May 13, 2019
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In Piemonte, the Anchovies Swim in a River of Green
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It’s messy, it’s fishy, and it will give you disastrously bad breath, but it’s all worth it for this Italian anchovy snack.

Piemonte is most commonly known as the land of wine, white truffles, and hazelnuts. But for me, this northern Italian region bordering France and Switzerland is the place that cemented my enthusiasm for preserved fish, in the form of one of its most essential plates: acciughe al verde, or anchovies in green sauce.

To make acciughe al bagnet verde (anchovies in a green “bath”), as the dish is also known, salt-preserved anchovies are washed and filleted, placed in a dish, and covered with a sauce that combines chopped garlic and flat-leaf parsley with olive oil, white wine vinegar, and sometimes a pinch of pepper flakes.

I was first introduced to acciughe al verde 16 years ago at a bar in Cuneo. It was aperitivo hour, and I dripped emerald oil onto the bar, my napkin, and myself as I used a fork to transfer an anchovy fillet onto a thickly buttered piece of bread. I grew up in a strictly “no fishy fish” Midwestern household, so there was no foretelling that this powerfully pungent dish would ride its wave of umami straight to my heart. Unapologetically piscine, heat-y from garlic, with a predominant saltiness answered by the bright bitter note of flat-leaf parsley, lightly assuaged by the bread and butter (a common but not necessary vehicle), acciughe al verde won me over at first bite. Known to every Piemontese, it’s not a dish for the fainthearted.

Acciughe al verde was traditionally included in merenda si noira, a late-afternoon meal eaten by farmers in the summer to fortify themselves through extra hours of daylight spent in the fields. Now the dish is served as an antipasto in restaurants, as an accompaniment to a drink or a glass of wine in old-style taverns, and as a component of apericena (a portmanteau of the Italian words for appetizer and dinner), the budget-friendly, all-you-can-eat cocktail-hour buffets frequented by young drinkers in Torino and other urban centers in Piemonte.

After moving to Piemonte two years ago, I was delighted to find that its table has much to offer enthusiasts of preserved anchovies like myself. Late autumn is marked with feasts of bagna cauda (“hot bath”), a rich, garlic-based anchovy dip or sauce for raw or cooked vegetables that’s kept warm over a flame at the table. Piemontese cooks spoon the same bagnet verde that sauces acciughe over cold, thinly sliced tongue and fresh cow’s or goat’s cheese, and serve a version of it alongside bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats. They stuff small hot red peppers with anchovy fillets and capers and preserve them in olive oil, and make lasagna with leeks and anchovy-garlic sauce. And preserved anchovies are often used to flavor creamy sauces to drizzle over light egg-based flans of asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, and other vegetables.

Acciughe al verde (top) shares a plate with giardineria and lingua con bagnet rosso at Caffe Vini Emilio Ranzini in Turin.

Given Piemonte’s landlocked position, the prominent place of anchovies in its pantry is a bit of an oddity. Acciughe salate were likely introduced to the region via ancient trade routes that connected it with salt pans in Aigues Mortes, on Provence’s southern coast. At the time salt was a precious commodity, and salt traders traveling the routes are believed to have concealed their cargo from tax collectors by topping up baskets of salt with a more paltry article of trade: salted anchovies. Eventually trade in these fish became a profitable business in itself. Demand for salted anchovies in Piemonte even gave rise to off-season opportunities for farmers in the region’s southern Alpine valleys, who bought anchovies in Liguria and returned to Piemonte to spend winters as itinerant sellers. A few became so successful that they left farming altogether, establishing a now-dwindling specialty trade that is today represented by a small consortium of sellers in Cuneo province.

Like any dish with historical presence and wide appeal, acciughe al verde sees many variations. Some Piemontese enrich their bagnet verde with a hard-boiled egg yolk or a slice of stale bread that is softened with vinegar before being blended with the other ingredients. Others add sharpness with a few vinegar-infused capers, complexity with a tablespoon or two of white wine, or extra fish flavor by adding a minced anchovy to the sauce. Cooks in southern Piemonte, which borders Liguria, might swap in young basil leaves for some of the parsley. Me? I’m a purist. The most basic acciughe al verde is such a delight that it needs no gussying up.

