Hakai Magazine

The fishing village of Cetara, Italy
The fishing village of Cetara, Italy, is known for its anchovies and a sauce produced from the fish called colatura di alici. Anchovies are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. Photo by Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo

The Fish That Gave Too Much

The Italian fish sauce—colatura—is made from anchovies and literally adds the Mediterranean into the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. So many good things, however, have a downside.

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by Paul Greenberg

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The Mediterranean presents itself as a perfect expression of balance. Ideally poised between alpine coolness to the north and the blazing Sahara to the south, it is that special sweet spot that allowed humanity to blossom. The sea is crystal-clear blue. The surrounding cliffs and the traces of aqueducts that still snake their way from high mountain meadows are a testament to the depth of Roman civilization.

It’s late summer and I’d been slowly making my way toward the Italian fishing village of Cetara, a town built into a rocky crevice 40 kilometers southeast of Naples. I was headed there to experience a food in which the town of Cetara takes particular pride: the European anchovy, Engraulis encrasicolus, a small member of the order Clupeiformes whose annual migrations up and down the Amalfi Coast make it a bedrock of the local cuisine. Like so many Italian towns, Cetara has decided to stake its reputation, even its very soul, on a single food product, zeroing in on this silvery minnow-like fish.

In Cetara, I met up with Beatrice Ughi, the woman who had promised to unlock the secrets of the local anchovy for me and help me understand how the fish fit more broadly into what has come to be called the Mediterranean diet. Ughi is an Italian specialty food importer based in New York City who visits her native Italy every year in search of the best local foods.

Ughi marched me down a narrow street to a small storefront bearing the name Nettuno. The door opened up onto a large cavernous space, tiled white and redolent with an intriguing smell. On one side of the odiferous spectrum, it bore traces of the watermelon scent a fisherman recognizes as the effervescences of living fish in the water. On the other, it smelled of decomposition and rot. Overall, it was oddly pleasant.

colatura fermenting barrel

To make colatura, anchovies are fermented for years in barrels of brine, a process that likely began with the Phoenicians, maritime traders who predate the Roman Empire. Photo by Realy Easy Star/Alamy Stock Photo

Ughi hurried us inside to meet Vincenzo Giordano, a singular fishmonger. Giordano wasted no time leading us into the fermenting room—smell of fish rot hung even heavier in the air—and over to a row of tersigni, barrels cut into thirds for the specific task of fermenting small batches of the fish sauce made from anchovies. “Here,” Giordano said, “what you have to do is take the fish, and you, well, you pinch the heads off.”

He laid out rows of anchovies, their heads removed, in neat silvery rows. Then adds a layer of sea salt, then another layer of anchovies. Finally he placed a wooden lid over them.

“And then?” Ughi asked.

“Now we wait. For about two years. And then. Colatura.” Truly slow food.

The full name, colatura di alici, is direct—it means anchovy drippings. The sauce is the color of amber and it’s delicious. Colatura represents two things to me. To be all judgmental, one of those things is good: it’s the epitome of the famed Mediterranean diet, heavily laced in life-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids. The other thing is bad: colatura symbolizes the severing of an ancient relationship between Mediterranean societies and their sea.

Colatura’s roots are ancient. Fish drippings have long been a part of the Mediterranean diet and Nettuno’s recipe and process differs little from the early makers of the original version that the Romans called garum.

Apicius describes the Roman method thusly: “It is best to take large or small sprats, or failing them, anchovies or house-mackerel, make a mixture of all and put into a baking trough. Take two pints of salt to the peck of fish and mix well to have the fish impregnated with salt. Leave it for one night, and then put it in an earthenware vessel which you place open in the sun for two to three months [18 months for large fish], stirring with a stick at intervals, then take it up, cover it with a lid and store away. Some people add old wine, two pints, to one pint fish.”

It is unclear exactly when the various recipes for garum became codified. It is clear from archaeological evidence that its use goes back to the beginning of the Bronze Age. The very first distilled fish sauces were probably made by the Phoenicians, a nation that predated both Greece and Rome and, perhaps more than any other Mediterranean civilization, based its power and wealth on the sea.

