I was wandering around the stalls of Eataly not far from Bra, the capital of Slow Food. For those who don’t know, Eataly is a store – stores now – dedicated to selling the finest Italian edibles and drinks that have the Slow Food seal of approval. This particular Eataly wasn’t the huge one in Turin or the chic one in New York. It was a mini-Eataly. Mini it may be in relative terms, but it still had enough goodies for me to spend 75 Euros in considerably less time than it is taking me to type this.
And among those goodies was the dainty bottle of Colatura di Alici, pictured above. It may not look like it, but it was not unlike stumbling across a small, living dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. The Colatura di Alici is nothing less than garum, a kind of essence of anchovy, that the Romans used in considerable qualities to add oomph to their food. The Romans were rather fond of oomph. They used to make garum by simply leaving large amounts of anchovies to rot in the sun, strain off the juice, bottle it and stack it up on the shelves of the Roman corner shop. Or that’s what I imagine happened, although there are distinguished scholars who trick the whole process out in rather fancier colours. Incidentally, Favignana, one of the Egadi Islands off the west coast of Sicily, was famous for its garum.
Colatura is a speciality of Cetara on the Amalafi Coast, and is only made with fish caught between 25th March and 22 July, the feasts of the Annunication and Santa Maria Maddalena respectively. The anchovies are cleaned and salted by hand and then packed into wooden containers called terzigni. After four or five months the clear, amber liquid drips though holes in the bottom of the terzigini. While the process may be a rather too pungent to want a colatura factory next door, the resulting liquor is potent, penetrating, and salty, but muscular, clean and direct. It’s more of a seasoning than a sauce.
John Irving, the magus of Bra, a man who knows more about Italian food than anyone I know, who introduced me to this splendid stuff, used it to dash over a kind of cold salad of crushed potatoes. It’s his recipe I give in Eating In.