Monks living in the monasteries overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea preserved the ancient tradition of salting small fish, collecting the fermenting liquid for use as a tangy sauce.
Over the years the demand for this liquid prompted the reintroduction of an industry that had flourished under the Romans – the production of garum.
In Cetara on the Amalfitan Coast, Gargilius Martialis’ 3rd century recipe has been refined by families who now specialise in the production of colatura di alici – filtered anchovies.
You must use fish such as salmons, eels, sardines and anchovies; then to these fish you must add salt and potherbs such as dill, mint, coriander, lovage, wild thyme. Then you must dispose the herbs in a first layer on the bottom of a pot. Then you must make a layer of whole fish, if small, otherwise, if they are bigger, in pieces. You must cover it with a layer of salt of about two fingers and the three layer operation must be repeated until the pot is full. The pot must be closed and it must soak for seven days. You must stir everything for other twenty days. Then the strained liquid must be collected filtering it carefully using a cloth.
Archeologists Alfredo Carannante, Claudio Giardino and Umberto Savarese believe the Amalfi monks ‘were one of the medieval monastic communities which preserved the knowledge about the preparation of garum and the tradition of its use’.
Colatura di alici first appeared in the 12th century when the monks kept a fleet of boats to supply their own needs. This has resulted, say the archeologists, in ‘a patrimony for the popular culture and the community in Cetara’.
‘Modern colatura di alici is a true living fossil of one of the most important gastronomic products of the ancient Mediterranean area.’
It tastes nice too, especially with spaghetti.
This Roman delicacy, most probably the result of Phoenician ingenuity, was a fermented product, not unlike modern miso and soy sauce.
According to food historian Patrick Faas, the Romans were very fond of garum because it contained a high level of glutamate – an amino acid present in fermented food.
Garum was made with whole fish, salted and slowly fermented in the sun. When the fish had broken down, the mass was put in a basket or vat and pressed to produce a liquid called liquamen. This was garum.
The small anchovies and sardines caught in the Mediterranean produced a popular garum.
Garum made with the larger mackerel was regarded as an elite product.
Making garum today is unneccessary given the amount of fermented fish products on the market, including colatura di alici, but this is how it can be done if the mood takes you.
1 kg mackerel, whole
1 kg sea salt
Arrange mackerel on trays, salt and leave in sun, turning regularly.
When they have broken down, fill a sieve lined with muslin over a large bowl. Cover with greaseproof paper, and press down on the fish.
The liquid that emerges is garum.
Repeat until all the liquid has been drained from the fermenting fish.
Strain, then filter through muslin several times.
Store in bottles or jars.
Spaghetti con Colatura di Alici
All you need to good quality spaghetti. For this dish we recommend the gragnano variety.
500 g gragnano spaghetti 50 ml Colatura di Alici
Cook spaghetti al dente, dress with Colatura di Alici, cover and leave for five minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the fishy liquid.