Yes, we can! An ode to the anchovy, and other tinned-fish wonders
So you think you hate anchovies? I used to feel the same. But it’s been years, and I’ve come a long way. I find that often, when I think I don’t like a certain food, it’s not necessarily because it’s “bad”, but because I was exposed to bad versions of it. It might be because it was poorly treated or just of bad quality to begin with. I mean, who likes a metallic, skinny little anchovy? No one.
Cans of the moment
Here are three brands each of anchovies, sardines and tuna that I really love. Some (like Ortiz) are easier to find but still great quality, while others are obscure but worth the hunt. All are delicious.
When I was growing up in Egypt, there wasn’t a culture of tinned or jarred fish. Although some of our north African neighbours are known for sardines and tuna, what I grew up exposed to was akin to cat food. For many years I wrote off most tinned fish. Anchovy – the most pungent of the bunch – was definitely off the menu. It took marrying a Spaniard (and later divorcing him) to really understand and fall in love with tinned-fish culture. And trust me when I tell you, tinned fish is a whole world. There’s the good, the bad and the straight-up ugly. But the good is great. Great enough that I find myself throwing an entire party that revolves around it. Also, there really isn’t much cooking involved here. Arm yourself with a can opener, a whisk and a pot of boiling water, and you’re well on your way to hosting a delicious tinned fish party. If that doesn’t sound exotic enough to you, take a page from our Spanish friends and call them conservas. Fiesta de conservas? Though, to me, tinned-fish party sounds equally sexy.
Step one: buy good-quality fish. This is the single most important factor here. Good-quality anchovies, sardines and tuna are not cheap (and shouldn’t be). Splurge on the good stuff because it’s absolutely worth it. The best anchovies are from Cantabria. Buy them either deboned in oil or, if you’re OK doing a bit of work, whole in salt; you need to wash, debone, and place them in a jar of oil beforehand. Any anchovy fillet worth its salt should start off thin at the top and get nice and plump, and be a deep scarlet colour. They should smell funky but bright. No murk. No mud. And they really, truly just make everything better. I sneak them into roasts (specifically lamb), steak sauces and salad dressing, and often you wouldn’t know that they are there. Anchovies have a supernatural ability to make things taste like better versions of themselves. Steak, for example, gets meatier. They are also used to reinforce a tonnato, the Italian mayonnaise-based sauce typically served alongside veal (vitello tonnato) and made by emulsifying oil with egg yolk and adding capers, anchovies and tuna. Which brings us to tuna…
Always buy tuna in oil rather than water. Olive oil is best. Bonito del norte (also known as albacore tuna) translates to “beauty of the north” and is delicious. The tuna is caught during the summer months when the fish travel to northern Spanish waters looking for Cantabrian anchovies to snack on. Then there’s the Ventresca white tuna belly. This is among the most expensive conserved tuna you can buy, as it is the most delicate of all. I enjoy both very much. The loin can have a meaty bite that’s also very pleasant.
Instead of veal, I like to serve tonnato with raw and steamed vegetables. Pick the best vegetables you find at the market and decide what is good raw and what needs a peel, steam or boil. Make this decision intuitively. When selecting vegetables, look at them, give them a gentle squeeze, smell them… Try them raw before doing anything to them. Often the youngest vegetables are better left untouched; while others could use a little help from a pot of boiling water, or maybe a drop of vinegar. I like to steam artichokes and white asparagus, boil potatoes, green beans and cabbage, to peel some celery and to leave fennel and a big pile of chicories raw. I also add a few boiled eggs. Serve the vegetables in abundance alongside the tonnato, and let guests make their own plates. I also include other tinned fish on the table, such as smoked mussels, cockles (Spanish berberechos) and sardines.
In terms of origins, Spain and Portugal reign supreme and many of the finest tinned goods come from there. All of the different fish are delicious together. Add baguette and butter, and you have yourself a party. Just a mound of good- quality salted butter will do, but if you want to trick everyone into believing you are a host extraordinaire, put the butter into a mould and you have yourself Vénus du beurre.
Laila’s Tonnato recipe
Two egg yolks
250ml olive oil
Four anchovy fillets
10 small capers, rinsed
A little lemon juice
A few drops of vinegar
• Whisk the egg yolks by hand and slowly, drop by drop, add the oil. Continue beating and adding oil gradually until you have an emulsion. When you reach the point where it’s too thick and you feel like you can’t beat it any more, add a few drops of lemon and vinegar. Keep adding oil until you’ve incorporated it all.
• Chop the tuna, anchovies and capers very finely using a knife and then fold into the mayo. Taste for salt and acid. Add more of either if needed.
• Add a couple of drops of water to loosen it slightly. There are two tonnato camps. Some like it with a bit of texture, and others strained totally smooth; I prefer a bit of texture.