Bottles of colatura

Italy’s modern colatura has its roots in ancient Rome. Photo by Realy Easy Star/Alamy Stock Photo

A compulsively trade-minded society situated in what is today modern Lebanon, Phoenicians probably began the process of salting fish in mass quantities. They also probably came to understand that whenever you engage in an industrial process there would inevitably be a product and a byproduct. The Phoenicians considered the premium product to be salt fish, a commodity that could be shipped throughout the world of the Mediterranean and traded for pretty much anything. The byproduct was garum.

The Phoenicians brought garum to the far corners of the Mediterranean. As early as the eighth century BCE major fish works were established. Archaeologists have excavated processing stations that have revealed just how authentic Nettuno’s shop is—a typical ancient processing facility has a cleaning room, a fermentation room, and a storage room. All of these facilities seemed to have had two objectives. The first was to create dried, shelf-stable fish products that could be easily transported and traded throughout the Mediterranean. The second was to process and package the byproduct—anchovy drippings that to the modern nose would probably have a strong smell and an off-putting flavor. Not so to the ancients. Garum had real value both as a condiment and later as a kind of supplement.

There was, however, a certain ambivalence about garum in Roman society. Seneca railed that it was “the overpriced guts of rotten fish!” Part of the disdain may have had to do with the overall disdain the Romans felt for their fish-loving Phoenician enemies. Phoenicia had given birth to the empire of Carthage, a nation that vied for control of the entire Mediterranean and was distinctly more maritime than the Romans. It took a few wars, but the Romans finally razed Carthage and enslaved its people in 146 BCE.

By this time, Romans were embracing land food as civilized food, but the fish sauce stuck around. Factories sprung up all along the Mediterranean coast of Spain and down both sides of Italy. The Romans imbued garum with all sorts of power, including medicinal, even as they maintained a certain ambivalence about wildness, fish, and the sea.

Ruins of a Roman fish factory in Spain

Roman fish factories once dotted the Mediterranean to produce garum (an early version of colatura) for the Roman elite. Photo by age fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo

As Roman society flourished in the Mediterranean, it drifted increasingly away from wild food. The Romans had standardized the production of grain in the Nile valley, allowing for the first example of industrial-scale agriculture in the West. Annual floodwaters from the Ethiopian highlands brought down nutrient-rich soils into a wide swath of the Nile plain. Under Roman control, Egypt became a kind of Iowa for the ancients. For the rising Roman middle class, fish was associated with poverty and destitution.

As Roman agriculture proliferated, forests were felled, watercourses were redirected for irrigation, and temperatures probably began to rise even as the climate became more arid. They radically changed the environment and the climate of the Mediterranean. But diminishing ocean and terrestrial wildlife didn’t seem to concern the Romans. Only the uncivilized people of the ancient world, those who could not figure out the modern technology of earning a living from cultivating land food—only they were reduced to the lowly status of fisherman. “Because they expressed this gap between rich and poor,” wrote the classicist Nicholas Purcell, fish “provided the butt for much comic literature.” In the end, Purcell concluded, “fish were funny for the Greeks and Romans.”

The ancient perception of fish as unserious is also seen in the medical opinions of the time. The Roman physician Galen believed that fish had fewer nutrients than land meat. His exceptions to this rule were gray mullet, sea bass, and red mullet, whose flesh he believed, as the scholar of ancient medicine John Wilkins explained to me, was “closest to human flesh and needs least effort by the body to assimilate it.” Galen’s belief turns out to be a fairly accurate assessment of the calorific differences of land food meat and fish. One hundred grams of beef contain about 250 calories, whereas a hundred grams of white-fleshed fish like European sea bass contain only about 97 calories. Galen, of course, knew nothing about protein and the fact that fish efficiently delivered it with a minimum of calories.

Seafood was thus a poor cousin of land food to the ancients, and so fish required some transformative process to win over the finer tables of Rome. Garum was that process—a sophisticated way of bringing the primitive world of seafood into the dining room of the rich. Over time it would also be imbued with powers beyond flavor.

