Joan Carles Ninou smiles broadly and laughs easily, signs of a man who can appreciate life’s jollier moments. But get him talking about anchovies and you’ll soon realize that a serious streak runs through him, a streak as deep as the Mediterranean Sea that washes the coves and craggy headlands of his native Catalonia.
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Aboisterous lunchtime crowd fills El Xampanyet, Ninou’s storefront café tucked away in the cobblestone labyrinth of Barcelona’s Ribera Quarter. As he pours wine or rings up a bill, Ninou chats in Catalan with a lively mix of blue-collar and office workers seated at small tables or bunched along a marble bar covered with platters of bright red marinated peppers, herb-flecked olives and other tapas. An animated man with hair cropped so close it looks like a shadow on his shiny, round head, Ninou also has two of the most expressive eyebrows I’ve ever encountered, a matched pair of fuzzy, black caterpillars whose rise and fall mark the tempo of his conversation. And when the topic turns to anchovies, as it inevitably does at El Xampanyet, the eyebrows shift into double time.
“The ancient Greeks brought the art of salting fish to Catalonia,” Ninou says. “And almost since that time, anchovies have been a part of our life here.”
El Xampanyet doesn’t go back quite as far as Aristotle— only to 1929, when Ninou’s grandfather opened the place— but house-cured anchovies have been its specialty for decades. From my perch next to the tapas, I watch as a barman vigorously rinses five-inch-long anchovy fillets in fresh, running water to remove any excess salt. Across the room I spot a customer in blue coveralls drinking beer and downing the little fish like a trained seal: picking each one up by its tail, tilting his head back and lowering it into his mouth. I try a few myself, seal-style, and discover that with their ruddy brown color, firm texture and rich, meaty taste, they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the mushy, gray slivers of sharp fish-salt flavor that pass for anchovies in most of the world. Locals will tell you that what makes a Catalan anchovy special is the traditional way in which it’s cured, and Ninou’s may be the best anchovies in all of els països Catalans—the Catalan lands. Unless, perhaps, you count those I tasted the day before at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s vast and bustling covered market. Or those from the Costa Brava towns of l’Escala and Cadaqués, or from the port of Collioure, across the border in France, renowned for the artisanal salt-curing of anchovies since medieval times.
You won’t find the words “Costa de l’Anxova” on any map, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real place. Catalan for Anchovy Coast, the name aptly describes a roughly 50-mile stretch of Mediterranean shore that lies mostly in Catalonia, the northeasternmost region of Spain, but that also spills over into southwestern France, where residents retain cultural and linguistic ties with their Catalan neighbors. Though each country has nicknamed its coast—Costa Brava, or WildCoast, in Spain, and Côte Vermeille, or VermilionCoast, in France—in truth the region is neither exclusively Spanish nor French. Arocky, sunbaked land whose picturesque ports and lapis waters have captivated landscape painters for a century, it remains proudly Catalan in tradition, especially on the Spanish side of the border. And this includes not only a fierce devotion to the Catalan tongue, a Romance language that’s been around for a thousand years, but also an abiding love for the humble anchovy.
For Americans accustomed to anchovies as a salty jolt to Caesar salad or pizza—or, more commonly perhaps, as something to be avoided at all costs—the Catalan treatment of the fish, both fresh and preserved, is a revelation. Though it also figures in many other Mediterranean cuisines, along the Anchovy Coast it assumes dozens of fetching guises—from traditional preparations like boquerónes (pickled fresh anchovies), anchovy-chard fritters, puff pastry with anchovy butter, and an anchovy and pine nut topping for the pizza-like coca, to more recent creations like an hors d’oeuvre of deep-fried anchovy bones, a bright-tasting tartare of seitó (the Catalan name for the fresh anchovy) and a sauté of anchovies and apples that reflects the Catalan taste for sweet-and-salty dishes. What’s more, for some Catalans, the anchovy assumes near-Proustian significance. The great 20th-century Catalan author Josep Pla wrote—with tongue only partly in cheek—that you’ll remember the anchovies of l’Escala for quite a while, though not forever, since in time you might confuse them with your first love.
“The anchovy is a quintessential Catalan product with a long tradition,” says internationally acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià, who has managed to stretch that tradition at El Bullí, his restaurant in the Costa Brava town of Rosas, with dishes like anchovy-topped grilled watermelon and anchovy gelato. I’ve met Adrià at the annual anchovy and salt festival in l’Escala, where he has come to receive the town’s Golden Anchovy award for promoting its flagship product. A pale, thoughtful man with profoundly brown eyes, he recalls how, as a child, his mother used to salt anchovies each summer at their home on the outskirts of Barcelona. But Adrià’s fond memories are shadowed by worry. He tells the fishermen, salters and other townsfolk assembled at city hall that Catalan anchovies are being threatened as never before, and he names a twin menace—a diminished Mediterranean catch and the onslaught of fast-food culture. “If we’re not careful,” he warns, “in five years our tradition may be lost.”
Because most of the world’s hundred-plus species are easily damaged when caught with a net, the only anchovy you’re likely to find in a restaurant or on store shelves is the hardy Engraulis encrasicolus, commonly known as the European anchovy. A slender, silvery blue-green creature with a pointy snout and forked tail, it can grow nearly eight inches long in its three-year life, though often it’s caught before reaching that size. The small fish has an unusually large jaw— hence one of its Spanish names, boquerón, or “big mouth.”
Found in coastal waters of the eastern Atlantic from Norway to South Africa, as well as in the Mediterranean, Black and Azov seas, European anchovies swim in compact schools and feed on plankton and other nutrients during the day, dispersing into shallower waters at night. They love a full moon and traditionally are fished using a light known as a lamparo. Suspended from the prow of a small boat floating within the perimeter of a purse seine net, the light mimics the moon and lures the fish to the surface.
The anchovy has been fished and preserved along the Mediterranean for millennia. In the bestselling Salt: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky writes that of all the region’s salted fish—which historically have included tuna, sardines, herring and eel—anchovies have been the most highly praised since the time of the Greeks, who took salted fish so seriously they dreamed up words to describe the type of cure, the origin of the fish and whether it was salted with or without scales. Anchovies often went into garum, the pungent fermented fish sauce favored by Roman empirebuilders— and alternately described in contemporary accounts as heavenly or putrid—and fish from Catalonia were thought to make a superior version.