The extensive Greco-Roman ruins of Empúries, a deserted complex of stone walls, mosaic fragments and temple columns just outside l’Escala, bear witness to the ancient origins of the Catalan anchovy. One of the most important archaeological sites in Catalonia, Empúries was the point of entry to the Iberian Peninsula for Greek, and then Roman, culture, including Greek techniques for preserving fish with salt. From Empúries, the knowledge traveled to Naples and Sicily, which eventually became important fish-salting centers.
Visiting the once-thriving commercial port on a bright October afternoon, just after a ferocious storm had lashed it with rain and sent huge waves crashing into a 2,000-year-old stone jetty, I came across the excavations of a first-century workshop specializing in fish preserves and sauces. Time and the elements have reduced it to low walls of dry masonry, but I could pick out the central patio where fish were cleaned, and rooms where they were salted and stored in jars. Long after most of Empúries was abandoned in the third century, the workshop techniques continued to be used by successive generations of local fishermen, who in the 16th century founded l’Escala and its anchovy factories. By the 18th century, salted anchovies had brought l’Escala such prosperity that a visitor would make the observation—truly remarkable, for a Mediterranean fishing village of the time—that “men earn good wages, and there are no poor people.”
During the Middle Ages, when salted anchovies were largely a food of the poor, communities all around the Mediterranean produced them, especially in places with ready access to salt. The most famous medieval center of anchovy production was Collioure, where the salting of fish achieved such commercial importance that in 1466 King Louis XI of France exempted the town from the hated gabelle, or salt tax. Well into the 20th century, Collioure was home to dozens of salting houses and a fleet of small, wooden fishing boats called catalans, whose triangular, lateen sails and bright, primary colors attracted Fauvist painters such as Matisse, Derain and Dufy.
After World War II, however, the catalans were supplanted by larger, steel-hulled vessels known as tranynas, which were based in neighboring Port Vendres because they couldn’t navigate Collioure’s shallow harbor, and the number of salting firms in Collioure declined, from 22 in 1945 to only 2 today. In the town of stone houses and narrow lanes wedged between mountains and the sea, under a sky Matisse called the bluest in all of France, locals now cast for tourists, not fish. But as I learned at the small, modern factory of the Roque company, the care that goes into making a salted anchovy here has not changed in any appreciable way.
From May to October, the anchovy season, fresh fish are rushed to the factory and given an initial salting. In an ageold process, quick-fingered women then gut and behead each anchovy with a single flick of the wrist, and in large barrels carefully alternate layers of fish and sea salt from Aigues- Mortes, in the Rhone delta. Heavy weights keep the fish compressed in the brine that soon develops as salt leaches liquid from the anchovies, penetrates their flesh and, in a simple but impressive feat of biochemical legerdemain, slowly transforms them into a preserved product. Exuding a smell reminiscent of an estuary at low tide, the barrels are kept in cool rooms while the anchovies ripen for three months or more—depending on their size, when they were caught, and the ambient temperature. Only the master salter decides when they are ready.
“Anchovies are like fruit,” says Guy Roque, whose 42-employee salting firm was founded by his grandfather in 1870. “If they’re not ripe, they don’t have as much flavor. And for an anchovy to be ripe, it should have a rich aroma and a rosy color.” Fish destined for oil-packed fillets are gently washed in fresh water and manually deboned; a skilled worker can finesse the bones from more than two pounds of anchovies per day. The fillets are laid out to dry overnight and handpacked in retail-size glass jars or commercial-size plastic tubs, which are then filled with sunflower oil. “Sunflower oil is milder than olive oil,” says Roque, “and allows more anchovy flavor to come through.” In a traditional preparation seldom sold in the United States, some fish are left whole and packed in salt. Though this means rinsing and filleting them in the kitchen, many Catalan cooks swear they are actually less salty than their oil-packed counterparts.
Master Chef Ferran Adrià is not the only one who thinks these are tough times for Catalan anchovies. For years, the region’s small salting houses have been forced to compete against large factories and their economies of scale. For example, though the anchovy industry in the Cantabria region, on northern Spain’s Atlantic coast, dates only to the arrival of Sicilian salters in the 19th century, its production dwarfs that of Catalonia. Morocco now leads the world in canned anchovies, and one Moroccan factory—the biggest anchovysalting facility on earth—employs 1,400 people. Catalan traditionalists blame the poor quality of the anchovies most of us eat on methods applied elsewhere to keep costs down—using smaller and less fresh fish, curing them faster, and drying the fillets in centrifuges. And the oldtimers also fret about a fall in anchovy consumption among younger Catalans. “It’s the same the world over,” laments Francesc Moner, a cigar-chomping anchovy company owner in l’Escala. “Traditional foods are getting left behind by the young for hamburgers and other fast food.”
But the declining catch in the Mediterranean remains more troubling than either cheap competition or the popularity of fast food. The sea is far less rich in animal life than the Atlantic, and though European anchovies have never been listed as endangered or threatened, throughout history those from the Mediterranean have been subject to periodic shortages. Unusually hot summer weather, causing sea temperatures to rise beyond the 54 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit range preferred by anchovies, is sometimes the culprit. But overall catch levels have fallen in the past decade regardless of fluctuations in weather, leading industry experts to worry that the recent downturn is more than just a natural, cyclical phenomenon. They point a finger at fishing practices. For the past 20 years, jumbo-size, highly mechanized ships based in France have roamed the sea throughout the year, scooping up fish in huge dragnets. “The nets are much finer than what we use on a tranyna,” says Josep Lluis Sureda, a fourth-generation l’Escala fisherman. “All year long they catch everything in their path, even anchovies that are too small for the salters.”
In fact, the off-season harvest of juvenile fish by either large ship or tranyna, is the greatest threat to anchovies in the Mediterranean, because it removes fish from the sea before they have a chance to breed. In response, the regional government of Catalonia has closed its waters entirely to anchovy fishing from October to December, part of the traditional off-season, to give the anchovy stock time to replenish itself between harvests.
Still, the catch along the Anchovy Coast the past two years fell so short that fish had to be trucked in for salting from French Atlantic ports and from Cantabria, and even Joan Carles Ninou is using Cantabrian fish in his Barcelona café. Catalan salters put a brave face on the crisis—repeating over and over that what truly makes an anchovy a Catalan anchovy is the traditional manner in which it’s prepared. But in the next breath they bemoan the lack of Mediterranean fish, which they find more flavorful than those from colder Atlantic waters.