Hold your nose, not the anchovies

So reviled that it’s at risk of vanishing, this pungent fish deserves a second chance
Pamela Cuthbert
Hold your nose, not the anchovies
Photograph by Reena Newman

Next time you order a pizza, you might want to tell your server not to hold the anchovies. The time is now to champion this little stinker, or risk losing it altogether. “We’re asked all the time for anchovies,” says Dylan McCulloch, co-owner of the Daily Catch in Vancouver. “I’ve called all my suppliers, but we can’t get them.” And that’s not because of a run on anchovies in the culinary world. Millions of tons of this oily, bony fish are caught each year, yet instead of getting served up freshly grilled on toast, or salted and cured in olive oil for making fragrant tomato sauces for pasta, they are being turned into fish meal to feed livestock and farmed fish and, given their very high omega-3 content, are being processed for fish-oil supplements.

It’s no wonder; there’s not much competition from the human market. In a world dominated by bland farmed salmon and insipid shrimp, most of us have forgotten to enjoy the anchovy, with its full-flavour impact. But now, a small group of believers is trying to resurrect the pungent anchovy. Some, like chef Lee Humphries of Vancouver’s C Restaurant, who grew up in northern England, have had to overcome a childhood hatred of the tinned fish. Each year during the brief local midsummer harvest season, Humphries exerts considerable effort to get all the anchovies he can. It means cleaning, processing, curing and packing the year’s supply as soon as the catch is in. “It’s a labour of love,” he says of the tedious task of boning the minuscule fish, “but the anchovy is the perfect seasoning.” Humphries uses it in myriad ways: as a pasta-sauce base, with salads such as the house Caesar, in a winter classic of lamb seasoned with mint and anchovy. “It’s not fishy, but clean tasting.”

The anchovy he uses is the northern Pacific anchovy of B.C., prized among some chefs for its superior flavour. Not all anchovies are equal. There’s the European anchovy from Spain, Italy and Portugal. Usually packed in oil or salt, it is a less odorous specimen, appreciated locally and abroad. Salt-cured and marinated in vinegar to produce a milder flavour, it becomes the so-called white anchovy, named for its colour. But by far the most common species is the lowly anchoveta from Peru, which—over years of industrial fishing and cheap processing—gained a reputation as a foul-smelling turnoff. “It tasted bad, looked bad, and was badly packed,” says marine conservationist Patricia Majluf of the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima.

Majluf is turning things around. Leading a campaign to bring the fish back to the table, she’s working with an international network of producers, influential chefs, environmentalists and fishmongers to produce a premium product that will rejuvenate small-scale fisheries in Peru and change public sentiment. Processing is key—the fish are salted and put in a barrel for six months to cure. The result is far from malodorous. “They look and taste more like sardines, and a lot of people say when you open the can you couldn’t tell anyone it was an anchovy,” she says.

It was impossible to get anchoveta in Peru for decades because it all went to fish meal and supplements, but in the six years since bringing quality anchoveta to the public, she has seen a ready demand. Chef Gastón Acurio is a fan. A culinary ambassador with dozens of Peruvian restaurants around the world—his Lima restaurant Astrid & Gastón made S.Pellegrino’s 2012 list of top 50 restaurants—he’s a vocal champion, serving it as tapas or in appetizers, like olives stuffed with anchovy.

Now Majluf is ready to bring the anchoveta to North America, and it could solve a problem for Dan Donovan of Hooked fish shop in Toronto. Donovan loves anchovies but finds it difficult to get his hands on them, especially because his shop, like C Restaurant and the Daily Catch, only sells responsibly sourced seafood. European anchovies often land on “not recommended” lists of watchdogs like Ocean Wise due to overfishing. (Donovan occasionally stocks European ones from sustainable supplies.) “I know it’s hard to have feelings for an anchovy,” he says. But he urges clients to challenge their taste buds and give it a try. They may be surprised.