Cinque Terre, suggested a traditional Italian meal at his friend’s restaurant, Teverna del Capitano. The waiter offered our group of seven a three-course meal: salad, fried fish, and pasta.

Sliced tomatoes with basil leaves and mozzarella balls drizzled with olive oil. Delicately battered fried seafood, fresh from the Mediterranean Sea only a hundred yards from our table. Calamari, shrimp, white fish, and anchovies. And clam and mussels pasta, topped with pesto and olive oil. All sounded delicious, especially shrimp, except I couldn’t imagine yummy delicately battered fried shrimp on a plate with yucky, stinky anchovies.

“Fried slimy anchovies?” I said to Lucca, who was seated beside me.

“Probably not like anything you’ve eaten. These are fresh. Probably caught this morning,” he said.

When the fish platter was passed, I chose several large shrimp, a couple of calamari strips, and fish. The whole anchovies, without heads, were silver and light gray, but didn’t tempt me.

On his plate, Lucca used a fork to split, beginning at the tail, a four-inch long anchovy. Then he lifted the tail and the skelton to leave two narrow strips of white and flaky meat. “You’ve right,” I said, “I’ve never seen or eaten an anchovy like that.” Lucca ate half and gave me half.

Oh my. In an instant, every preconceived notion I had about anchovies vanished. Mild, light, tender. Not salty. No strong fish odor.

“That’s delicious,” I said. “Show me how to get the bones out.” Deboning an anchovy was as easy as Lucca made it look. The flavor was better than shrimp and a squeeze of fresh lemon brought out the taste. I pushed the other fish aside and ate anchovies as fast as I could debone them.

I now know the processing of anchovies gives this fish its bad reputation. Because they are small and have a high oil content (a healthy oil), they don’t transport well. So anchovies are cured and packed in barrels of salt for several months and the white flesh turns a brownish red color.

Will I give fillets of anchovies packed in tins another chance? I don’t think so. I can’t get past the look: slimy and an unappetizing color. But when offered fresh anchovies, I’ll be the first in line.

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