I don’t know if it happened you too as well, but while in class at elementary school someone’s grandfather would pass by and tell us of his life as a child. Stories of living in the countryside, sometimes war stories, personal stories, often stories of shared poverty. So, somewhat like a legend, inside my head as a child began the anchovy myth.
While the grandfathers told their stories, I would imagine a large table, a warm and rustic atmosphere, where the family gathered after their daily hardships, ready to consume yet another frugal supper. In fact as often happened, there would be a nice pot of steaming polenta (cornmeal) on the table. Cornmeal today, cornmeal tomorrow, cornmeal every day and I would imagine had sad and boring it would be to constantly eating the same thing. However at the end of the monotonous culinary tunnel, occasionally, there would be some anchovies. I don’t know if this actually happened, or if my childhood imagination went a bit overboard, but I remember that at some point during the stories (of extreme poverty) anchovies came into the scene, a real coup de théâtre: an anchovy was hung from the ceiling and dangled over the diners’ table, and then everyone began to eat a slice of cornmeal with anchovies to try to give a new flavor and a touch of color to the usual dish.
Then I grew up and food and its history have become a source of curiosity, yet the story of the suspended anchovy always remained with me. You’ll always find anchovies in my home, as long as there’s an anchovy there is hope.
Anchovies have a strong bond with the hills of the Langhe, it’s the queen of many Piedmont dishes, but how did anchovies get to our hills from the sea? The answer is quite fascinating, anchovies arrived via the mountains.
You may find the story at this point rather bizarre and confusing, but there is a common denominator that binds all these aspects: salt.
There are many legends and few certainties regarding what route the anchovy took; all we can do is guess and stitch together the tales and popular beliefs. There was a time when salt was a luxury item, hence very expensive and subject to taxes and duties. This situation had nurtured a parallel trade and smuggling. There is speculation that, in order to hide the precious cargo, the door-to-door salt “vendors” covered up the barrel of white gold with an abundant layer of anchovies. Layer by layer the anchovies began to have a lot of success and as salt prices went down they became the real protagonists.
But who actually brought the anchovies and what routes did they take? Well we’ll discover this further on when we tell they story of the heroic and incredible feat of the anciuè (anchovy sellers) by retracing, at least in part, the salt route and by preparing together a few delicious recipes.
If like me you love anchovies and you have a recipe you’d like to share, you can send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org (it will be published in the Langhe.net recipes section). Furthermore there is currently a contest underway on anchovies organized by the Alba Bra Langhe and Roero Tourism Board: all the details can be found at this link.
Photo credits: Corrado Morando – Askya