Anchovies are small, silvery-green fish in the family Engraulidae. They are found throughout the Mediterranean and along parts of the coastline of Southern Europe, sometimes ranging as far north as the base of Norway. These fish have been an important source of food for centuries, for both humans and marine life alike. They are available fresh in regions where they are heavily fished, and preserved all over the world. The distinctive flavor of the preserved fish can be tasted in many dishes, especially in Mediterranean cuisine.
Some people confuse anchovies with sardines, another silvery fish in the herring family. Sardines grow larger, range in different waters, and have different physical characteristics. Six anchovy species are widely harvested for food purposes, and all of them have characteristic gaping mouths, along with pointed snouts and green to blue bodies that flash silver underwater. They feed on plankton, and also act as a food source for larger fish. Their role in the food chain makes them an important fish species to preserve.
Like many fish in the herring group, anchovies live in large schools, groups of fish that can contain thousands of individuals. Both humans and birds look for these fish by seeking areas of disturbance on the surface of the water, which indicate a panicked school of fish trying to escape a predator.
Like many heavily fished species, anchovies are potentially at risk for serious decline. Several European nations have cooperated to institute limits on their catch, and to regulate the fishing industry to ensure that the fish are caught sustainably. Many fishing companies use large drag nets, which can pose environmental problems as they stir up the ocean floor. Some of these companies have voluntarily modified their fishing practices to ensure that fisheries will remain healthy.
When fresh, the fish have a mild, slightly oily flavor. They are very popular in both France and Italy, especially grilled. Preserved anchovies, typically packed in salt and oil, are also a staple food in many European countries and around the world. They can be extremely salty, so some consumers soak them in cold water for half an hour before consuming them, to draw out some of the salt. The fish is also available in the form of paste, a thick mixture made from ground fillets, vinegar, sugar, and spices.