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Essence of Anchovy
From the Amalfi Coast

by Melissa Clark

In June, July and August, Cetara, a village near Capri on the Amalfi coast of Italy, looks like any other postcard-pretty spot: the sea in impossible shades of blue, a backdrop of jagged mountains dotted with citrus trees and souvenir shops filled with the usual tourist bait.

But if you visit any time else, it is another world entirely. Then the town belongs to the fishermen, specifically those trolling for the tiny silvery anchovies that crowd the calm waters.

Small boats called lampara set out on the blackest of nights, traditionally during a waning moon, and shine flashlights into the water to attract the fish to their nets.

The fish are brought to shore, where they are quickly decapitated and gutted (using only the hands and a well-practiced flick of the thumb) before being packed in layers of sea salt. (Traditionally, wooden barrels were used, but nowadays they have been replaced by plastic tubs.)

This process is the beginning of both curing anchovies and making their pungent by-product, colatura, a translucent amber liquid that is the very essence of anchovy.

Over a month and a half, a salty red liquid is left to drip away through a hole in the tub (the word colatura comes from the "colare," meaning to drip) until all the blood from the fish is gone. Then the fish, the salt and any remaining liquid are left untouched for five to six months more, during which time they becomes intense and odoriferous, almost like Asian fish sauce.

Some say that colatura is the direct descendant of garum, the fish-based seasoning of the Romans. In fact, the brand of colatura available in the United States even calls itself garum (which might be a marketing tool, since Americans are more likely to recognize that name). But many experts and the people in and around Cetara (pronounced chay-TAR-ah) insist their version is much more genteel.

Arthur Schwartz, a cookbook author who runs a cooking school near Cetara, said the Romans used "all kinds of fish, whatever they had, not just anchovies, and they didn't gut them, they just left them whole."

The resulting product "must have been much funkier and oilier," he said. "Not that the anchovies they use for colatura are superclean or anything. They don't rinse them before putting them in with the salt. But it's the little bits of guts still clinging to the fish that give the colatura its special something."

Colatura is definitely somewhat of a relic, even in Cetara. A generation ago, all the houses in town had a wooden barrel (often left over from winemaking) of fermenting fish juice in their basements, small amounts of which were exchanged traditionally as Christmas gifts. Now only a handful of people make it themselves, though it is commercially produced in small batches, some of it making its way to the United States . Delfino-brand garum is available by mail order from Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich.; (888) 636-8162. A 100-milliliter bottle is $15, plus shipping.

Everyone in the Cetara area still eats colatura, especially on Christmas Eve, when it is tossed with garlic and olive oil on pasta. That is the dish I remember, robust and garlicky, slippery with good, fruity oil, spiced with red pepper flakes and tinged with the scent of the sea saline, a little fishy and very complex. The colatura not only added its own taste but also brought out the flavors of all the others and unified the dish.

Adding chopped anchovies could never accomplish this. Unless you fermented them. And left in some of the guts.

Recipe: Linguine With Colatura

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