Program summary by Christine Dzujna & Cathy Kaufman 

Claire Alsup loves anchovies, fermented food, and Italian cuisine, so when she first encountered colatura di alici, a piquant fish sauce made from salted anchovies, in a specialty food shop in Naples in 2015, she immediately was hooked. But she was also slightly embarrassed and intrigued: she had never heard of colatura despite running an Italian restaurant. Alsup can hardly be blamed: colatura di alici had been a very well-kept secret for many hundreds of years by the 2,000 inhabitants of Cetara, Italy, the village along the Amalfi Coast where it is made. Determined to learn more, Alsup has traveled to Cetara several times to investigate the elixir at the source.

Colatura, which means straining or drippings, is known in Cetara as “the secret of the fishermen.” It has been made in fishermen’s homes since at least the 13th century: anchovies caught in the late spring were gutted, salted and layered in a barrel to macerate and slowly ferment until they release a pungent liquid full of umami. With its slow fermentation, the sauce was ready in time for Christmas feasting. Made in small batches, the supply was finished by March and was a homey winter treat. It was also hyper-local: until the 1990s, few outside the village of Cetara knew of the sauce because it had never been sold. The decision to turn colatura into a saleable commodity created an upheaval in Cetara that is ongoing and has changed the town forever.

Several factors converged to turn colatura from Cetara’s signature food into a commodity, albeit one that is still produced on a modest scale. First was the influence of the Slow Food movement, which had begun in 1986 after a McDonald’s outpost opened on Rome’s Spanish Steps to the horror of those who saw it as a threat to Italian culinary culture. The protection of ancient culinary culture, ingredients, and techniques became a rallying cry. Next was the potential for economic benefit: the locales where these foods were crafted often became stops on gastrotourism trails. But as a yet-undiscovered village along the Amalfi Coast, Cetara could attract tourists to the home of the unique gastronomic specialty only if colatura was known beyond its narrow streets and alleys.  Finally, Cetara’s fishing industry was booming in the 1990s: Cetarese fisherman had plenty of raw materials that could be turned into colatura, making the fishermen’s decision to go to market irresistible, even if some townspeople feared that the tranquility of Cetara would be shattered.

The transition from local food to commodity has sparked other controversies. What was once an annual, domestic ritual by families producing small quantities of the sauce for their own consumption or as gifts has now become embroiled in political jostling over how, exactly, colatura di alici di Cetara should be made. Although Slow Food has designated colatura di alici as a Presidium “Ark” food based on “traditional production” methods “passed down by the Cetara fishermen from father to son.” Of course, each fisherman made colatura as he had learned at home, although the basic technique was similar. Alsup identified three product categories that call themselves colatura:

Many, including Cetara’s former mayor, have bemoaned the loss of quality, and up to 80% of colatura is thought to be improperly made and non-compliant with Slow Food Presidia rules, which focus on the protection of traditional processing methods. Marketing and branding tactics have added confusion. Alsup cited one producer as an example who employs four different bottle shapes with as many different product names and yet the contents of all are identical.

While the organization Amici delle Alici (“Friends of the Anchovies”) has created a Designation of Origin (“DOP”) protection for colatura in an effort to establish quality signifiers and intellectual property protections, among other benefits, the DOP is not without failings. The DOP process can be manipulated by politicians with agendas, and can allow for great leeway in the permitted methods of production. Yet too-rigid an adherence to tradition might halt innovation.

The success of colatura implicates issues of sustainability. Anchovy harvesting that once took place every May/June is now a year round effort employing capture methods, such as purse-seine fishing (which leads to high levels of extraneous bycatch), that incentivizes over-fishing. The Slow Food Presidium extends the fishing season from April to August and promises that the sauce is “available year-round.”

As that bottle of colatura that seduced Alsup in Naples proved, commodification has prevailed. And we, too, were seduced: following the lecture, we samples several dishes seasoned with colatura, including the classic spaghetti with colatura, olive oil, peperoncini, and garlic; roasted cauliflower with colatura, a focaccia with tomatoes and colatura, and salted anchovies from Cetara, served on bread with lemon butter.