Though it’s frowned upon, and rarely admitted by offenders, those lacking the time or patience to clean and debone salt-packed anchovies may resort to making the dish with fillets packed in olive oil. But even the most high-quality oil-packed fillets lack the firmer texture of those pulled off a salt-packed fish, and they’re usually smaller.

One thing that is never up for debate is that the aroma of a properly made acciughe al bagnet verde will, and should, linger in the mouth long after the meal is over. For Piemontese, garlic breath be damned. As my Torino-born friend Adriana says, “What’s the point of bagnet without garlic?! It would be barbarian.”

Lead photo: Preserved anchovies with bagnet on the side at L’Archivolto Osteria in Ovada

Ingredients

  • 10 whole salt-packed anchovies
  • 2 small to medium garlic cloves
  • ¼ packed cup flat-leaf parsley leaves (tender branch stems are OK)
  • Ground pepperoncini or other crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • ¼ cup olive oil, preferably Ligurian or another lighter, less assertive olive oil
  • 2-3 teaspoons white wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
  • To Serve
  • Slices of good white bread (a baguette or softer loaf would be ideal) and softened butter, preferably unsalted

This version of acciughe al verde is heavily sauced, with enough sauce to cloak each anchovy plus extra to mop up with bread. Use a good, preferably Ligurian or similarly “light” olive oil. (No peppery Tuscans, which would dominate the sauce.)

Some Italian delis sell salted anchovies by the piece from 5- or 10-kilo cans. Avoid purchasing fish from opened cans with yellowing and/or nearly dissolved, salt. If you’re an anchovy lover, it’s always worth buying a whole can, which will keep well for months, sealed in a couple of plastic bags for odor control. You can also remove anchovies from the can and repack them in a glass container, alternating layers of fish with layers of coarse (kosher or sea) salt.

This dish should sit for at least 12 hours after assembly to allow the flavors to meld and mellow. It keeps in the refrigerator for days, though the sauce’s intense green may fade.

  1. Soak the anchovies: Rinse each fish under cool water, gently rubbing it to remove salt. Place the fish in a bowl, add tepid water to cover, and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes to soften. Test by picking up an anchovy by its tail and holding it horizontally-its head should droop down by about 70 degrees. (Be careful not to let the anchovies soak too long or they will be mushy.) Carefully drain the anchovies and lay them on a paper towel.
  2. Clean and fillet the anchovies: Ready several layers of paper towel near your sink. Turn your kitchen tap on cold, set at low pressure. Take an anchovy and use the pad of your thumb to gently rub away any remaining rough spots and silver from the skin. Turn the anchovy "heads up," hold it under the stream, and let the pressure of the water push the fish open. Keeping it under the stream of water, slide your thumb down the anchovy's belly; the viscera will slide out. At this point use your thumbnail or the tip of a sharp paring knife to cut down the rest of the belly, to the tail. Remove the anchovy from the water and gently tug off the dorsal fin. Turn the fish tail up, gently open it, and lift a fillet from the backbone. (Go slow, or you'll tear the fish.) Rinse the fillet, check it for small bones (easily removed with your fingers), and lay it on the paper towel. Carefully lift the backbone from the other half and debone if necessary. Repeat with the remaining anchovies.
  3. Mince the garlic cloves and parsley in a food processor or blender, or by hand. (If mincing by hand, transfer the garlic and parsley to a small bowl afterward.)
  4. Add the crushed red pepper, if using, the olive oil, and 2 teaspoons of the vinegar. Process, blend, or whisk the ingredients to a smooth sauce.
  5. Taste the bagnet. It should be sharp, but the flavor of vinegar shouldn't dominate. It should also be a bit salty. Add vinegar and salt as needed.
  6. Arrange 10 of the anchovy fillets side by side, skin down, in a shallow bowl or on a rimmed plate. Spread over one half of the bagnet. Lay over the other fillets (in the direction opposite the first layer), and cover with the rest of the bagnet.
  7. Cover the anchovies tightly with plastic and store in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. Allow to come to cool room temperature before serving with bread and softened butter.

Robyn Eckhardt

Robyn Eckhardt is the author of Istanbul and Beyond and co-publishes the award-winning food blog EatingAsia. Follower her on Twitter at @EatingAsia and on Instagram at @IstanbulandBeyond.

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