A couple of years ago whilst working on an article for Time Out, I was perusing and photographing a cosy and recently opened Sicilian deli and cafe, Casanova and Daughters. The cafe occupies a highly desirable nook in the corner of London’s Neal’s Yard, and sells a range of Sicilian specialty foods, including pasta, jars of sauce, olives and herbs etc. They also sell individual producer’s olive oil bright silver pots, each with an immaculate tap for filling bottles. However, there was one product which seemed to dominate all others: anchovies. There were anchovies in small jars, medium jars, large jars, and indeed, very large jars packed with several kilogrammes of anchovies. I started to wonder how so many anchovies could be eaten at one time, when I noticed a group of young Italian men arrive and take up residence at a high counter by the service area. The counter was actually the sales assistant’s service area, but became a convenient makeshift bar for this group of lads who were obviously well-known to each other and the sales assistant. The men ordered beer and engaged in good-humoured, loud banter – all in Italian.
Being quite a small shop with no customers (other than myself and the Italians) I became rather conspicuous, especially as I was carrying a camera and taking the odd photo. I was called over to join in and share their offerings. I obliged and attenpted to blend in with the proceedings. This was not going to be easy – they knew very little English and I knew very little Italian. But I also sensed a culinary culture gap. For along with the beers, the men were snacking – or possibly lunching – on anchovies with a little bread. As a food lover, I do not have problems joining in all but the most extreme of communal noshes. I like anchovies, I like their distinctive accented flavour in a salade niçoise, or decorating a Russian salad, or scattered over a pizza, but in each of these dishes there are plenty of other flavours to balance the anchovy.
Don’t get me wrong. The Sicilian anchovies are possibly the best you can buy – they are soft and delicate and have a very fresh taste. However, I would need a few more anchovy-only sessions before I could say I had acquired a connoisseur’s appreciation for snacking on such a singular ingredient. Though clearly I should make the effort – judging by the quantity – and quality – of anchovies on sale at this cafe, I am obviously missing out on one of Sicily’s best kept culinary secrets.