The ancient Romans loved to eat well. Look no further than the food represented in many Pompeian frescoes and mosaics, like the bread, figs, pomegranates and baskets of fruit portrayed at the most famous villa at Oplontis, the so-called Villa of Poppaea, named after the second wife of the Emperor Nero.
And from the buried cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia, archeologists have uncovered many artifacts of a gastronomic nature, a sign of the culinary prowess of this ancient civilization.
In particular, the Romans had a taste for garum, a funky sauce that, as Pliny the Elder describes, was obtained by mashing up fish entrails, layering them with salt and leaving them to ferment under the sun. The sauce was kept and transported in the famous Roman terracotta amphorae and sold in termopoliums, Roman-era takeaway shops. It’s believed that the Romans used garum liberally, even adding it to their desserts.
Nowadays we still eat foods that descended from the gastronomic habits of the Romans some 2,000 years ago. In the case of garum, the modern heir to this ancient sauce is colatura di alici, a product of Cetara, a village of 2,000 inhabitants on the Amalfi Coast.
According to local legend, the monks of San Pietro a Tuczolo, a nearby monastery, were the first to make colatura in the Middle Ages, supposedly by accident. These monks preserved anchovies, fished in local waters, with salt in old wooden wine barrels. Thanks to the salt, the anchovies produced a liquid that dripped between the worn staves, which had loosened with time. It is said that one day, upon entering the cellar where these barrels were kept, the monks smelled something delicious and started using this liquid to flavor their meals.
As you can see, the process, in principle, is similar to that of the Romans. But today the best fish fillets are used (the entrails and head are thrown away), and rather than being left to ferment in the sun, they are placed in salt in small chestnut barrels. After five months in the barrel, a very small hole is made in the bottom, and drop by drop (colatura means “pouring”) the amber and very salty liquid falls into a container, after which it is filtered through linen cloths.
To learn more about this special sauce, we met up with Luigi Battista, the owner of Delfino Battista, the company founded by his grandfather Pasquale Battista in 1950. It’s one of several small businesses in the fishing village of Cetara to produce the anchovy sauce.
In the case of garum, the modern heir to this ancient sauce is colatura di alici, a product of Cetara.
We are in Sapori Cetaresi, a shop of gastronomic delights in the center of town that exclusively sells products made by Delfino Battista. As we peruse the offerings, Luigi tells us how in the postwar period, Pasquale established a workshop in Cetara focused on food preservation. He worked mainly with anchovies fished in the Tyrrhenian Sea, using the traditional methods of the town’s artisans.
In 1990, Pasquale’s four sons took over the helm of the company and rebranded the business as Delfino Battista. Today the third generation is running the show: 40-year-old Luigi and his cousins continue to preserve anchovies and have even expanded into the processing of tuna.
“Alongside preserved anchovies and anchovy colatura,” Luigi tells us, “we produce excellent tuna fillets,” which are preserved in glass jars. “Everything is completely handmade. From product selection, to cleaning, storage and canning,” he is keen to add.
Since Cetara is famous for colatura di alici, you can taste it at all the restaurants in the village. It goes perfectly with spaghetti, but the most demanding Neapolitan pairs it with linguine – the flattened format has a larger surface to accommodate the sauce.
We love colatura because it is incredibly flavorful and complex yet very simple to prepare; the important thing is to boil the spaghetti or linguine without salt, as the sauce itself is quite salty.
Colatura di alici is not only a Slow Food Presidium product from the Campania Region but was also recently recognized as a DOP product by the European Union (specifically the anchovy sauce from Cetara). It’s an important recognition of a culinary tradition with ancient roots.
And since it is easy to prepare spaghetti, or linguine, with colatura, we wanted to share our recipe for the perfect spaghetti with anchovy sauce: Prepare the pasta per the instructions on the package (without adding salt in the water). In a separate pan, sauté a whole clove of garlic in olive oil (2 tablespoons per 100g of pasta) until soft, along with a pinch of red chile flakes and a handful of chopped parsley, then add the colatura (1 tablespoon per 100g of pasta) and set aside. Once the pasta is al dente, drain and toss in the pan with the sauce (remove the softened garlic clove before adding the pasta). Serve with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top (and pepper if you like).
Editor’s note: A bottle of Delfino Battista’s colatura di alici is among the goods found in our Backstreet Naples Box.
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