In a few weeks time, it will start to get busy for the small Basque anchovy producer Anchoas Royo located in the small fishing village of Bermeo in Spain. As the weather starts to get better, in the month of April, the boats will embark to catch the anchovies in the bay of Biscay. These are best between the months of April and June because the fish are bigger in these months.
From here begins a long process of maturing the fish before they are ready to be sold on the market. After the fish reach the factory, they are salted and they will be allowed to mature for a long period before they are ready to be handled with care, one fish at a time and placed in the cans.
The anchovies from Cantabria are known for their exceptional quality and you need to taste them to understand why these are sought after by food lovers around the world.
“We are a very small company that gives a lot of importance to sustainability,” says Juan Carlos Royo Gabancho. “We only catch the fish we need and do it in a sustainable way using nets that don’t sweep other unnecessary fish. The fish that we catch will be placed in boxes, nine kilos per box so it is essential for us to have quality because by the end of the process, the fish will shrink.”
Basque chef Eneko Atxa of three Michelin star restaurant Azurmendi uses the anchovies in different preparations including in a meat stew and appreciates the quality and attention to detail of this producer who painstakingly waits until the anchovies are perfectly matured before he puts them on the market.
The company employs just 10 people around the year because a long time is spent waiting for the fish to mature but during this peak period, they will contract 70 people for around 25 to 30 days of work. During this time, and when the fish arrive fresh at the workshop, people will remove the heads of the anchovies and then they will put a layer of fish and a layer of salt until they fill a 120 kilo barrel.
Once the barrel is weighed, they will put a weight on top so that the anchovies and salt are pressed and the blood is removed naturally from the fish.
“Anchovies are normally ready to be sold 5 months from here but I prefer to keep the anchovies preserving for 12 months because the end result is better. Both the taste and the colour is better after a 12 month process,” Juan Carlos said.
After spending 5 to six months in these barrels, they will be labelled and put in a refrigerator. “By the first process we lose 35 to 45% of the weight. During the refrigeration process we lose another 50% which means that by the end of the process we have only 10 kilos of fish. From the total weight we start with we end up with 15% of the total product,” Juan Carlos said.
When they are ready to be processed, the anchovies are rinsed in water and then they are cleaned one by one with a fishing net to remove the skin of the fish. From here, the anchovies are opened one by one to remove the spine and the bones.
The anchovies are then placed in the tins, one at a time before they are covered with olive oil.
Anchovies are small oily fish that are abundant in different seas. Anchovies have been part of the culinary world for centuries having been used by the Roman civilisation in making garum, a type of fermented fish made up of anchovies, brine, fish innards and aromatic fresh herbs. This was used as a condiment or as an addition to different dishes and meals. Anchovies were also eaten raw at the time.