Fresh anchovies are all too often violated in a tin with oil and salt, are eaten by the metric ton in Spain and Portugal. When grilled, their oily, silvery skin lends the meat a fine savory flavor. Top that with a little sauce gribiche a briny concoction featuring hard-boiled egg yolks, cornichons, lemon, herbs and olive oil and it's hard to go wrong. Pair that with a glass of dry rosé wine, and you've got a wonderful appetizer that (for a moment, anyhow) will allow you forget that you're in St. Louis, and that it's 110 degrees with 95 percent humidity and your air conditioning is on the fritz.
Of course, anchovies are oily oily. As such, this dish lives and dies on the freshness of the fish because really, is there anything worse than musty anchovy? Plus, anchovies are hard to come by in these parts. That means we usually have to content ourselves with those denatured flattened fillets that shoot your blood pressure through the roof. Oh, I suppose you could pony up the ten bucks or so for a delicious tin of white anchovies, but, good as they are, they remain more a garnish than a meal.
So I couldn't resist when I came across a jar of Aleli's Crispy Anchovies the other day while browsing through the supermarket. Sure, these fish fried whole, their unseeing eyes peeking through the crisp golden batter are nothing like grilling fresh anchovies. Still, they reminded me of those wonderful plates overflowing with crispy fried sprats you find in Greece and Italy. And you know what they say about when in Rome... But the thing is, we're in St. Louis, not Rome. What's more, these anchovies aren't even from the Mediterranean. They were packed in the Philippines that's pretty far from the fryer.
And it shows.
I'm no ichthyologist, but caught between my molars, I'd say these Aleli's Crispy Anchovies are a case study in truthful advertising. They were certainly crisp, and I'd also say that, keeping in mind my limited taxonomic skills, these little fish were definitely anchovies.
But like so many products that are advertised, it's the unmentioned and fine print on the bottle of the Aleli's Crispy Anchovies that really matters. In this case, they don't mention for instance, that on the tongue these anchovies appear to have a high fecal content, their guts are on full display and the crust that clings to the inside of the skull are the remnants of the anchovy's pint-sized brain. The label does mention that some of the anchovies will have eggs, but at this point that's more of a parenthetical statement.
It's enough to make you pine for those salty fillets they throw on low-rent pizzas. If only they weren't so oily.