The Mediterranean was exhausted. It is not just that, throughout the 19th century, Italy doubled its population, it is that the techno-industrial revolution also reached the seas and the new fishing tackle and systems put the Mar Nostrum fishing grounds against the ropes. The anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) was scarce and the big canning houses in Genoa, Naples and Sicily began to look for an alternative.
A ‘little Italy’, but in the Bay of Biscay. Spain was by no means the first option. For years, the Italians settled in areas of southern Portugal, Tunisia or Algeria looking for new fishing grounds. But the results were unsatisfactory.
It was then that “an Italian diplomat from the consular career visiting the Bay of Biscay, […] he observed the abundance and quality of anchovy, and the scant interest of the natives for it”. He got in touch with some Genoese salting workers and the first expeditions to the north coast of the Peninsula began.
Between the 1880s and 1920s, thousands of Italians arrived at the ports of Bermeo, Laredo, or Santoña. At first, it was about technical personnel who came and went every year (and spent barely four months in the Bay of Biscay). But as the salting industry grew and personal relationships deepened, things changed.
The anchovy: a love story. In fact, it changed a lot. Salting is an ancient practice linked, how could it be otherwise, with the sea and the conservation of fishing. However, the entire Italian industry at the time focused on catching anchovies, anchovies or anchovies and preparing them whole in salt.
In other words, to eat them, you had to clean them at home and, without skin or bones, eat them plain or with butter. That had obsessed Giovanni Vella Scaliota, one of the salatori of the prestigious Neapolitan firm Angelo Parodi, for years. However, the life of the salt workers was not easy: constantly coming and going from one port to another.
Around 1881 or 1882, Vella fell in love with Dolores, a young woman from Santoña. That small detail made that life of travel come to an end and the Sicilian settled in Cantabria permanently. There, with time between the seasons, he began to experiment with something new: couldn’t the cleaning process be done in the factory and serve the already cleaned anchovy fillets to the final consumer?
How to revolutionize one of the oldest industries in the world? The idea was simple, but its execution was far from trivial. If salted fish hadn’t reached that point after thousands of years of intensive development… it would be for a reason. It took a lot of work (and a lot of experimentation) to find a methodology that could be used effectively with the technology of the day. It was not just, as before, a matter of selecting the fish and putting them in brine: they had to be processed very precisely so that they arrived ready to eat at people’s homes.
That is, now they had to be beheaded and eviscerated by hand. Then they had to be put into barrels (interspersing layers of salt and anchovies) where they were pressed to gradually dehydrate the anchovy. And, then, you had to wait at least six months. This was the easy part because it didn’t involve any real innovation. It was, more or less, what had been done up to that moment.
The skin had to be removed, put through several hot water baths, dried with a cloth and cleaned by hand (removing the central bone, extracting the fillets and removing the bones). At the end, put them in oil (or in butter with capers) and close the cans so that they can be perfectly preserved.
Fish is written with ‘i’ for Iberian. That idea caused an earthquake in the entire salted fish industry and, even more, gave a key impulse to the Cantabrian communities to turn fishing into an industrial business of international weight. Before refrigeration technology was available, the Italian-Spanish synthesis of the Cantabrian Sea caused the most important revolution since the encounter between the Portuguese and the Vikings produced salted cod.
In DAP | How are anchovies, anchovies and bocarte different?
Image | Inigo De La Maza