Stand on the small town beach in L’Escala on the Costa Brava at dawn, close your eyes and try to visualise the scene a century ago. A procession of white-painted, wooden-hulled anchovy boats makes its way round the point, their triangular lateen sails gracefully inclined as they tack towards the beach. A team of strong young men stands ready to hoist the ropes over their shoulders and heave the boats up the sand – to this day the inhabitants of L’Escala are jokingly referred to as esquenapelats, their backs (esquenas) raw (pelats) from the rubbing of the ropes.
Fast forward to 2015 and though the boats have changed – and much else along the Costa Brava – L’Escala is still defined by its anchovies. Nowadays there’s a swanky new harbour round the bay at La Clota and the town beach is left to the sunseekers and bathers.
To get a feel for today’s anchovy fishing scene, you don’t need to be up at dawn: 8 o’clock is early enough. The boats, diesel-powered nowadays, chug into the harbour after a night out at sea. We join a number of others waiting expectantly on the quayside: boat owners, fish wholesalers, anchovy processors, the odd chef, some little old ladies armed with plastic bags, and a handful of the simply curious. A fork-lift truck bustles about, politely tooting its horn to clear a path through to the newly docked boats.
The shallow wooden trays with the name L’Escala proudly emblazoned on the sides are tightly packed with gleaming, pop-eyed, silvery-blue fish barely the length of my little finger and layered with chipped ice. One by one the trays are carefully stacked up on pallets – a steady pair of arms is needed for the unloading and the stacking, as any fish that fall to the ground are fair game for gleaners. Inevitably a few go skittering onto the quay, and we observe a brief, fairly amicable skirmish as an elderly lady and an equally elderly gentleman snatch up the wayward anchovies and stow them in their plastic bags.
Some of the anchovies are destined to be flash-fried or grilled and served with lemon wedges, but most go to be salted. Some families still do this process at home, either to sell or for private consumption, but the bulk of the catch is salted by small, family-owned processors like Callol I Serrats, in the business since 1847. Senor Callol is looking glum when I visit him at the factory on the outskirts of town – he was on the quayside this morning too, but the anchovies were too small. In order to make it worthwhile, he needs at least 40 fish to a kilo; this morning there were more like 50 to the kilo, too small and fiddly to bother with. (Asked if an anchovy grows up to be a sardine, he grins and says no, they’re two different fish – see an explanation here.) As the season runs only from May to the end of September, he needs to be sure that he takes in enough provisions to see him through the whole year.
The fish are cleaned and beheaded by a nimble-fingered team of 6 to 8 women and layered with sea salt in big wooden casks. There they stay, without refrigeration, for between three and six months. At the height of summer, the ripening process goes very fast; early and late in the season the process takes a little longer. Then the anchovies are either filleted or left whole. Fillets are painstakingly lined up vertically in glass jars, while the whole fish are laid head to head horizontally and packed in tightly till the jar is full.
What, if anything, has changed since 1847? Very little, observes Señor Callol, pointing to the faded sepia photographs on the wall showing the women working in the old factory in town, going through just the same motions. And what about modern preservatives, E numbers and the like? He looks a little pained. All you need is fresh fish, good salt, careful handling and scrupulous hygiene, and the fish will keep in good order for up to a year. It’s a classic, artisanal product, which has been made in the same way for centuries.
The classic Catalan way is to rub slices of crusty bread with a halved tomato and some garlic, lay the anchovy fillets on top and drizzle with fruity olive oil. Or press the fillets into service to liven up an escalivada, that savoury Catalan mixture of peppers, aubergines and tomatoes, or to add a piquant touch to your next batch of lemony, garlicky hummus, slathered on toasted ciabatta or Arab bread.
[A version of this article originally appeared in FT Weekend, one of five included in my shortlisted entry for a GFW Food Journalist of the Year Award]