It takes several months to make colatura, the liquid that seeps out of anchovies that have been packed in salt in a wooden barrel, pressed down with a weighted lid, and left to ferment. It’s similar to what the ancient Romans called garum, made from the aged innards of various types of fish and consumed by the upper classes—though the smell of the rotting fish was reputedly so unpleasant that production had to be moved out of the city. But while its odor is pungent, colatura doesn’t have as offensive a flavor as you might imagine, especially if it’s used sparingly.
“Anchovies have a lot of oil, so that oiliness creates a lot of flavor. I think that really comes through in the anchovy sauce,” chef Meg Colleran Sahs said. It’s similar to the fish sauce that many people are familiar with from Asian cuisine, but milder and more complex in flavor, according to Sahs. The fish juice is traditionally used in Italy to season pastas, salads, and sauces.
“It can overpower, I think, if you use too much of it, so I wanted to find the right balance of flavors,” Sahs said. She hoped to use it in a pasta, but the first sauces she tried making were too mild to stand up to the colatura, which needed something to balance it out. “Originally I was working on sauces without tomato or toasted garlic, which are two pretty strong flavors in a pasta sauce. Without those two things, it was too intense.”
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Sahs ended up making a simple tomato sauce with garlic, Spanish olives, almonds with paprika, and arugula, served over spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar spaghetti,” which is made on an instrument with evenly spaced strings that create a square spaghetti when the sheets of pasta are pressed through it). After toasting the garlic, Sahs added tomato passata, a sort of puree that she said has a great flavor and more texture than most cooked tomato sauces. A little pasta water helped bring the sauce together, as did a bit of butter. The olives went in near the end, along with the colatura, almonds toasted with smoked paprika, and arugula. After combining the sauce with the pasta, Sahs topped things off with another dash of colatura—”just so you get it right on your nose when you’re taking a bite.”
Despite that extra dose of fish sauce, Sahs didn’t think the finished dish tasted fishy at all. “It adds another layer of flavor that is unexpected and kind of hard to pinpoint.” Colatura gives a dish umami, the elusive “fifth taste,” Sahs said, a flavor that’s difficult to describe. “I think this dish is definitely better with colatura,” she added.
Amanda Rockman, the pastry chef at Balena and the Bristol, working with pu-erh tea, a Chinese tea from the Yunnan province that goes through a special fermentation process after being dried. “It’s a really unique flavor, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before,” Sahs said.
Spaghetti alla chitarra with tomato, toasted garlic, colatura, olive, arugula, paprika almonds
10 oz fresh spaghetti alla chitarra (can substitute dried spaghetti or fettucini)
1 t garlic, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup tomato passata
1 T plus a dash colatura
1 T Spanish olives, chopped finely
2 t butter, unsalted
2 T sliced almonds, skin on
1 cup baby arugula leaves
½ t sweet smoked paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Additional chopped olives and almonds for garnish (optional)
In a small sauté pan, heat about one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Add almonds, paprika and a sprinkling of kosher salt. Cook until almonds are slightly toasted, drain on a paper towel and reserve for later use.
In a large pot, heat water to a boil. Add a hefty amount of salt to the water to season it—it should taste like sea water.
In a medium sauté pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat should be on medium high. Add minced garlic and toast to light brown, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Pull pan away from the heat and carefully add the tomato passata.
Begin cooking the pasta in the boiling water. If using fresh pasta, let it cook for just a few minutes until it is cooked through.
Add a few ounces of pasta water to the tomato sauce. When the pasta is cooked, the noodles can also be added to the sauce pan. Add colatura, olives, and butter. Once butter is melted, add the almonds and arugula to toss. Remove from heat and serve.
Finish each dish with a sprinkling of the olives and almonds and a dash of colatura.