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My first encounter with anchovies was a caper, anchovy and olive pizza that was so eye-wateringly salty that it ended my relationship with anchovies before we had a chance to get acquainted. Generally, a food accepted as edible by some fraction of the human race is something I can find a way to eat. But I couldn’t finish that pizza.

Anchovies and I remained estranged for years. I considered them a fishy fish — too much salt and stink. I decided they were still eaten mostly out of cultural loyalty, an artifact of former scarcity when people ate small oily fish because they couldn’t afford to turn their noses up at protein or fat in any form. And then at some point, there were simply too many anchovy recipes to stop producing the smelly little things.

But shortly after the turn of the century, I fell in love with Alice Waters. (You might know her as, oh, the chef/owner of Chez Panisse and inventor of the farm-to-table movement, for starters.) It was a long-distance affair, which, if you asked her, she might not remember well. But in its first full bloom, there wasn’t anything she suggested that I wouldn’t try, anchovies included.

Photography by Mary Jo Hoffman

So when Alice (she’ll always just be Alice to me) recommended keeping anchovies around as a basic larder staple, like black pepper, garlic or good vinegar, I lined my refrigerator door with jars in French, Italian and Spanish: anchois, acciughe, anchoas. I vowed that by whatever name and in whatever form, by sheer will if necessary, I would learn to love them. I would choke them down and like it, as an emblem of my great — though, I was beginning to suspect, at least partially unrequited — love.

Here and there, I would catch glimpses into the Latin world’s romance with these strange mouthfuls. They could seduce, at times, like some dark Mediterranean dream date, adding a fleshy sensuality to Niçoise salad, a brackish depth to orecchiette with rapini, an umami so voluptuous it was almost lewd in anchovy butter. But other times, there would be a bite of such tinny and almost revolting fishiness that I would return to my initial post-pizza verdict.

Around this time, I came upon Alice’s basic vinaigrette recipe, which remains on the short list of my life’s great food moments. It was also, I would say, the high point of our relationship, which could only progress so far unless she was willing to put in a little more work on her end. Prior to Alice, I had spent a lot of time ruining a lot of vinaigrettes before I learned to start by crushing a healthy pinch of coarse salt and garlic together, macerating them in wine vinegar for 10 minutes, then tasting that concoction for balance before adding oil.

The challenge with even that memorable and reliable preparation, however, is a tendency toward vinegary tartness that I can’t always seem to balance with more oil or salt. And that is where anchovies swam their pungent way back into my kitchen.

In one variation, Alice suggested crushing anchovy with the salt and garlic to begin the vinaigrette. So one day I drew a dark, bristly fillet from the jar, slapped it like a ragged leech in my mortar, crushed salt, garlic and anchovy into a gray paste, added vinegar, then added oil. Let me say there was something about that vinaigrette that was unlike any other before it. It was not just extra salty with a suspicion of tide pool. There was something mouth-filling that offset the acidity of the vinegar in the same way that lemon juice alone is unpleasantly puckery but lemon juice on a tuna steak is refreshingly bright. At that point, anchovies and I sort of nodded to each other, acknowledged that some hurtful things had been said, and more or less set aside our differences.

The Vermillion Coast of France is some 20 kilometers of rocky coastline that ambles a little drunkenly southward from Argelès-sur-Mer, between the impossible green of the Eastern Pyrenees and the impossible blue of the Mediterranean Sea, to the Spanish border, where it becomes the Costa Brava.

A friend who grew up in France once told me that if he could retire anywhere, it would be on the Vermillion Coast in the village of Collioure, a picturesque tumble of red-tiled roofs and medieval streets hugging the shore of one of the shapelier bays along the French seaboard.

The village is also renowned, out of proportion to its size, thanks to some guys who once came here to paint: Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Dufy and Chagall. Motivated by some combination of all of the above, our family found itself in Collioure one afternoon some years back and discovered it to be, indeed, a kind of perfectly proportioned jewel of pastel stucco, stone-paved passageways, and umbrellaed restaurant tables serving seafood and local rosé.

There was nothing not to like here, and yet I wandered the esplanades in that Southern European atmosphere of total and unbothered acceptance that life is beautiful in an unshakable funk. It is often like that for me in places that are famous for something high-culturish that happened a long time ago and are now reduced to marketing their past like a 45-year-old in a hockey jersey who once scored the winning goal.

In Matisse’s time, when Collioure was the primary fishing port on the Côte Vermeille, the half moon bay would have been filled with sailboats and fishing skiffs, and the beach covered with nets and women mending them. Today, there are pleasure craft in a small marina, and the beach is covered with tourists in swimsuits and man capris, intently engaged in not mending fishing nets. The actual working fishing port moved to the next town south along the coast, Port Vendres, almost certainly in order to accommodate the tourists and pleasure boats coming to see the picturesque fishing village that Matisse and Derain painted, which remains picturesque but is no longer in any meaningful way a fishing village.

