By: Jill Santopietro
“I had never had an anchovy like it,” explains Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and chi SPACCA in Los Angeles, describing the first time she tasted a salt-cured menaica anchovy from the town of Marina di Pisciotta, south of the Amalfi coast in the Cilento region of Campania, Italy. “It was a totally different experience.”
Nancy was soon garnishing freshly pulled rounds of cheese with the pink-fleshed, meaty-flavored salted fish at her mozzarella bar. At roughly a dollar each, this was not an anchovy meant for dissolving into a bagna cauda sauce. A fish this clean tasting deserved to be showcased.
What sets menaica anchovies apart from the rest is that they are captured using a special method and net, also called menaica, which dates back to the ancient Romans.
The menaica net is both a drift net and a gill net. It’s a drift net because a curtain of netting runs 600 yards long and 20 feet deep into the water, suspended by floats along the top and weights along the bottom. It’s a gill net, as well, because as anchovies surface to feed on algae, they swim into the mesh and get caught at the neck. The netting diameter, though, is just the right size to catch mature anchovies, letting younger ones swim through. As a result, the fishermen believe their nets help sustain the bay’s anchovy population.
They also think their net produces a better tasting anchovy. As soon as they pull the anchovies on board, they separate the anchovies from the mesh, decapitating the fish. The bleeding that follows prevents the hemoglobin in the blood from corroding the flesh, producing clean, pink meat that some refer to as “the prosciutto of the sea.”
Within hours out of the water, the anchovies are placed under salt in terracotta pots for a three-month cure. Given the proper conditions — a little humidity, 70 degrees, and limited light — they will keep for up to 18 months but are best eaten at six months.
During the peak anchovy fishing months of April, May, and June, Donatella Marino, who helps run the alici di menaica Slow Food presidio, wakes early to salt last night’s catch. In her bottling garage, rows of terracotta pots topped with wooden dowels and stone weights line the floor. As Marino layers anchovies and medium-grain Sicilian sea salt into the pot, she explains that curing anchovies in breathable lead-free terracotta is crucial to the end flavor and texture of the fish. It invites a small amount of air into the vessel. “It’s how the ancient Romans did it — all naturally,” she says. “It’s the little things that make the difference in taste.”
But since terracotta is typically soaked in a petrol bath before firing to prevent breakage, and because Marino insists that her pots are petrol-free, she is forced to buy all the pots prior to their firing. All she can do is cross her fingers that few break.
Once ready to sell, Marino vacuum seals the pots. The anchovies are loaded onto a container and shipped to their sole American distributor, Buon Italia in New York City. From there, they are delivered to chefs around the country.
The price of the pots, the small catches, the short season, the demand, and the cost of transporting heavy terracotta help explain why menaica anchovies sell for $58 a pound. Silverton, like many chefs, has evolving tastes, menus and needs. For several reasons, including the demands of her fast-paced restaurants, she has since moved to other anchovy purveyors. But she still values the menaica anchovies’ tradition and taste.
Since ancient Roman days, men have fished menaica anchovies using their specialized nets, woman have packed them in terracotta pots, and the delicacy has been shipped thousands of miles to feed those who could afford them. Not all that much has changed.