The anchovy is, (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary)”a small fish of the Herring family (Engraulis encrasicholus) found on the European coasts, especially in the Mediterranean, where it is extensively caught, and pickled for exportation.”
Unfortunately, this common, oily, fish is probably best known in its worst form – the too-soft, over-salty, whiskery version perpetrated by pizza chains. There is more to the fish than this travesty version, I assure you.
I hereby give you a few random factoids on the anchovy to pique your interest.
I was surprised that the first written reference given in the OED is as late as the end of the sixteenth century – but equally delighted that it is from no less than William Shakespeare himself:
1598: Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 ii. v. 541 Item anchaues [1623 Anchoues] and sacke after supper. 2,s, vj,d.
The next three consecutive references in the OED may only be brief, but they speak volumes about the place of anchovies in the Englishman’s life during the seventeenth century.
1620 T. Venner Via Recta iv. 78 Anchoua's, the famous meat of Drunkards, and of them that desire to haue their drinke oblectate the pallate.
1657 S. Colville Mock Poem (1751) 16 Which to the pallat pleasing proves, Like Adriatic gulph anchoves.
1674 T. Flatman Belly God 100 To quicken appetite it will behoove ye To feed couragiously on good Anchovie.
Dictionaries may not usually be thought of as a source of much information about food itself – but in fact they are often a source of recipes (using the term fairly loosely, it must be admitted.)
The Dictionarium Britannicum: or a More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary than any extant (2nd edition, 1736) by Nathan Bailey has this definition of the old dish Salmagundi:
SALMAGUNDI, SALMAGUNDIN [in Cookery] a dish made of cold turky, anchovies, lemons, oil, and other ingredients, also a sort of hotch-potch of several cold meats, cut in pieces, and stew’d in a chafing-dish with wine, verjuice, vinegar, &c.
And the twenty-first edition of An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1775) – also by Nathan Bailey - mentions anchovies as an ingredient in ‘rammolade’ (rémoulade)
RAMMOLADE [in Cookery] Sauce made of Parsley, Anchovies, Capers, Chibbols, Pepper, Salt, &c.
And now, may I give you a recipe from the wonderful Dr. William Kitchiner?
Quintessence of Anchovy.—(No. 433.)
The goodness of this preparation depends almost entirely on having fine mellow fish, that have been in pickle long enough (i.e. about twelve months) to dissolve easily, yet are not at all rusty.
Choose those that are in the state they come over in, not such as have been put into fresh pickle, mixed with red paint1 which some add to improve the complexion of the fish; it has been said, that others have a trick of putting anchovy liquor on pickled sprats2; you will easily discover this by washing one of them, and tasting the flesh of it, which in the fine anchovy is mellow, red, and high-flavoured, and the bone moist and oily. Make only as much as will soon be used, the fresher it is the better.
Put ten or twelve anchovies into a mortar, and pound them to a pulp; put this into a very clean iron, or silver, or very well tinned saucepan; then put a large table-spoonful of cold spring-water (we prefer good vinegar) into the mortar; shake it round, and pour it to the pounded anchovies, set them by the side of a slow fire, very frequently stirring them together till they are melted, which they will be in the course of five minutes. Now stir in a quarter of a drachm of good Cayenne pepper (No. 404) and let it remain by the side of the fire for a few minutes longer; then, while it is warm, rub it through a hair-sieve3, with the back of a wooden spoon.
The essence of anchovy, which is prepared for the committee of taste, is made with double the above quantity of water, as they are of opinion that it ought to be so thin as not to hang about the sides of the bottle; when it does, the large surface of it is soon acted upon by the air, and becomes rancid and spoils all the rest of it.
A roll of thin-cut lemon-peel infused with the anchovy, imparts a fine, fresh, delicate, aromatic flavour, which is very grateful; this is only recommended when you make sauce for immediate use; it will keep much better without: if you wish to acidulate it, instead of water make it with artificial lemon-juice (No. 4074.), or add a little of Coxwell’s concrete acid to it.
Obs.—The above is the proper way to perfectly dissolve anchovy4, and to incorporate it with the water; which, if completely saturated, will continue suspended.
To prevent the separation of essence of anchovy, and give it the appearance of being fully saturated with fish, various other expedients have been tried, such as dissolving the fish in thin water gruel, or barley-water, or thickening it with mucilage, flour, &c.: when any of these things are added, it does not keep half so well as it does without them; and to preserve it, they overload it with Cayenne pepper.
MEM.—You cannot make essence of anchovy half so cheap as you can buy it. Thirty prime fish, weighing a pound and a quarter, and costing 4s. 6d., and two tablespoonfuls of water, made me only half a pint of essence; you may commonly buy that quantity ready-made for 2s., and we have seen an advertisement offering it for sale as low as 2s. 6d. per quart.
It must be kept very closely stopped; when you tap a bottle of sauce, throw away the old perforated cork, and put in a new taper velvet cork; if the air gets to it, the fish takes the rust5., and it is spoiled directly.
Essence of anchovy is sometimes coloured6. with bole armeniac, Venice red, &c; but all these additions deteriorate the flavour of the sauce, and the palate and stomach suffer for the gratification of the eye, which, in culinary concerns, will never be indulged by the sagacious gourmand at the expense of these two primum mobiles of his pursuits.
Essence of anchovy is sometimes made with sherry or Madeira wine, or good mushroom catchup (No. 439), instead of water. If you like the acid flavour, add a little citric acid, or dissolve them in good vinegar.
N.B. This is infinitely the most convenient way of using anchovy, as each guest may mix sauce for himself, and make it strong or weak, according to his own taste.
It is also much more economical, as plain melted butter (No. 256) serves for other purposes at table.
1. Several samples which we examined of this fish sauce, have been found contaminated with lead."—See Accum on Adulteration, page 328.`
2. They may do very well for common palates; but to imitate the fine flavor of the Gorgona fish, so as to impose upon a well-educated gourmand, still remains in the catalogue of the sauce-maker's desiderata.
3. The economist may take the thick remains that wont pass through the sieve and pound it with some flour, and make anchovy paste, or powder. See Nos. 434 and 435.
4. Epicure Quin used to say, "Of all the banns of marriage I ever heard, nom gave me half such pleasure as the union of delicate ANN-CHOVY with good JOHN DORY."
5. "Rust in anchovies, if I'm not mistaken,
Is as bad as rust in steel, or rust in bacon."
Young's Epicure, page 14.
6. If you are not contented with the natural colour, break some lobsters' eggs into it, and you will not only heighten the complexion of your sauce, but improve its flavour. This is the only rouge we can recommend. See note to No. 234.
The Cook’s Oracle (1830) by Dr William Kitchiner.