Monday, 15 August 2011

A fishy outing

In a week of erratic weather – ie, some cloudiness and even one spell of rain - we found ourselves exploring things to do in Collioure other than sunning oneself on the beach.

Quite a lot of that, to be fair, involved sitting out on the little terrace at the house we were renting, with books, fags and coffee to hand.

But on one such day, after we'd whiled away a morning in such pleasant fashion, the weather was showing signs of improvement and we decided to be up and out.

One of the things I've been meaning to get around to doing in Collioure for at least the last three years is to visit one of the two anchovy houses that still operate there. 

Both apparently allow you to have a look around, including watching the women who still fillet these tiny, pungent fish by hand.

Have finally sussed where one of them was, we decided to start a general afternoon perambulation by paying a visit.

There was a door quite clearly marked, suggesting that you enter to visit the production area. But I'm still a reserved English person, so I checked in the shop first.

'Of course; go on up - it's the first floor - you can taste the anchovies too.'

We climbed the short staircase. A door stood before us, telling us to enter, but not to knock.

So we did - and we didn't.

In a large old room two women were at work; one filleting, one taking the result and packing them into jars and weighing them.

The only obvious difference from the past, which I'd seen via photographs, was that they wore the regulation hygienic attire and that the surfaces they were working at were stainless steel. Otherwise, this was as old as the hills.

I asked if photography were okay. The woman doing the filleting said yes, barely interrupting her work.

It was fascinating. She had a pile of fresh anchovies next to her and a box for the discarded spines on her knee.

She took a fish and stripped it open and removed the spine with deceptively easy movements, laying each completed half neatly on a paper towel in front of her, just overlapping the piece before.

When a paper towel was full, her colleague then took it, picked a handful of the delicate fish up, overlapping as they were, and started lining the jars, then measuring them on a scale to check the net weight.

The uniform might be new, but this was a skill that dated back centuries.

I was astonished that we could wander around freely. To be honest, I'd expected to be allowed only to see anything from behind glass: but whisper it quietly, this is a Eurocrat-free zone. Concessions, fine - ie the uniform. All-out change - no way!

There, in one, is another reason I love the French. They love rules - but they know the rules to love and those to ignore.

So, for instance, they are close to religious about having at least one boulangerie in every village, no matter how small (there are at least four in Collioure that we know of) and they are serious about laws on democracy and the press that mean that, if you want to stock one newspaper (with one opinion), then you stock them all (with all opinions).

We tasted both types of anchovy - the dark brown ones are very salty and I find them a bit bony, to be honest, but they're still very tasty. The silvery ones are known as boquerones (or roquerones, as they're called by the company in question, Roque Anchois) and they're a tangy mouthful, marinated in vinegar. These have no bones left at all.

Downstairs and back in the shop, it was time for a little stocking up - not on anchovies themselves, which I can easily get in London – but on some of the other products that the company has developed, including small pots of anchovy cream and sauce (one of which can be thinned to use either as a salad dressing or as the base for a soup, according to the absolutely charming woman who chatted with us for some time), plus a jar of monkfish liver, which is a new one on me - and I'm seriously curious - and a little jar of a mustard with Banyuls, the local fortified wine, and honey.

I resisted a jar of green olives, stuffed with almonds, which had been arranged so beautifully in jars that they resembled pineapples, and heaven alone knows how many other tempting goodies, but the bags were already in panic mode at what was already waiting to make the long journey back to England.

The coming months will see some serious experimentation in the Catalan cooking stakes.

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