MY PRIVATE ITALY: The “Colatura di Alici” of Cetara, the liquid gold of the Coast

Monday, 27 July 2020 15:04 Written by
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Italy, in addition to being a wonderful country, boasts an incredible variety of extraordinary products. In these days, in so many places some special people are committed to carrying on ancient customs and traditions as if nothing had changed over time.

A few years ago, in one of my visits to the “Salone del Gusto” di Torino (the Turin Taste Show), I stopped at a small stand of a small company from a small village on the Amalfi Coast, Cetara. Here, Vincenzo, the owner of the company Nettuno (Neptune), made me discover the treasure of his land: the “Colatura di Alici”. And he invited me to visit him.
And so I did. On the first occasion, during a tour of the coast, I stopped in Cetara. Cetara is still a fishing village, welcoming visitors with simplicity, gradually revealing its hidden treasures: the Tower, dating back to the 16th century and built to ward off Muslim incursions, the Church and Convent of St. Francis (17th century) and the Church of St. Peter the Apostle with its Baroque interior and the famous Maiolicate Dome (19th century). But the real attraction here, in addition to the beautiful coastlines and the wild nature of the area behind the village, is gastronomy. This is not only the land of anchovies but also of tuna, thanks to the large fleet based here: Cetara is home to one of the most active tuna fisheries in Europe. Also, there's lemon, the “Sfusato Amalfitano”: it seems to have been born to enhance the local bluefish.
But the queen is the Colatura. A noble and ancient product, used for seasoning Julius Caesar and Roman Emperors’ meals, then recovered by some monks who restarted production in the Middle Ages. Well, what is it? Colatura di Alici is nothing more than a very tasty sauce from anchovies aged in salt, originally made for the most important meal of the year, Christmas Eve’s lunch.

Let's start from the beginning. Anchovies, those small fish with a blue-green back and silver belly, called "acciughe" in Northern Italy and “alici” in the Centre South, are part of the family of the so-called “blue fish” which characterizes, among other things, the famous Mediterranean diet. Anchovies populate the Italian seas, getting closer to the coast in spring, and have always been eaten throughout Italy. You have the marinated, salted and peppery anchovies from Calabria, the marinated anchovies of Lazio and the anchovies “sotto sale” from Gaeta, then again the anchovy fillets and anchovies in Sicilian oil and the “magghia” masculine anchovy from the Gulf of Catania. Moving north, you’ll find the salted anchovies of the Ligurian Sea and the anchovy of Monterosso, while in Veneto you’ll be able to taste the marinated anchovies of the Po delta. My father, who was from Tuscany, mixed them with boiled meat and onions for Christmas Eve’s dinner. And back south, in Campania, next to salted anchovies, spicy “alicette” (small anchovies), marinated anchovies and the delicious anchovies of Menaica, here it is: the “Colatura di Alici di Cetara”.
The “Colatura” takes us on a journey through the centuries, back to the Romans. In fact, it is the direct heir to the "garum", a fermented sauce with an intense flavour. The Roman made it by fermenting minnows and bits of fish, including heads and entrails, in large tanks exposed to the sun. Their version was denser and they loved to sprinkle it on many dishes: Plinius talks about it when describing the patricians’ banquets cooked by the legendary chef Apicio.
The "garum" is certainly the ancestor of Colatura, but the latter is liquid and clear, much more refined and, while intense, more delicate. The secrets of its production were passed over the years to present days by a few families of the village, who ate it at home and traded it with other foods. An ancient seasoning that was about to disappear but that today, thanks to the rediscovery by some great chefs of Campania and Southern Italy, has become a product for connoisseurs and gourmands.
But how do you make the Colatura, and why is it such a complex product? It all starts on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation: until July 22nd, St. Mary Magdalene’s day, local fishermen fish as many anchovies as possible in the waters of the coast. Once fished, anchovies are immediately brought to the local laboratories, run by the families who long kept the secrets of its preparation; once eviscerated and deprived of their heads, anchovies are stored for 24 hours in containers with abundant sea salt.
From here, anchovies are moved into the "terzigni”, small barrels made of chestnut or oak wood, and alternated with layers of coarse salt until the barrel is filled. All anchovies must be in direct contact with salt, which will be the main preserving agent. On top of each “terzigno”, they put a wooden disc, which is kept in place with heavy stones, gradually replaced with lighter ones. Thus the fish matures and the liquid is expelled, thanks to pressure. This liquid is put in glass containers and exposed to sunlight: this way, thanks to evaporation, it will concentrate more and more.

After 4 or 5 months, that is between October and November, the concentrated liquid is again poured into the original “terzigno”, where the anchovies are still preserved in salt. Dripping through the layers and absorbing the best sensory characteristics, the liquid is then recovered through a hole at the bottom of the barrel: “cola”, that is it drips. Finally, it is filtered through linen cloths, and in December it is ready to be used. Not only the process is complex, but also its proportions: each “terzigno”, filled with about 20 kg. of anchovies, hardly produces 2 litres of Colatura.
The result is a true “sea concentrate”, with a strong and deep taste, including some smoking notes despite being obtained from fresh anchovies.
Colatura is not an industrial product, it is a niche product, everything is done by hand. It is mainly sold in 100ml bottles. and is used as a seasoning but also to flavour dishes based on fish or vegetables: for example, it is used to season stuffed pizza. Together with olive oil, garlic and chilli, it is also used for sautéed vegetables, chard, spinach, cabbage, and to season tomatoes or olives.
But the best (and easiest!) way to use it is to season spaghetti, by far. Fill up a pot with water (not salted!) and cook spaghetti; once you have drained them (I beg you, they must be very “al dente”!), remove the pot from the heat and keep some cooking water. Then put spaghetti back on the fire in a frying pan, add a tablespoon of hot water, two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a generous tablespoon of Colatura, a finely chopped clove of garlic, a handful of chopped parsley and a pinch of chilli, if you like it spicy. In the end, mix vigorously and eat them warm.

In a matter of minutes and with a few simple ingredients, you will have a regal, sea-scented pasta dish, which will make you bless popular wisdom. And you will wonder how you managed to survive so long without ever having had a bottle of Colatura in your pantry, as it happened to me right after the first bite.
Buon appetito!

Read 5201 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2023 06:16
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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