Italians have long loved anchovies as a flavor enhancer. Even the ancient Etruscans and Romans used anchovies to prepare their favorite condiment, garum—a salty, funky sauce made out of the fermented fish. If you want to showcase anchovies, though, turn to Tuscany's punchy sauce made from nothing more than extra-virgin olive oil, heated gently to draw out the flavors of anchovies and capers.
A classic from central Tuscany and known as Salsa del Valdarno (named after the Arno valley), the sauce is a variation of an old-fashioned anchovy sauce called acciugata. Somewhere between a paste and a sauce in consistency, acciugata is made with olive oil, anchovies, and garlic (reminiscent, in several ways, of Piedmont's bagna cauda and only a bit of parsley, garlic, and lemon juice away from being salsa verde). As much as I love the mellow garlic in a good acciugata, Salsa del Valdarno is my favorite. The pickled capers cut through the olive oil, adding a bite of salt and acidity.
In Tuscany, Salsa del Valdarno is used to dress a thick steak, grilled over charcoal and left bloody in the middle. But it's also a particularly wonderful partner to cauliflower. I like to toss the sauce with steamed or roasted cauliflower as a side dish, without the bread, but serving it on toast (a crostone), turns this into a quick, satisfying-yet-light meal.
The sauce takes barely any time to make—and all of 2 minutes to warm through. It can be made with pantry staples (another reason to love it) and whipped together by eye and without measurements, which can account for the variation in flavor you'll find from kitchen to kitchen.
Add Salsa dal Valdarno wherever you want a salty kick. It's delicious spooned over eggs—either boiled and halved, fried, scrambled, or poached. Tuscans also like it on fried beef or veal. My Tuscan husband's nonna used to also stir it into cooked spaghetti for a quick and thrifty lunch. It’s no wonder it’s a much loved condiment: You get a generous amount of flavor for very little time, money, and effort.
- 1/2 head of cauliflower
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 8 anchovy fillets in oil
- 2 teaspoons capers in brine
- 4 slices of crusty, country bread
How do you feel about anchovies? Share your thoughts in the comments below!