Why is Colatura di Alici, Italian Anchovy Sauce So Expensive?

Colatura di Alici is a distinguished product with ancient roots, meticulously crafted in Cetara, a village on Italy's Amalfi Coast. Its production, refined over centuries, adheres closely to time-honored traditional methods. Discover why this treasured Anchovy sauce is so valued and expensive.

Why is Colatura di Alici, Italian Anchovy Sauce So Expensive?
Anchovies - Photo by Diane Helentjaris / Unsplash

Colatura di Alici, translating to "anchovy drippings" in English, is a cherished Italian sauce crafted through the fermentation of salt-cured anchovies within petite chestnut barrels.

Esteemed for its rich umami essence, this sauce commands a high price, fetching up to $160 per liter. The anchovy sauce undergoes a meticulous three-year aging process to achieve its signature color and flavor.

But what specific steps are involved in producing this luxurious sauce, and what factors contribute to its steep price?

What is Colatura di Alici?

Colatura di Alici is an esteemed Italian fish sauce, deeply rooted in the ancient culinary traditions of the Roman Empire, specifically garum.

This sauce is crafted in the quaint village of Cetara along the Amalfi Coast and is renowned for its profound umami taste, produced from just anchovies and salt.

The method of creating Colatura di Alici is traditional and exacting. In wooden barrels, layers of anchovy fillets and sea salt are arranged and then left to ferment in controlled temperatures.

This essential fermentation stage extends for several months, allowing the anchovies to gradually release a rich liquid.

Over time, this liquid—originally mere drippings—ages into the full-bodied colatura di alici, which translates from Italian as "anchovy drippings."

This sauce is celebrated for its ability to elevate dishes with its intense flavor, connecting modern culinary arts to its historic Roman origins.

Historical Roots

The origins of Colatura di Alici can be traced back to ancient Roman times when a similar sauce known as "garum" was widely used. Garum was made from various types of fish and was used as both a seasoning and a medicine.

The tradition continued in the monasteries during the Middle Ages before evolving into what is now known as Colatura di Alici in the small coastal town of Cetara, where it became a staple in local cuisine.

Step-by-Step Production Process of Anchovy Sauce

1. Selection of Anchovies

The production of Colatura di Alici begins with the careful selection of anchovies, specifically the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), caught in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly around the Amalfi Coast.

The fishing season is crucial, typically from March to July, when the anchovies are at their best both in terms of fat content and size.

2. Salting

Once caught, the anchovies are cleaned and beheaded, then rinsed with sea water to remove impurities.

They are then layered with sea salt in chestnut or oak wooden barrels, a traditional salting technique that draws out moisture and initiates the fermentation process.

The ratio of salt to fish and the layering technique are critical, as they affect the rate and quality of fermentation.

3. Fermentation

After salting, the barrels are sealed and left to ferment. This process occurs in a cool, controlled environment and can last from several months to up to three years, depending on the desired intensity of the flavor.

The weight of the salt and fish causes the anchovies to compress, and as the fish break down, they release their juices.

4. Maturation

During fermentation, the anchovies slowly release a liquid that accumulates at the bottom of the barrels.

This liquid, rich in fish oils and flavors, is the essence of Colatura di Alici. To promote uniform flavor and quality, the barrels are occasionally opened to stir the contents, ensuring even fermentation.

5. Extraction

The liquid that forms at the bottom of the barrel is then carefully extracted.

This is traditionally done by creating a small hole at the bottom of the barrel to allow the liquid to drip out slowly.

The extracted liquid is initially cloudy and requires further refinement.

6. Aging and Refinement

The extracted liquid is filtered to remove any solid particles and then aged in glass containers or smaller wooden barrels.

This aging process allows the flavors to mellow and meld, becoming smoother and more complex.

The aging period can vary, allowing producers to create different intensities and flavor profiles of Colatura di Alici.

7. Bottling

Once the aging process is complete, the Colatura di Alici is bottled. The bottling process is done carefully to preserve the delicate flavors and aromas of the sauce.

It is usually stored in small glass bottles, similar to those used for fine olive oils or liqueurs.

A Drop at a Time: The name "Colatura" comes from the Italian word "colare," which means "to drip." This refers to the traditional extraction method where the sauce slowly drips out of the barrels, ensuring a pure and clear liquid.

Why is Anchovy Sauce So Expensive?

Colatura di Alici, an Italian anchovy sauce, has garnered attention and a higher price tag due to several factors, including its traditional production methods, origin, and unique culinary value. Here’s an in-depth look at why this delicacy commands such a premium:

Historical Significance and Traditional Production

Colatura di Alici is deeply rooted in Italian culinary tradition, tracing its origins back to Roman times when it was known as "garum."

