A couple of years ago whilst working on an article for Time Out on why a foodie should walk around Seven Dials in Covent Garden I was perusing and photographing (with permissions) the cosy and recently opened Sicilian deli and cafe, Casanova and Daughters. The shop occupies a highly desirable nook in a corner of the very trendy Neal’s Yard. One wall was built with cupboards and boxed spaces used to store a range of Sicilian specialty foods, including pasta, jars of sauce, olives and herbs etc. On another wall, similar cubby holes housed attractive bright silver tubs full of individual producer’s olive oils – 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 at least 5 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 it made 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 and gestured to join in and share their offerings. I obliged and walked to the bar attempting to blend in. 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 blending 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. And I should start right away, as clearly, based on the amount of anchovies for sale in this niche Seven Dials outlet, I am missing out on an important Sicilian culinary secret. Although, I detected a culinary culture gap, based on my own predilections and tastes, I could not help imagining this happening in an English pub – would a group of lads come in and order their pints with a plate of anchovies?
The photo to this story is a recollection. The bread may have been something less substantial, crackers such as the Sicilian panelle, made from chickpea flour. The beer was not Moretti but my boys and I are fond of ordering this brand when we go out for pizza, the illustration of the man amuses us as we try to guess from which distant relative of their mother’s family he is extracted. The bundle of oregano is joy. Every food lover should buy one of these – what can be more enigmatically sensual than carrying a wrapped and tied bundle of dried oregano?