This year, JAMES BROWN decided to plan his summer holiday around his favourite dish.
However many millions of anchovies there normally are in the Mediterranean there were significantly fewer after my visit to Monterosso. There are many things I like, some things I love but there aren’t too many things I will blurt out that I am fan of. Yet, however weird it sounds, I am a fan of what the Italians call acciuga. I don’t know too much about them, I’m not an anchovy anorak, but I know I like eating them.
Obviously, like in any decent Italian seaside town, they appear on the many menus of Monterosso, but here you’ll find them centre stage, not as supporting acts.
Most significantly you also find multiple representations of anchovies in gift shops like the Fabrica D’Arte too, where typically stylish tea towels, T-shirts, fridge magnets, paperweights, cards, posters, and ceramic bowls and lampshades are all decorated with the dashing silvery blue fish.
They’re not cheap at all but if you’re into oceanic imagery and have space in your luggage you can pick up a nice crockery collection.
Monterosso sits a 90-minute coastal train ride south of Genoa, in the Cinque Terre – the stretch of tiny towns cut into the jagged cliffs of the Italian Riviera.
I’d never heard of it until days before I left for a weekend break, but one of the things that steered me away from other destinations I was researching was discovering what the region’s popular dish is. That’s the level of my anchovy attraction.
I will holiday for anchovies. My girlfriend thinks I’m nuts and forks them out of the many dishes I cook with them. I didn’t tell her I was going on some sort of quasi anchovy adventure.
It was teatime when I got to Monterosso and the station was full of Italian day trippers in swimsuits, holding enormous inflatables and heading home.
Once I’d checked into the Villa Adriana three minutes walk away, and then hit the pool for half an hour, the sun had cooled and the temperature was that warm comforting level that wipes out all worries and concerns, reduces your pace and just invites you to wander slowly or sit your self down and enjoy being still.
It was time to start my anchovy odyssey.
One of the women on reception gave me a recommendation for Trattoria Da Oscar, “a place to eat that locals like” at the far end of the Old Town.
The restaurant naturally had a few packed tables outside but it was the interior that set it apart. A stone alcove with seven small square metal tables with subtly understated minimalist decor that said this isn’t for pizza-hunting tourists so much as wealthy locals. There’s no hustle and bustle, no big international menu, no images of food, and no loud parties ordering pizzas.
The whole place was so deliberately downplayed it allowed you to concentrate on the food, but the decorations were not without humour. While I was waiting to order I looked up at the huge bell jars holding lightbulbs suspended by wires from the ceiling and realised the orange gemstones looked like tiny teddy bears.
It was only when I eventually left after my second visit that I realised they actually were Haribo teddy bears. It was a very well camouflaged and inventive joke that gave the room a noticeable glow and made me laugh. The waitress explained that often they have bowls of them for kids to take away.
The recovering sugar fiend in me wondered how many bags they’d had to open to get all the orange ones. But anyway, forget the gummy bears – where were the yummy anchovies?
Well, everywhere, to be honest. I tried not to wince when – thanks to the Brexit-walloped pound – I paid £15 for the Tris di acciughe, a plate of 12 anchovies in three different styles. One plain, one in oil, one with herbs. It was simple but delicious. I fancied a second helping but also remembered I needed to be able to buy a ticket back to Genoa at some point.
If you had come to get stuffed you’d need to linger over different dishes, but the Italian way of dining is about the quantity of chat and the quality of the food and as I was on my own I chose to concentrate on the latter.
And also to wonder how I’d got to this culinary point, a food tourist eating these tiny, pungent, things when I’d grown up with what might now be called an eating disorder, but which back then in the 1970s was simply known as “being faddy”.
That required a strict diet of fish fingers, chips and crisp sandwiches, so I struggled to see where I made the leap, especially given so many people don’t like anchovies.
I can only imagine my unlikely alliance with them started in my early thirties when I started eating salad. I don’t think that would ever had happened if, as a skinny young NME staff writer, I hadn’t met PRs who wanted to take me to posh restaurants for lunch to try and influence what I put in the magazine.
I slowly changed my ways and stopped being so fearful of food but it took me over a decade to graduate from pasta to sushi. By 2008 I had almost encountered and reassessed everything. Eggs and beetroot were the final major discovery. So, yes, I reckon I discovered anchovies in Caesar salad and then on pizzas.
Somewhere along the line I discovered that cooking with anchovy oil added flavour. I also found I liked piling them up on oatcakes for a snack and that chucking them into a frying pan straight from the bottle or can, in their own oil, makes a great base to cook from.
Nowadays I buy anchovies like cricket fans buy six-packs. When one of those occasional weeks of pre-Brexit shortage panic buying occurred last year I decided to stock up with about 12 assorted cans and jars of anchovies, but they’d all gone within a week.
If the food at Oscar’s place was stylish, tasty and healthy I found something more significant the next night at La Cambusa, the sort of characterful and hectic place that veers wildly between five and one star on Trip Advisor, depending on how patient you are with the friendly but distracted waiting staff. I found it a great place to sit and people watch.
But in terms of the food, here was the big gun, the anchovies bagno. It said it was a soup so I imagined it would have some sort of liquid element to it, but what arrived in a stubby compact earthenware pot the size of a boxer’s fist was a thick mix of cooked anchovies. Dry and tangy and utterly compelling.
If the appeal of anchovies is how distinct their taste is, this dish gave you nowhere to go but on and on and in. No distraction, no garnish. No compromise. There were more immediate and popular things on the menu and I seemed to be the only one eating it, but the waiter delivered the bagno with pride and was happy to find I’d finished all of it. If one of the best things about travel is enjoying points of difference it helped make my weekend. I can’t think of an English dish that’s as simple and full-on.