When you live, breathe, eat and sleep food, it can sometimes be hard to muster excitement. This doesn’t mean I’ve grown weary of food and all it involves, it just means that it takes a little extra or a tiny bit of sumthin’ sumthin’ to really knock my socks off. Not that they need constant knocking off. They don’t. I’m happy with plain most of the time.
The pleasures of food and discovery happen when you least expect it. I can remember a moment 20 years ago when I had my first Meyer lemon and I thought the earth would swallow itself. My mind was expanding with each taste of that glorious citrus and I knew life would never be the same. The same can be said of having Jamon Iberico de bellota, a proper supplì, even Wisconsin cheese curds for the very first time. I can count those moments on one hand.
Last month in Italy I had another one of those moments at dinner. It was a fish dish with a very simple aioli––or so I thought. It turns out that the aioli was made with Colatura, an extremely flavorful Italian condiment made from fish and salt. My eyes must have given my excitement away as our dinner neighbor Fabio looked at me and said “It’s Colatura. There’s Colatura in here.” He explained how it’s made, telling me fish sauce has been used for thousands of years in Italy.
“You mean like Garum?” I asked.
“Exactly” he replied.
I’ve read that Colatura is a relative of Garum, that pungent fish sauce made by fermenting fish in the bright Italian sun. But if Garum is the loud in-your-face uncle, Colatura is the mannered and finessed younger cousin. It’s made by taking anchovies and layering them with salt in wooden barrels. A weight is placed on top and as the fish lose their liquid it becomes mixed with salt and collected underneath, resulting in a light amber liquid that’s lighter in color and flavor than your standard fish sauce. It takes a few months to gather the essence but it’s worth the time and effort.
Now before you email me and call me an Asian fish sauce hater, please note that I’m a fan of all types of fish sauces. They make their way into my cooking and if you know me I put Nuoc Mam on anything and everything (flank steak and potatoes, watch out). But with Colatura, well, it’s magic. What else explains how fish and salt go in but Grand Umami Magic comes out? It truly is a magical genie in a bottle.
Regretfully I left Italy without picking up a bottle (I think I was drunk at the time). I kept kicking myself after I got home and realized nothing would work in its place. I wanted some and I wanted it badly. Luckily Zingerman’s came to the rescue, stocking bottles with a price that reminds you of how special it is just in case your tongue forgets. But you know what? It’s totally worth it. There’s nothing like it.
I used mine as Zingerman’s recommended and mixed it with a little olive oil, red chili flakes and parsley. Spaghetti cooked al dente was tossed with the fragrant golden mixture and I felt like I was back in Naples. There’s just enough fish essence to create intriguing flavor and add salt to the pasta, similar to adding an anchovy to dressing or sauces.
I have vowed never to be without this stuff in my pantry. Obsessed? No way.
Spaghetti with Olive Oil & Colatura
Trust your cooking instincts on this recipe, folks. Cook your spaghetti as you like and toss with a sauce made of 3 tablespoons high quality olive oil, 1 tablespoon Colatura, chopped garlic, chopped parsley and red chile flakes. You can adjust the quantities based on your preferences but start light on the Colatura. A little goes a long way. I haven’t tried this on greens like spinach or chard yet but I can only imagine how delicious it is on vegetables.
Matt’s Notes: I haven’t seen it in many specialty or gourmet markets here but purchasing Colatura from Zingerman’s is a safe bet. Those folks are awesome.