hold the anchovies….


I never fail to be surprised at how many people appear have an aversion to anchovies whereas I cannot imagine being without them, in the same way that I cannot imagine being without olive oil, tomatoes, onions and garlic. If ever there was a North South divide of culinary tastes, astride it would stand the Colossus of  anchovy. Although Margaret Visser, in her seminal book “Much depends upon Dinner”, leaves out reference to the anchovy when she declares that “butter divides the people of northern Europe as radically from the oil loving southerners as does beer and cider distinguish them from wine drinkers” there is little question in my mind that olive oil and wine must be joined by anchovies to form the trinity that is the heart of southern European cooking. It is worth remembering that anchovies bring both saltiness and savour to a dish, a notion that escaped me on one forgettable occasion long ago when I cooked Jansson’s Temptation to partner a gigot for a dinner for friends. For those not familiar with Jannson’s Temptation, it is a traditional Swedish gratin dish made with potatoes, onions, sprats, breadcrumbs and cream. I now know that the original recipe in Swedish includes the word “ansjovis”. meaning sprats, which, in the book from which I was cooking, was mistranslated as anchovies and that lapsus linguae, combined with my unfathomable decision to add salt to that which was already very salty, created a dish that would not have tempted a dog let alone the sprat loving Jansson: the gigot that I served with this punishing dish was studded with anchovies and interestingly served raw…warm, but raw. A fragile excuse existed for this perversity in that I had taken a recipe from Edouard de Pomiane’s “Cooking in 10 minutes”, which on reflection was not an auspicious title in which to find a recipe for cooking a leg of lamb, which involved cooking the gigot over an open fire with a curved metal reflector to radiate the heat. In addition to this imprecision, the cooking time suggested was equivalent to that of a conversation between M.Pomiane and his neighbour about the benefits of such a cooking method, the exact length of which conversation was unfortunately undefined. I put the dénouement down to the panic that overcame me when I tasted my potato version of the Dead Sea…at that point, what was left of my judgement having fled the scene, I plucked the golden skinned gigot from its sunbed and laid the feast before those who would not later be counted as close friends…sick transit gloria and her chums. The exact reaction of our guests to this extraordinarily violent attack on their palates is vague as I had so little time to assess it before the legs of two of our decrepit and fragile dining chairs collapsed beneath two of our guests, throwing them to the floor as they gamely chewed on a mouthful of raw meat and salty potatoes. The sole blessing lay in the fact that their profanities and curses on our household were muted as cursing led to choking. After they had left the house in that loftiest of vehicles, high dudgeon, and Jenny, in preference to chatting recipes with me, silently swept up the Chippendale, it occurred to me that it had been worthwhile to finally confirm that the anchovy could not live happily in north European food which has allowed me to count that evening among my most successful dinner parties.

About Food,Photography & France

Photographer and film maker living in France. After a long career in London, my wife and I have settled in the Vendee, where we run residential digital photography courses with a strong gastronomic flavour.
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25 Responses to hold the anchovies….

  1. I like my lamb pink and my potatoes well salted but perhaps if I’d been there, maybe less so….brilliant writing!

  2. Wine, olive oil, anchovies. I won’t have a problem remembering this.

  3. jmcheney says:

    I agree completely that life for me would not be worth it w/o tomatoes, garlic, olive oil & onions. Plus anchovies which I’ve adored since my childhood (& still best) friend & I would buy a tube of anchovy paste with our allowances & squeeze it on saltines & coke for a Lot’s wifey snack. And then for 30 years of marriage, anchovy paste & those in jars like in your lovely photo, were my secret ingredient that dared not speak its name in numerous dishes & sauces. My husband carefully divided toujours our pizza slices so he never got a teeny morsel of anchovy on his, not ever knowing he ate anchovies daily. Ah well, that wasn’t what finished us off enfin, but for years even though I was often tempted, I never made Jansson’s Temptation for our feasts out of defference to him. I have still never made it or tasted it even, though now you’ve revealed its true ingredient, it will taste differently than I imagined & everyone at my Christmas table this year might actually like it–though my sister-in-law & I have already planned to make the NYTimes twice-baked potatoes with the secret unmentionable ingredient: cauliflower! mashed in with the potato. (And fingers crossed we’ll get away with it with those who “just can’t go there!” with cauliflower.) And I will probably sneak in a squoosh of anchovy paste when my sister-in-law isn’t looking. (TeeHee) And Joyeux Noel to you & your famille, Roger.

    • Fabulous reply, a post in itself…really enjoyed the read and the confession. Luckily Jenny and I agree on anchovies…we may disagree on many other things but we’re at one on those…and cauliflower. Have a wonderful Christmas and let’s hope 2017 isn’t quite as doom laden as it sounds:)

  4. Ardys says:

    hahaha, well, I’m pretty sure I have served a similarly ‘successful’ (as in lessons learned), but unfortunate, meal to friends, who are no longer friends… polite in the moment, but in the fullness of time I have come to realise the error of my ways. I learned a couple of new terms in this post, too. Enjoy the holidays, Roger.

  5. I am sitting here drinking champagne all by myself. This started out as Christmas for my husband and I, but the poor old dear gets ‘tired’ so he has shuffled off to bed and i am left with the good part of a lovely bottle of champagne to drink alone. So forgive me but I only got half way through your treatise on anchovies and frankly this sounds like a very good excuse for having chickens – to eat the salty stuff/my failures. I frequently force my poor long suffering chooks to clean up after me. I am making no sense at all. Come have lunch with us in London in Feb! c

    • Enjoy the rest of the bottle and more…and you make perfect sense…maybe because I’ve drunk the best bit of a good bottle of red! I’m afraid there’s no chance of being in London in Feb, much as we would love it, as we make church mice appear wealthy at the moment. Any money we have goes on wood to keep warm in the shitty months of Jan and Feb. Enjoy Christmas with your kids in Canada….have a good one:)

    • Eha says:

      darlingHeart – you make perfect sense, and along with Roger, I do hope you finished the bottle [hopefully opened a still one both to put you to sleep and waste not a whole bubbly one!]. Actually wish you would have anchovies to use . . . you would love them . . .

  6. Sally says:

    The potato version of the Dead Sea… as always Roger, you tell a riveting tale. Love anchovies and sneak them into things when anchovy haters aren’t looking. Have a great Christmas.

  7. Mad Dog says:

    Anchovies to the rescue!
    I love the things and at the very least put a little anchovy paste into most dishes as a savory salt.
    I have at least 3 tins and two jars of the little fish in my cupboard, so count me in 🙂

  8. lulu says:

    Ah anchovies….I’m crazy for them. Last year when we were in an apartment in France, I discovered how much better I liked them when bought fresh. Merry Christmas to you, Roger. My wish for the new year is to take one, just one, food photo that is decent.

  9. Eha says:

    Sheesh, I must be a mixed-up kid !! Garlic, onions, tomatoes and olive oil . . . oops, forgot wine . . . make me such a Southern European child, but then there are anchovies and raw herrings and black pudding and the occasional vodka and an awful lot of liver and kidneys and tripe and other culinary fun . . . ‘Please Sir, may I have it all ‘!!! Brilliant writing, Roger!!!!

  10. I love your story of discovery!! I am now mentally working my way through my own culinary disasters … 🙂

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