Open can of anchovies in oil. Juan Manuel Sanz / © ICEX
An anchovy is a small fish belonging to the Engraulidae family that is generally salted. Although the anchovy salting tradition, as with other fish, stems back to the Phoenicians, production as a semi-preserve began in Santoña (Cantabria) and other towns along the Basque coast towards the end of the 19th century. The production of anchovy fillets for subsequent canning is a delicate job, usually requiring female hands. The process begins with salting and pressing of the fish which are then left to cure for several months until they acquire the right reddish color and aroma. The next steps vary depending on whether the anchovies are to be packed in brine or in oil. For brine preservation, the heads are washed, then the fish are placed in containers (cans or plastic jars) which are topped up with salt and sealed. For preservation in oil, the fish are skinned, washed, trimmed to size then dried and filleted. Finally, they are placed in containers (cans or glass jars), and covered with olive oil before sealing. Unlike other preserves, in neither case are anchovies subjected to sterilization because heat would spoil them. This is why they are treated as semi-preserves. Cans must be stored at between 4 and 12ºC, and the contents should be consumed between six months and one year after production.
The Cantabrian anchovy (Engraulis Encrasicholus) is considered the best for this process of semi-preservation because of its strong aroma, delicate texture and pinkish flesh. The anchovies from Santoña (Cantabria) are a traditional product with an excellent aroma and flavor and are packed in olive oil. They can be eaten alone or as an ingredient for canapés, salads, pasta, etc.
Equally famous within Spain are the anchovies from l'Escala, a fishing town on the coast of Girona (Catalonia), where there is a longstanding, Mediterranean salting tradition. These anchovies are cured for a shorter period, and are packed in brine or olive or sunflower oil in glass jars. They are associated in Catalonian cuisine with the staple bread and tomato tapa.
In Murcia, too, there is a tradition for salting anchovies which dates back to the Phoenicians. In this case, the process is very simple - just fresh anchovies and salt, making ideal tapas.