Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Where have all the anchovies gone?

Let me tell you the story of Umberto the whale:

Umberto was a great big whale who lived in the sea. He was a happy whale, swimming about all day and getting bigger and bigger all the time.

Umberto the whale loved to eat, but unlike other whales who eat krill and plankton, Umberto liked to eat anchovies. Absolutely loved the things, so he did.

Every day he would eat more and more anchovies and grow bigger and bigger, and while this made him very happy, all the people in the world were sad because there were no anchovies left for them to put on their pizzas.

Umberto lived happily ever after, at least until last week when the anchovies were all gone and he died.

Having an Anchovy of a time

Now, this is all very possibly untrue, given that I've just made it up, but it's as good an explanation as any for the distinct lack of anchovies in the world these days.

Over recent weeks and months, I've eaten numerous Italian meals out, both in chain places and independents, and my favourite thing about Italian food has all but disappeared from the menus.

The Last of the Anchovies
Maybe life is imitating that Futurama episode where the final anchovies remaining on the planet have become almost priceless after the extinction of the species?

That would be fucking scary. Who'd want to live in that world?

The worst offender is probably Bella Italia. They offer a massive range of pizza, pasta, calzone and risotto, not a single one of which has an anchovy on it. Nor indeed does their Caesar Salad. That's neither Bella nor Italia in my book.

They aren't even available as an optional extra topping, for fucks sake. You can choose from about four different kinds of pizza base, with vegan and gluten-free options, and you can put bloody chicken and beef and broccoli and other inappropriate shit on your Roma base, but something as basic and traditional as an anchovy? No Signore!

It's entirely ridiculous as Anchovies are absolutely essential to classic Italian cooking. The trademark Neapolitan style with anchovies, olives and capers (and little or no cheese) is one of the most amazing topping combos ever conceived in a frenzy of salty passion.

Good but no Anchovy
What about the classic Quattro Stagioni? One of the four seasons should be anchovies, it's as simple as that. A quarter olives or mushrooms, a quarter artichokes, a quarter of prosciutto or salami, and, yes, very definitely thank you, a quarter liberally covered with anchovies.

I'd settle for three seasons so long as one of them was anchovies. Actually, I'd settle for one season.

Fuck you, Umberto

I'm not letting the others off the hook either. Pizza Express now don't appear to offer any anchovy-based pizzas by design, and you can ask for some to be added or swapped in, but - in Caterham this week at least - these turned out to be little flecks of fresh anchovy that didn't really pack a lot of flavour, nor did they dissolve into the pizza base in the way Neptune intended.

I've nothing against fresh anchovies, but they lack the fermented, umami richness that the salted fillets offer. Some foods - not many, but some - are improved by processing, and that's just the way it is.

If you look really, really, really closely...

It was my birthday last month and on the day itself we found ourselves in Brighton where there are a number of great little independent trattorias, including Zafferelli, where we found ourselves late that evening. I had a very fine cured meat selection with delicious homemade bread, followed by a generous portion of very tasty Gnocchi Ragu. They even did me an impromptu birthday Panna cotta with a candle in it, even though it was gone midnight. Lovely.

But the menu didn't offer an awful lot in the way of Anchovisation facilities, and this is a proper family restaurant, not some chain place that has to do whatever the great whale tells it to! And it was my birthday!

On a positive note, Bucci, in Balham High Road continues to offer a proper Napoletana, festooned as it should be with olives, capers and anchovies. Maybe they hid them from Umberto the Whale and smuggled them out of the sea, losing myriad lives in the process.

Either way, thank you Bucci. I'll be back to do a proper review of you soon. Stock up on little salty fish and avoid big, hungry whales.

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