And in a way, the ancients were right. Recently, Spanish food scientists re-created the process by which Roman garum was made. They found that a group of enzymes naturally occurring within the guts of the fish broke down the component parts of garum into numerous compounds. Standing out among them were omega-3 fatty acids. Garum, it turns out, might have been the first omega-3 supplement.

As Jill Santopietro writes in a recent investigation of ancient fish sauces, it was common practice for Romans to have two teaspoons of garum a day, believing that such a dose contained all the essential nutrients. The Roman agronomist Columella recommended “pouring garum into the nostrils of sick animals,” while Pliny the Elder believed that it had the properties of a laxative when mixed with oil, vinegar, and herbs. Galen prescribed garum cooked with lentils for curing chronic diarrhea. If you should be so unfortunate as to lose your appetite, Pliny suggested garum with garden herbs. Grilled snails could be added to wine and garum to cure an upset stomach.

By the time of Apicius, garum was more widely used than salt itself. In his De re coquinaria (what is generally thought of as the most influential cookbook in the ancient world), garum is an ingredient in nearly every one of the roughly 500 recipes, while salt is only mentioned three times.

Roman mosaic of fishers

Ancient Romans viewed seafood as the poor cousin of land food, though the flavorful garum was an exception to that sentiment. Photo by robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

The indispensable quality of garum raised its manufacturers up into something much more than just fishmongers. It was said in the ancient world when a child was born under a star at the far end of the constellation Pisces that he would be destined to be not just an ordinary fisherman, but either the catcher of really big fish or, much more profitably, a garum maker.

The archeological evidence around Cetara bears this out. Pompeii, just up the road from Cetara, was a hub for fish sauce production and commercialization. The most remembered person from the ruins of Pompeii is not a great leader or a gifted artist but rather a garum maker. Bottles of fish sauce “from the factory of Umbricus Agathopus” turn up again and again in inns, wine shops, food shops, hot drink shops, and most homes.

This, in part, explains the buildup of serious fishing effort in the Mediterranean during the Roman era.

By the time of Christ it was not uncommon for a Roman fishing vessel to employ 20 people working nets in a complex synchronization to take fish big and small.

As Roman civilization became increasingly refined and progressively divorced from the essentialness of the sea, the famous sauce that they derived from fish became more important than the fish itself.

In Cetara, Ughi and I made our way down to the quays in search of the fisherman who had promised to take us out for a night of pursuing the fish that was the basis of modern-day garum. The captain Domenico Giordano confirms our departure but laments the few anchovies he is likely to encounter.

“Of course there are fish. But I tell you now, the problem is the tuna. They were depleted, but now they’re coming back. After the bureaucrats in Brussels kicked us out of the tuna fishery, there are more and more of them. And they’re eating all the anchovies.”

anchovies swimming underwater

Anchovies are a staple of Italian diets, but overfishing has caused the Mediterranean population to dwindle. Photo by Jurgen Freund/Minden Pictures

He made no mention that tuna may now be the only decently regulated fish in the whole of the Mediterranean Sea. Anchovies, meanwhile, are fished 12 months a year. And the sea is surrounded by 22 different nations, each with its own ancient claim on an unrestricted right to use the sea in whatever way it wants to use it; the result is classic tragedy-of-the-commons exploitation. Grudgingly, the sea’s various nations have agreed to symbolic actions—a size limit on anchovies to allow the fish to spawn, for example. But with thousands of fishing vessels spread out across the Mediterranean with little in the way of regulation, it’s hard to imagine the sea being managed sustainably.

We cast off in the vessel, Sacro Cuore, into an inky night, the lights on the hills of the Amalfi Coast growing dimmer with distance. The captain began checking his sonar. I had supposed that the boat, a purse seiner, would operate as purse seiners normally do: they’d locate a school of fish, quickly surround it, and then draw the net tight. The strategy that was actually employed was distinctly geared to a diminished sea.

