COLATURA DI ALICI - FROM THE ROMANS TO YOU
RECIPE FOR VERMICELLI WITH COLATURA DI ALICI
Serves 4 Italians generously
500 g vermicelli or spaghetti
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoon more
100 g fresh bread crumbs, coarsely chopped (made from 2 day old Italian style bread)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
30 g flat leaved parsley, coarsely chopped plus another 30 g flat leaved parsley finely chopped
1 lemon, zest and juice
dried chilli, optional
1 teaspoon per person Colatura di Alici, plus extra to taste
While the unsalted water is boiling for the pasta, make the breadcrumb crumbs and ‘sauce’.
Warm the oil and gently fry the crumbs until uniformly golden. Set aside.
In another large frypan (ideally big enough to ultimately toss all the pasta, if not, you will need to have a big bowl ready for the finish), heat up the second lot of oil and gently heat the garlic without allowing it to colour, add the parsley, zest, juice and chilli if using. Turn off the heat and add the colatura. (If your frypan is not large enough to contain all the pasta, transfer now to a big bowl.)
Meanwhile, the water should have boiled. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente. Before draining the pasta add a small ladleful of the pasta's boiling water to the sauce in the frypan, whisk with a fork to a light creamy emulsion. (Retain another ladleful of pasta water, just in case.)
Drain the pasta well and add to the sauce in the frypan. Toss together well. Taste for pleasant salty balance. If the sauce is too dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water and adjust the seasoning of colatura again.
Pile into a serving bowl and garnish with the fried crumbs. No cheese is needed, of course.
Photo credit: Colatura di Alici from Cetara. I bought this from Bottega Rotolo. This is of exceptional quality. As in most things culinary, you get what you pay for.
I first tasted the transparent, amber-coloured liquid, colature di alici in the small fishing village of Cetara on the Amalfi coast some years ago. Our usually gracious and long suffering driver, Pino, dropped us off without ceremony in the middle of Corso Garibaldi near the church of San Pietro Apostolo and said we would find good restaurants down the length of the Corso or lungo mare on Largo Marina. He told us there was only one dish to order – Spaghetti con la colatura di alici and if we were lucky they might have melanzane alla cioccolata (eggplant with chocolate sauce for dessert. Read on.)
We had overhead the phone call from his wife saying that his pepperoni fritti and uova in purgatorio were ready. We knew the drive from Cetara to his house perched on the cliff at Maiori would be covered in record time. Pino had told us that the enchanting white washed town, with its licorice allsorts houses had been declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its maintenance of the age old tradition of making colatura from the local anchovies: a tradition which stretched unbroken from Roman times when garum romanum was used as a condiment. Another note worthy activity in this little fishing village is the tuna fishing, but this is a more endangered pursuit.
Photo credit: nets waiting for repairs in the docks of Cetara. A splendid day in late October.
Cetara's name is derived from the Latin, cetaria (meaning tuna-fishing nets). In 1551, Turkish armies raided and enslaved the Cetaresi. The survivors of the Turkish occupation built a magnificent watch tower overlooking the sea, so that invaders would never again overwhelm them.
The great revival of making garum in Cetara was led by the local monks in the Middle Ages, who renamed it colatura from the Italian word for 'dripping' which describes the process of allowing the brined anchovies to drip through the cracks of the barrels over the course of the process. For hundreds of years its deliciousness has been lauded: drizzled on spaghetti or as a dressing for grilled fish or vegetables it adds a wonderful, aromatic umami dimension which is notable but hard to describe.
Many people describe colatura as Italy’s answer to the fish sauce from South East Asia. I can not agree with this description. Colatura is less fishy. In fact, a good quality colatura is elegant, savoury rather than fishy, like a subtle burst of Vegemite or dried porcini mushrooms.
On a subsequent tour of the south, I took a lovely group of travellers to visit a factory where colatura is made and we had a marvellous experience. The exquisitely picturesque Gulf of Salerno is home to arguably the best anchovies on the planet which are fished from March to July. More precisely, the season runs from between March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) and July 22 (Feast of Mary Magdalene).
A few people in the group wrinkled their noses in anticipation but our guide was hard-headed and pragmatic. We were here to celebrate the “pancetta of the sea” and he would not gloss over any detail of the product he loved.
We were, however, spared the cleaning of the fish, la scapezzate, since we visited in October but we saw rows upon rows of chestnut barrels called terzigni (the area is also famous for its chestnuts). In these barrels the gutted anchovies are layered with coarse salt. Then the fish is pressed down by a weighted wooden lid. By December, the anchovies have produced a bit of fragrant amber juice. A tiny hole is poked in the barrel, and the colatura that drips through this small hole is collected as the salted anchovies give off their juice. The process produces a small amount of pungent liquid which remains in the terzigni for at least 18 months, after which it is bottled.
Photo credit: the terzigni where the fish is salted to release its juices. Photo from the Acquapazza Company's publicity.
But back to my noteworthy first encounter with this liquid gold. We had left our search for lunch a little late as we explored the charming little town. Everyone had gone home for the afternoon pausa and the little streets were deserted. We were too late for lunch but too early for dinner. Some of the restaurants were already shuttered for the winter even though it was only the end of October, others had closed for the afternoon. It was not looking good for our band of hungry explorers.
Around the corner off Via Grotta and in the distance, I saw a group of waiters eating their meal in rowdy camaraderie. I fell upon them and appealed to their Italian chivalry. Of course I prevailed. As long as we were happy with spaghetti con colatura di alici we could pull up a chair and join them. We were thrilled: it was what we had been ordered to eat by our guide, we told them. Without negotiating any other terms, we ordered wine for everyone and had one of those unforgettable meals that make travel memorable.
In the end didn’t ask for melanzane al cioccicolata for dessert as Pino has advised: we ate the luscious fruit that was offered – sweet yellow melon. We had bonded as only people who have shared a simple, honest meal can: we bathed in the glow of bonhomie and new friendship.
Of course, we had photos together and promised to write to them from Australia. They, in turn, bought us ice cold limoncello and sticky espresso coffee and regretted we could not remain for dinner.
Pino collected us as the sun was setting. The ride home to our rented villa was uncharacteristically quiet. Not even Pino’s feigned disgust at the conto esagerato or his muttered curses, sotto voce, directed at quei ladri could squash our mood. We were sated and happy.
Postscript: We didn’t have melanzane alla cioccolata (pictured below) on this occasion, but Pino’s wife, Carmela, wouldn’t let us leave the Amalfi Coast without trying it. So we were invited to her house clinging to the cliff face in Maiori for a special merende, or afternoon snack. I have her special hand written recipe as a treasured souvenir and I have written about it in an earlier post.