By Pete Wolstencroft
The world is divided into two camps: those who have no time for garlic and anchovies, and sensible people. Garlic and anchovies are the twin pillars of umami; that elusive fifth taste that makes you want to eat more of certain foods. And whilst there is no doubt that garlic can make its presence felt on the breath of avid consumers, that is but a small price to pay when weighed against the many benefits of this most useful of vegetables.
Garlic has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years. The labourers who built the pyramids credited this wonderful allium with giving them the stamina to go about their work: the bland porridge and gruel that formed the backbone of their diet being insufficient to the task.
For almost as long as we have had writing, people have written about the medicinal properties of garlic. It is commonly associated with purification of the blood, being an aid to digestion, boosting the immune system and prowess both in matters athletic and amorous.
Anchovies, like Marmite, permit no neutrality.
Garlic was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and in the palace of Knossos on Crete. Hippocrates, the man to whom we owe the Hippocratic oath, prescribed garlic for all manner of ills. Roman soldiers believed that eating this pungent bulb would give them strength and courage in battle – and they knew a thing or two about battles. I have even heard tales of boxers munching on raw garlic before fights in order to breathe the resultant fug into the faces of their opponents.
Garlic finds its way into literature. Michael Dibdin’s most famous character, the canny Venetian detective, Aurelio Zen, recommended a whole head of garlic and a full bottle of red wine as a cure for the common cold. I have tried this. It doesn’t actually cure the cold; it just gives you a whole new set of things to worry about.
For modern day foodies like me, (old enough to remember when garlic bread was dangerously sophisticated) there is nothing more appetising than the aroma of garlic and olive oil gently wafting out of a kitchen window. From little Italian Trattorias to bustling Chinese restaurants, if they are liberal with their garlic, they can count on my custom.
When cooking with garlic at home, I would urge all readers to eschew the hideous garlic press. I am with the late Anthony Bourdain on this matter. He reckoned that whatever it was that came out of a garlic press, it sure as hell wasn’t garlic. Get a sharp knife, take your time, slip into a state of mindfulness and slice the garlic as finely as you are able.
The second of my twin pillars of umami is the humble anchovy. Anchovy is something of a catch all term for lots of little pelagic fish. There are even freshwater anchovies in Australia. That said, there are nine species in what is technically the family engraulidae that are commercially important. Many of them are caught just along the coast from Gibraltar in the Alborán Sea. For those with the best culinary reputation, you have to travel to the Atlantic coast of Cantabria, where their flesh has a pinkish hue. This variety is sufficiently highly prized to be gutted and preserved by hand, before sealing in those decorative little tins that we have all seen at some point in a grocery.
Anchovies, like Marmite, permit no neutrality. There are those who would banish them to the outer reaches of Hell, but frankly, the opinion of such ingenues need not concern us here.
One of the great schisms in contemporary anchovy worship is the thorny question of whether or not they belong on a pizza? As a committed engraulophile, I think a few fillets of these sturdy little fish bring an awful lot of value to any pizza party. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a dish that would not be given a boost by their inclusion. Black Forest gateau, perhaps?
Anchovies are masters at supplying that umami flavour to a dish: the one that makes diets a thing of the past and gluttony more likely. There are two good things about cooking with anchovies. The first is that they love company and can be added to any number of dishes. Rich beef stews and daubes benefit enormously from their presence. Lamb has been served with anchovies in one form or another for hundreds of years. The second thing is that their tiny little bones melt away along with any fishy aromas, leaving nothing but their earthy essence. You may even have been cooking with our little friends without realising it: they are one of the main ingredients in the ubiquitous Worcestershire sauce.
At this point in an article such as this one, it is traditional to finish with a recipe, and who am I to ignore such conventions? I call this one: “Interesting Broccoli”.
For this recipe you will need a sauté pan with a lid.
- One good sized head of broccoli broken into its constituent florets
- 5 very finely chopped cloves of garlic
- 1 tin of anchovies in olive oil
- 0.5 teaspoon of chilli flakes
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some liquid (water is fine, but beer and white wine also work)
Drain the oil from the anchovies into the pan and then finely chop them. Chop the garlic as finely as your knife skills will allow.
Add the tablespoon of olive oil to the anchovy oil. Add the garlic, anchovies and chilli and warm them through gently. You need to strike a balance here between cooking the mixture enough to release the flavours and overcooking it. You don’t want the nasty bitter taste of burnt garlic. A heat diffuser can help with this.
When the ingredients have amalgamated into a sauce, add the broccoli florets, stir well to coat with the sauce, add half a glass of water, pale ale or white wine, put the lid on the pan and cook for between 10-12 minutes. The broccoli should be tender but should still retain some bite.