Scandinavian Anchovy

Scandinavian Anchovy

These tiny salted and fermented fish may be the cause of some really odd dishes, made from Nordic cookbooks, by people wanting to cook a really Scandinavian meal at home. They have also created much agony in northern kitchens where people are trying to reproduce beloved Italian dishes with ‘anchovies’.

The fact of the matter is that Scandinavian anchovies are very different from anchovies in the rest of the world, as they are not made from true anchovies (Engraulis encrasicholus), but from a variety of small fish in the herring family (sprattus sprattus). They are even cured quite differently.

Scandinavian Anchovy
Scandinavian anchovy, Sprattus sprattus

True anchovies are gutted and immediately packed in barrels between thick layers of sea salt. Here they ferment and are then either sold as whole salted anchovies or filleted and drowned in olive oil. These are the ones needed in pizzas, gabna caida and all other southern dishes with anchovies.

Related: The Scandinavian Herring Adventure

Scandinavian Anchovy
Placing anchovies into tin cans

The northern anchovies (ansjovis) on the other hand, are preserved whole in spiced, sweetened brine. You buy them in vans, and fillet them yourself. The raw fish are also eaten in a number of other ways: for example, canned like sardines or eaten fresh.

Scandinavian Anchovy
Swedish canned anchovies

Appearance and taste
Northern anchovies taste much the same as sweet varieties of spiced pickled herrings, and especially the Swedish matjes herrings (matjessild), though they have a quite different consistency. Virtually melting in your mouth. They are spiced with cardamom, pepper, sandalwood, cinnamon and oregano.

Related: A Swedish Delicacy Called Surströmming

Buying and storing
The best anchovies are from Norway. The fish are caught in late summer and are then left to mature in cans to be sold predominantly at Christmas, for delicacies such as Janson’s temptation (recipe, see below).

The anchovies keep almost indefinitely in the can, though they must be stored in the fridge. Once the can has been opened, transfer the fish in their brine to a non-corrosive container, where they will keep for ages. Since the fish are whole, you fillet them yourself (see below), though you can also buy them filleted and ready-to-eat in cans or small jars (but these do not keep for very long once opened).

Culinary uses
Northern anchovies are eaten on open sandwiches much like other herrings, and taste divine eaten on crisp, or rye bread, with hard-boiled eggs and chives, or with cold sliced potatoes with raw onion and chives. They have other uses too, as a spice in potato gratins and liver paste. But try putting them on your pizza and you’ll regret it.

To fillet an anchovy, put the fish on a board, cut off the head, then flatten it a bit from the back to loosen the spine and turn it over. The spine is removed by pulling it from the head end towards the tail, along with the gut, after which the two fillets are easily pulled off the skin.

Scandinavian Anchovy
Janssons Temptation

Jansson’s temptation
There is something thoroughly Nordic about this classic Swedish dish, whose simple ingredients – potatoes, onions, cream and fish – are available even for the depths of the Scandinavian cold winters. The combined taste is epitome of Scandinavian food: buttery, salty, sweet, filling, nourishing and still a little elegant, as the salt fish creates small explosions of umami sensations in your mouth.

Originally, the potatoes were steeped in cold water to draw out the starch, but the problem may be solved by using waxy salad potatoes.

The classic accompaniments are toasted crispbread, beer and schnapps. However, we digest a huge green salad as well.

500g firm waxy potatoes
2 onions, cut into rings
50g salted butter
Ground black pepper
100g anchovy fillets
100ml brine from the anchovies
Approx. 200ml whipping cream

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 180 C/gas mark 4

Cut a few of the potatoes into thin slices and the rest into thick matchsticks. Butter an ovenproof dish well, then cover the bottom and sldes with the potato slices.

Fry the onions in the butter until pale golden. Mix with the potato sticks and black pepper to taste. Put half of the onion-potato mixture in the dish, cover with the anchovies, and then fill with the rest of the onion/potato mixture. Pour the anchovy brine and cream over the top, and bake until the potatoes are very tender and the dish has achieved an inviting golden crust. If the dish appears to be drying out, you can pour in a little more cream, and maybe a little water.

Scandinavian Anchovy, written by Tor Kjolberg