The Italian Anchovy Juice That Might Change Your Life
Colatura di alici is the transformative ingredient you’ve been waiting for.
Nobody sane ever asks me for cooking advice, and probably with good reason. In any event, I almost never offer any, and am about to do so now only because of something I learned from a linguist, also not your usual source of culinary wisdom. It shows what happens when you pay attention without knowing why.
I met the linguist, whose name is Roberto Dolci, and who teaches at Universita per Stranieri in Perugia, in the course of researching another article, about the Italian American habit of calling tomato sauce gravy. We were introduced by a folklorist I had just interviewed—I point this out only to show the discursive route to my discovery. Dolci began by admitting he had no idea why some Italian Americans might say gravy where everyone else says sauce—in this he was not alone—but he was happy to expound instead on the history of the words, going back to ancient Rome and what is perhaps the oldest Italian sauce, much older than tomato (which came to Europe from the New World only as part of the Columbian Exchange).
“If you look at the etymology of sauce,” Dolci said,
it comes from salsa, which comes from the Latin word salso, meaning salted—salato in Italian, salsus in Latin. Have you ever heard of the garum? It was one of the first sauces ever, common in Roman times, made of fish—they used to put it on everything. It was supposedly strong and smelly. It was the actual juice of the fish, I don’t know how they made it, but in Italy today we have something similar called colatura di alici. It’s very much like the garum, because it is made of anchovies that have been salted and then pressed to release the liquid.
That was all well and good, if useless for the piece I was writing, but then sometimes the most useless information will turn around and prove itself spectacularly otherwise.
A few weeks later, I pick up an issue of New York magazine devoted to food, and find, in an article about celebrity ingredients, a glowing mention of colatura di alici. To have gone my entire life never knowing of this stuff’s existence, and then to stumble upon it twice in quick succession—well, you can see how a person might take that as a sign. Read more on Slate.