Monday, December 20, 2010

Madrid: Casa Santoña and Anchovies

Spain is a country that loves its fish. The average supermarket has not one, but two fresh fish areas, staffed by several people, preparing the fish as requested by the patrons. One area will handle the whole fish, while another takes care of the shellfish and the fish which has already been cleaned and cut up.

Fish range in price from very cheap to very expensive. Sitting on the ice, you can see fish which are being sold for 1 euro each and fish costing 60 euro a kilo or more. The women behind the counter (and they are almost always women) will clean the fish, ask if you want to keep the heads, filet them, or simply gather them up and throw them into a bag. It is not permitted to sell previously frozen fish in Spain. If the fish is not frozen when it is sold, it is fresh. In the United States, unfortunately, much of the fish sold in the supermarket will be marked, in small letters "previously frozen."

There are also freezer cases filled with fish in Spain, taking up a large portion of the frozen food aisle. There is also an aisle of the supermarket dedicated to canned and jarred fish. The variety is somewhat breathtaking, and overwhelming at first, especially coming from the United States. In the United States, where sardines are seen as peculiar, and supermarkets typically carry only canned tuna and perhaps a brand of canned salmon, it is inconceivable to have seven different brands of sardines, plus sardines of different sizes being sold with different names.  A quick walk down the aisle of the local supermarket revealed the following different canned fish:  atun, salmon, ventresca, bonito del norte, caballa del sur, sardinillas, boquerones, sardinas, mejillones, almejas, concha, navajas, zamburinas, bacalao, higado de rape, higado de bacalao, huevos de bacalao, berberechos, calamares, chipirones, sepias, and pulpo.

This, at last, brings me to the subject I have been longing to get to: anchovies. There is delight in the anchovy. There is a strong flavor they carry which is known as "umami." It is actually a fifth flavor which people are able to sense, in addition to the traditional salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Romans prized these little fishes for the making of garum, the fish sauce which was as ubiquitous on the Roman table as ketchup is in the United States. Anchovies have been in constant use through the centuries throughout the world.
This little fish, which is a remarkably healthy food, rich in minerals, vitamins, and omega oils, consistently gets short shrift in the United States. Most people have experience with it limited to the cheapest quality stuff, sold on pizzas, and tasting of nothing but salt. To think of the anchovy in these terms is to think of olives in terms of the black circles sold in the same circumstances (more on olives another time).

In Spain, anchovies are a world of their own, and a delicious one. In the supermarket, all the anchovies, whether they are in jars or in cans, are sold refrigerated, so that the flavor is better preserved. The type sold in the United States are the bottom of the line for the anchovies in Spain. It is easy to spend $30 on a jar of anchovies, if they are of high quality, carefully prepared, and well-presented. In some supermarkets, the high-end anchovies are locked inside large plastic boxes, which must be removed by the cashier, to prevent theft.

I like to buy the anchovies that are preserved in salt. They are without heads, but otherwise whole. Before using them, they must be rinsed off, split open, and the spine must be removed. The tiny bones remaining can be plucked out or left. These anchovies have a rich, oily flavor, and can be enjoyed on pizza, on bread, or on a plate.

At Casa Santoña, anchovies are the specialty. They offer many kinds of seafood, and even food from the land, but the anchovies are the point. They come straight from Cantabria, in the north of Spain, where anchovies have been caught for thousands of years. They are meaty and tasty and have the kind of texture that makes butter jealous. At Casa Santoña, the stray bones are removed from the anchovies with tweezers, leaving nothing to interfere with the enjoyment of the meal. They are served with high quality olive oil, and a portion of bread. And they are completely enjoyable. The restaurant itself is simple, with a dining room downstairs and a few tables with high stools around barrels upstairs. I've never actually made it downstairs for a full meal. To sit on a stool, drink a caña, snack on olives, and eat these anchovies is complete contentment. The anchovies come in different sizes, with the larger ones generally seen as the better ones. All of them, though, that are found in this establishment are of the highest quality.

Casa Santoña is located not far from Retiro:
Avenida Nazaret, 10
28009 Madrid
914 096 325
metro stop. The address is Avenida Nazaret, 10, the phone number is 91 409 63 25. You can also order their products online, at


  1. "the kind of texture that makes butter jealous"...

    Awesome line!

  2. Never, ever did I think I'd want to try anchovies again, but with that description you've made me want to.

  3. These anchovies are so amazing. I like them especially on a slice of tomato, with some bread. Yum!

  4. Before I began coming to Spain, I never knew anchovies at all. I first was introduced to them as a filling for olives (it is one of the most common ways olives are sold here). That was good, but once I started with the real thing, I was blown away. I recommend them as a first class food, a premium ingredient, something to be enjoyed in the same way that one enjoys a fine wine.

  5. Over the past few years I have grown to love anchovies on my caesar salads. Last year when we were in Las Vegas I ordered a Cesar salad with anchovies and when it came the anchovies were white. They were much less salty then what I am used to, and tasted almost sweet. I have not been able to find anything close to them here in MD. Since there are so many different types there, any idea what kind they may have been?

  6. Yes! In Spain those are known as boquerones, and in the US they are often called "white anchovies." They are cured in vinegar instead of in salt or oil. If you can't find them around you try:

  7. I had a dream last night (this is now a week or so after reading this post) that I was eating round pieces of white anchovies (had not read the above comment) that melted in your mouth like butter.

    Bryan your writing is getting to me on a subliminal level.

  8. Who knows what will happen once we actually start traveling!