This sauce is produced in the small fishing village of Cetara on the Amalfi Coast, a region with a storied history of anchovy fishing.

The method of production has been passed down through generations and remains largely unchanged, adhering to slow, natural processes that enhance the sauce’s flavor.

Labor-Intensive Process

The production of Colatura di Alici is labor-intensive and time-consuming. It starts with the careful selection of the finest anchovies, which are caught between March and July when they swim closer to the coast.

These anchovies are then layered with sea salt in wooden barrels, a method known as "terzigno," and left to mature. The barrels are pressed under weights, causing the fish to ferment and slowly release their liquid.

This liquid, initially used to preserve the fish, gradually becomes the Colatura di Alici as it is further refined and aged. The entire process can take several months to up to two years, contributing to its high cost.

Limited Production

Colatura di Alici is produced exclusively in Cetara, and the quantity is limited by both the seasonal nature of anchovy catches and the capacity of traditional producers.

The anchovies used are also specific to the local marine environment, making them difficult to source elsewhere. This limited supply against a backdrop of increasing demand naturally drives up the price.

Geographical Indication

Colatura di Alici is protected by a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, which certifies its authenticity and ties it to its region of production.

This status not only contributes to its exclusivity but also assures consumers of its quality and the adherence to traditional production methods.

Culinary Value

The flavor of Colatura di Alici is highly concentrated and distinctive, offering an umami richness that is both complex and versatile in culinary applications.

It can transform dishes with just a few drops, enhancing flavors without overpowering. Chefs and gourmets value the sauce for its ability to add depth to a wide range of dishes, from pasta to vegetables and even desserts.

Monastic Tradition: The modern method of making Colatura di Alici was refined by monks in the medieval town of Amalfi. They discovered that the liquid produced during the anchovy fermenting process could be used as a flavorful sauce. The practice continued, and the sauce became a staple in local Italian cuisine.

Taste Profile

The taste profile of Colatura di Alici is intensely savory, briny, and umami-rich. It has a concentrated fishy flavor that is much stronger than typical anchovy fillets in oil.

There’s also a slight sweetness that balances the saltiness, making it a complex and multi-layered condiment.

How To Use Anchovy Sauce?

Colatura di Alici, with its intense umami and savory flavor, is a versatile ingredient that can be used to enhance a variety of dishes. Here are some suggestions on how to use this unique Italian anchovy sauce:

1. Pasta Dishes

One of the most classic ways to use Colatura di Alici is in pasta. It can be added to simple aglio e olio (garlic and oil) pasta to provide depth, or drizzled over spaghetti with parsley and garlic for a quick and flavorful dish.

Just a few drops mixed with olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes can transform plain pasta into a rich, savory meal.

2. Salad Dressings

Colatura di Alici can be an excellent addition to salad dressings. Combine it with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and perhaps a bit of mustard to create a dressing that’s perfect for robust salads like Caesar or a simple green salad. It adds a punch of flavor that elevates the greens.

3. Vegetable Dishes

Drizzle Colatura di Alici over steamed or grilled vegetables to enhance their natural flavors. It pairs especially well with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, as well as with leafy greens such as spinach and kale.

4. Marinades

Incorporate Colatura di Alici into marinades for meat or seafood. It adds a rich, savory element that complements the natural flavors of the proteins. For example, mixing Colatura di Alici with olive oil, lemon zest, and herbs makes an excellent marinade for chicken or fish.

5. Soups and Stews

Add a teaspoon or two of Colatura di Alici to soups and stews to deepen their flavor. It works particularly well in tomato-based soups, lentil stews, or even clam chowder, adding a layer of complexity without overwhelming the dish.

6. Pizza and Flatbreads

Before baking, sprinkle a few drops of Colatura di Alici onto pizza or flatbreads, particularly those with vegetable toppings or a white base (like pizza bianca). It subtly enhances the overall taste profile.

7. Bruschetta and Toasts

Enhance the flavor of bruschetta or savory toasts by mixing Colatura di Alici into toppings. A little can be mixed into fresh tomato and basil topping or even into a bean puree spread for a burst of savory flavor.

Usage Tips

  • Start Small: Colatura di Alici is quite potent, so it's best to start with a few drops and adjust according to your taste preferences.
  • Balance with Acidity: Its salty, rich flavor pairs well with acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar, which help balance the intensity.
  • Heat Sensitivity: Avoid adding Colatura di Alici to dishes during high-heat cooking as it can become bitter. It's best added at the end of cooking or as a finishing sauce.