Words and pictures by Gloria Feurra
The first information is a quantitative one: to make a liter of colatura you need about 1,650 anchovies. As I observe the sober 100 ml glass bottle, I picture 165 small fishes piled next to the laptop and I gasp. The second information is an aesthetic one: inside the vault where the product ages, one of the most vigorous and enigmatic whiffs overwhelmed my sense of smell like nothing has ever done before, disorienting and captivating it. Today, I attempt to decrypt it: it is the scent of a deep sea, salty and rocky, harnessed inside antique wooden casks.
At 64 Corso Umberto I, in Cetara, the Giordano family’s shop and laboratory, whose blueish sign asserts: Nettuno, prodotti ittici conservati (preserved fish products), has resided since 1950. I visit them on a late August Friday, after an epic drive along the renowned turns of the Amalfi Coast, still in its balmy golden season. Giulio is waiting in his workshop and, after a vigorous handshake, immediately points out that although on their website and sign one can read since 1950”, his family’s activity dates back to much more remote times. Before his father Raffaele, there was his namesake, grandfather Giulio, and one could continue backwards through this circularity of names in a loop perhaps as old as the colatura itself. His family heritage awakens a fresh memory: “In Cetara colatura was once only eaten in winter, when you did not have fresh fish; you would eat it on Christmas Eve, to season pasta, whereas now restaurants serve it year-round, thankfully!”
While starting from the ‘90s its consumption has spread over 365 days per year, the production of Nettuno’s colatura tradizionale, which proudly carries a Slow Food snail of approval, strictly complies with the rules of the biologic calendar, rather than the market ones: in the Gulf of Salerno, between April and August (or according to other beliefs between March 25th, the Annunciation, and July 22nd, Saint Magdalene’s Day) large schools of anchovies approach the coast to lay their eggs. In the dead of the night, boats equipped with fishing light attractors (locally called cianciolo) fill their nets with a silver prize. “Before six in the morning we have them here in the workshop”, says Giulio, and from that point on a story that will last for two years begins. The procedure prescribes for anchovies to be immediately decapitated and eviscerated (scapezzate), and left for the following 24 hours in a wood container filled with salt, “so they lose water”. What follows, if one were to hear it before tasting the final result – what are you waiting for? Shame on you! – would likely sound impossible to work. It is a fermented fish juice, and it is ancestral, mysterious, marvelous, exquisite. To summarize: the anchovies, now partially dehydrated, are ready to be arranged testa-coda (heads-to-tails) inside the terzigni (keg-sized, open-top chestnut barrels), in between abundant layers of salt. The last layer sketches the corona (crown), a sunburst of tiny fishes acting as the colatura maker’s signature, this one being Nettuno’s:
The corona will be first copiously covered with salt, then capped by the tombagno – a wooden disk with smaller diameter than the barrel’s opening – on top of which “river stones taken from the sea” will rest, smooth and heavy, gathered by the grandfathers and washed only once in freshwater before touching forever and exclusively saltwater. Roughly 25 kilograms of fish lie inside each terzigno. Seasons become accomplices to the rest of the production process: salting in Summer, with its generous temperatures, triggers the fermentation of the anchovies that, mashed by the stones’ weight and by the salt’s action, slowly release an amber liquid to the surface, leaving their solid component on the bottom.
Months pass and the liquid grows, gradually browning. Giulio allows me to snoop into the 70-year-old terzigni, while pointing out the different stages of maturation of what cannot, yet, be defined as colatura. At least two more Springs have to pass before the liquid retraces its path: poking the bottom of the barrel with a corkscrew key (vriale) will promote the descent of the fluid through the layers of fish and salt, further flavoring it and finally filtering it. Drop after drop, colatura is collected.To close the circle, what remains of the fish, now plundered of its essences, goes back to the sea to become feed in aquacultures.
It is impossible at this point to ignore the connection to the Roman garum so dear to Apicius. Sure, but if you let Giulio tell the history of this incredibly versatile flavor infusion, he would trace it back to the second half of the XIII century. It is thanks to the proverbial and accidental monastic luck in food preservation that colatura, originally the by-product of fish stored in forgotten salt-filled barrells, was born. And we, gratefully, thank both the absentmindedness of the Cistercian monks of the Amalfi hills and those devote fishermen who, homaging the clerics, begat a food surplus in the monasteries’ pantries which was crucial to light the fuse of their creative techniques.
Speaking of versatility, if I were to hazard a comparison, I would relate the colatura to monosodic glutamate, yet without the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’s psychosis lurking. Umami, iodiny. To be used in deliciously simple recipes such as spaghetti – but the Gragnano ones, and rehydrated in unsalted water – with EVOO, garlic and parsley, or steamed vegetables (Giulio suggests potatoes and aromatic herbs), or even on fish itself. Something bolder? O’ sang ‘e Maria, the Cetarese version of a Bloody Mary created by chef Pasquale Torrente from Il Convento, where colatura replaces salt, would be an emblematic example. Here are some tips that you will not find on the label: how to better preserve it, for example. Giulio docet, rule #1: outside the fridge. And don’t turn up your nose if within some weeks the colatura will brown, turning to a mahogany shade. It’s the oxidation process that – how lucky – not only doesn’t spoil the product, but enriches its flavour with further depht and longevity of taste . Once it’s opened, you can throw away the supplied cap: an unpeeled garlic clove or an oregano sprig will work even better. Herein I didn’t say everything: for instance how Giulio is a natural born communicator, how dedicated he is to his work, or how infectiuos his humor is. But I can say this: from the 20th to the 24th of September you will find him in Turin for the Salone del Gusto.If I were you, I would drop in.
Corso Umberto I, 64 – 84010 Cetara (SA)
Tel: +39 089 261147