I had just about had my fill of chasing the ghosts of Matisse and Dufy through a village the two would no longer recognize when I came across a sign for Anchois Roque on a loudly trafficked, diesel-scented street. I followed my nose through a small boutique up into a concrete processing room that smelled of vinegar and iodine, utterly out of sight of the late afternoon light playing in a painterly way over the cerulean blue of Collioure Bay.

The word “anchois” instantly brought back to me that Collioure was as famous in France for its anchovies as for its Post-Impressionists, which I found important and reassuring, because you can’t toast a slice of baguette, rub it with garlic, sprinkle it with sea salt and olive oil, lay a wet slice of tomato on it, then top it all with a Matisse. (That would be too expensive, to name only one objection.) Matisse himself would have preferred a plate of anchovies to a Matisse, I’d wager, if it were getting late in the afternoon on the quay after a too-light lunch.

Soon enough, I was giving my total attention to a white-aproned woman who was deftly tearing the dorsal fins from one after another of a limp pile of headless anchovies before splitting their backs open and filleting them with her fingers.

She was concentrating on her work and narrating softly in the rat-a-tat-a-tang Midi accent that is the beloved background music to any stay in the region. She explained how the fresh anchovies were beheaded, gutted, then brined in big casks for at least three months. They arrived on her worktable in slippery handfuls to be filleted and placed in rows on absorbent paper. Once dried, they would be fitted, again by hand, into jars and tins, ready to eat. Three hundred tons of anchovies a year, one fillet at a time.

So far, the only machine found to have enough precision and delicacy to process anchovy fillets is the human hand, which is remarkable in a world of Mars landings and in-vitro fertilization. As a result, six generations of human hands have been processing anchovies for the Roque family since 1870, which means that Fauvism may very well have been nourished not only by revolutionary ideas about art and color, but also more practically by the sturdy and hard-working Roque family — a thought that makes me inordinately happy.

What a peckish Fauve might have ordered, sitting at his cafe table after a long day fighting convention, would be a Salade Catalane composed of alternating spokes of anchovy fillets and tongues of roasted red pepper, sprinkled with hard-boiled egg, a persillade of parsley and garlic, and a vinaigrette of olive oil and Banyuls vinegar.

A century later, our aproned hostess recommended this very preparation to us, her eyes lifting briefly from her anchovies for emphasis, then pausing long enough to kiss her oily fingers through a conspiratorial smile, before going back to work in one of those places where good things haven’t changed.

Steve Hoffman’s Salade Collioure

Makes 4 servings

This rustic Mediterranean salad is inspired by French-Catalan flavors and two of the specialties of Collioure: anchovies and Banyuls vinegar. If you love anchovies, mix in a few extra fillets with the red pepper strips. This can be served as a lunch unto itself or as an appetizer or apéritif with olives, baguette and fresh goat cheese. Any Southern French or Northern Spanish wine will pair beautifully.

1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. coarse salt or fleur de sel
1 Tbsp. red Banyuls vinegar (preferred) or other red-wine vinegar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 large red bell peppers
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, finely diced
1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
12 oil-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed under cold water and patted dry
12 basil leaves
coarse salt
coarse black pepper
6 baguette slices, toasted (optional)
1 clove garlic, sliced in half (optional)

1. For the vinaigrette: Combine garlic, salt and vinegar in a bowl and let macerate 10 to 15 minutes.
2. For the salad: Roast red peppers over coals or gas flame or under broiler, turning regularly until skin is completely blackened. Let cool on a plate 5 minutes.
3. When cool enough to touch, hold each pepper vertically over a bowl, tear or cut off bottom end, and squeeze liquid into bowl. Remove any seeds then pour juice into vinaigrette mixture. Whisk vinaigrette mixture while gradually adding oil until salt is completely dissolved and vinaigrette is emulsified.
4. Peel blackened skin from flesh of peppers under a stream of cold water and remove stem and seeds. A few remaining specks of char will not hurt anything. Tear or slice peppers lengthwise into ¼-inch-wide strips. Add pepper strips to vinaigrette, toss together and set aside.
5. In a small bowl, combine parsley, diced garlic and oil. Mix with a fork and set aside.
6. Slice eggs in half. Tear or slice anchovy fillets in half crosswise.
7. To assemble: On each plate, arrange a small mound of red pepper strips. In center of each mound, place 2 egg halves, yolk up. Lay anchovies onto each egg in an X pattern. Spoon 2 to 3 grape-size mounds of parsley mixture onto plate. Distribute basil leaves, whole or torn depending on size, around plate. Dust with salt and pepper.
8. If desired, rub toasted baguette slices with cut side of garlic clove and serve with salad. Toast can be used to absorb excess vinaigrette and is wonderful topped with several red pepper slices, an anchovy and a basil leaf.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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