With a thin smattering of anchovies reading on the screen, the captain signaled the crew and a small dory was pulled up on a crane. The crew’s oldest and most feeble member, a man who looked well into his 70s, was loaded into the dory and given a rope tied to a boulder. Then the old fisherman was summarily pushed out into the sea. The only piece of modern equipment he had was a rickety generator, jerry-rigged to a floodlight. Once he’d pushed himself back from the boat, he pulled the starter cord on the generator and the light from the lamps flooded the sea, creating a little sapphire-blue circle below the dory that faded into an indigo orb below him. The noise of the generator was deafening, but it didn’t seem to bother the old fisherman. He lit a cigarette and stared blankly into the sea. We made a slight jog to the east and then put a second old man in another little dinghy with its own lamp and roaring generator. Then we set about to wait while the fish gathered.

Hour by hour, the evening winnowed itself away. At two in the morning, Beatrice Ughi pulled herself up from a seasick doze and looked at the captain, trying to get a sense of his intentions for ending the long night. The captain answered her inquisitive look with a shrug and returned to the solitude of the wheelhouse and the glow of the sonar.

“Now this,” Ughi said, “is really slow food.”

But not necessarily sustainable, and the balance the Mediterranean Sea promises is too good to be true. Unlike the small plots of land that farmers for millennia have tended with care—blending soil-holding olive trees, nitrogen-fixing chickpeas—no one has ever truly cared about the sea. It has been treated as a mine from which wealth is taken and never returned. At one time, fishing fleets were small and sail-powered, lacking in sonar and capable of only a limited range. The Roman writer Oppian describes fishermen in search of small tuna in the Mediterranean deploying “a stout log … about a cubit in length” with “abundant lead and many three-pronged spears set close together.” The device was dropped through a school of tuna and would come up frequently loaded with fish.

No such device would work this evening. The fleets of the Mediterranean are many and various and the regulations that should limit them go largely unenforced.

Italian light fishing

Lampara fishing is a method that relies on a bright light to lure fish to a net. Photo by Cristian Umili/VWPics/AP Images

But there are also profound changes occurring beyond overfishing. When Egypt dammed the Nile at Aswan in the 1950s, the rich nutrients that once fertilized phytoplankton and prompted them to bloom stopped reaching the sea. On top of that, the yearly cycles of wind and weather have changed, redirecting whole populations of species out of their usual migration routes. In some cases, this is only a geographical adjustment. But more disturbing is a much larger shift, a decoupling, in fact, of the ancient predator-prey relationship that occurs on a microscopic level at the very bottom of the marine food web. The essential relationship of phytoplankton and the zooplankton that feed upon them is changing. Phytoplankton are triggered to bloom by light. As the days grow longer after the winter solstice they increase their numbers. Zooplankton, the first rung up from phytoplankton on the marine food web, are cued by temperature. With waters growing warmer and warmer each year, zooplankton are hatching too early—before the phytoplankton bloom. As a result, both types of plankton, zoo- and phyto-, crash prematurely before juvenile fish, like anchovies, have a chance to feed on them. It is partly for this reason that every year the Mediterranean gets clearer and more beautiful even as it contains less and less life.

And hence the present technique of the old fisherman in the boat: a lamp blazing into the water at night simulates an artificial moon. Fish are compelled to venture toward it. It is what fisheries managers call a FAD, or fish aggregating device—a tool that condenses the life of the sea into a small enough area to be fished.

Finally the captain gave the call to haul in. The net in the water had shrunk to about the size of a grade school basketball court. The crew members stared down into the water as the net closed in even more, eyeing the fish inside. The odd mackerel zipped back and forth in panic. An “oooo” came when they realized that five or six bonito, smaller members of the tuna family, were also inside. The rest of the catch was incredibly thin. “Scusi,” one of the crew members asked me, “how do you say lavoro senza soldi in English?” I checked my phone for a translation. “Work without compensation,” I read. The fisherman mouthed the words back at me and nodded in agreement.

The Mediterranean, made thin by years upon years of fishing, and thinner still by the damming of the Nile and the rising of water temperatures, was now being strained of its last life, which in turn would be strained and condensed and turned into colatura, modern-day garum. Full of nutrients. Full of life. Full of the fecund richness that the whole of the Mediterranean once possessed.

As the climate warms, the land desiccates, and fisheries fail we are now at a point where the Mediterranean can no longer support the Mediterranean diet.

From THE OMEGA PRINCIPLE by Paul Greenberg, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Paul Greenberg.