The generic term « anchovy » is given to a large number of small fish varieties from the Engraulidae family. They measure 10–20 cm in length and live in schools in practically all of the world's seas, near to the coasts. They have a bluish-green back and silvery sides, and are covered in large scales. They reproduce very quickly and very often: two or three times a year. They grow quickly, becoming adults after a year. But their lives are short, because they are overfished in European waters, where they have become an endangered species.

Fresh anchovies are quite rare. Being fragile fish, they do not travel well and do not suit being iced. They are mainly found in the vicinity of fishing ports. The paler the anchovy, the less fresh it is. It should have a well-colored back—deep green tending to black—with shiny sides and bright eyes. If purchased fresh, the minimum size for this fish is 12 cm. Anchovies are mostly sold preserved or semi-preserved, salted and/or marinated in oil, whole or in fillets, or in cans or jars. They can also be found as: anchovy paste (which should contain at least 90 percent anchovy), anchovy cream (at least 75 percent anchovy and 10 percent oil). Collioure anchovies (anchovies in salt, anchovy fillets in brine, anchovy fillets in oil) and Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (salted anchovies from the Ligurian coast) have Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.

Fresh anchovies are not scaled, because they are too delicate. The head is removed, then the body is pressed between the fingers to remove the guts. The fish should then be washed and dried with paper towels. Salted fillets should always be desalted before use.

Anchovies should be cooked gently, either pan-fried or deep-fried.

A classic way of preparing anchovies is in escabeche. They are marinated in olive oil and lemon juice. Anchovies are one of the essential ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine. Whether salted or marinated, they are a good combination with vegetables, pasta, and meat, and in hors d’œuvres. Pissalat, the anchovy puree made in the French region of Nice, is the base for pissaladière. Bagna cauda, an anchovy-base sauce, is found both in Provence and in Italy.

Fresh anchovies must be used as quickly as possible. They can be stored for 24 hours at most in a refrigerator or cool room at 4ºC, after being cleaned and washed. Semi-preserved anchovies must be refrigerated even if they are unopened.

Anchovies are oily fish, rich in omega 3, the fatty acids that are essential for all bodily functions. They also have a high protein and mineral content. Preserved anchovies obviously have a high salt content. They also contain a great deal of uric acid, and should be avoided by people who have gout.

There are dozens of species of anchovies. Of these, the most commonly consumed are: The common anchovy, also known as the European anchovy, the most widespread. This variety is divided into two subgroups: Atlantic anchovy, fished throughout the Atlantic, from the north to the south, including the English Channel and the North Sea, between spring and early summer when they migrate to inshore waters, and also in winter when they are in offshore waters. Mediterranean anchovy, fished throughout the Mediterranean, Étang de Thau, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic in spring and summer. Peruvian anchovy is a species that lives in the South Pacific Ocean A little larger, it can grow to 20 cm in length. This is the most commonly fished variety. The sprat, also known as the Norwegian anchovy, is not from the anchovy family, despite its name.

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