September 26, 2023


Qualified food specialists

Food travel: Cetara on the Amalfi Coast, Italy

4 min read

Cetara is a quieter, more local place to stay on the Amalfi Coast, away from some of the tourist crowds. Photo / Getty Images

Anna King Shahab experiences a taste of Cetara on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Fish sauce might seem synonymous with Southeast and East Asian cuisines, but a rich, umami seasoning made by fermenting fish is also a part of Italian culinary tradition going back to Roman times. The Romans called their fish sauce garum, and after centuries where it apparently all but disappeared, garum has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance of late. This is thanks to world-renowned Danish restaurant Noma and many other experiment-focused kitchens having a crack at making it out of all sorts of things, not only fish. Yet while garum by that name was thought to have become all but extinct before suddenly being hoisted into hipness, a closer look reveals that in Cetara, a wee fishing village on Amalfi Coast, the fermentation flame has been kept alive all this time with the speciality product colatura di alici.

On a visit to Amalfi Coast in still very warm mid-autumn, our aim was to divide our time between a few of the quieter spots. Cetara stood out for its convenience – it’s a short bus ride from Salerno, where we arrived off the train from Sicily – and the fact it remains a true fishing village with little reliance on tourism – there are no big hotels vying for presence on the waterfront in this town with a population just tipping 2000. Family-run B and Bs are the go. For beach time, a 15-minute hike over the hill landed us at pebbly, clear-watered Erchie – under an October indigo sky, we were the only non-locals indelicately limping across the smooth stones. Mahogany-skinned, sun-worshipping pensioners keenly practised their English with us interlopers as we treaded water, and we followed their lead in ordering crisp fried sardines from the beachfront kiosk for snacking in between swims.

Colatura di alici (anchovy extract) is a speciality ingredient from Cetara on Italy's Amalfi Coast. Photo / Getty Images
Colatura di alici (anchovy extract) is a speciality ingredient from Cetara on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Photo / Getty Images

Translating as “leakage from anchovies” (it just sounds much more graceful in Italiano) colatura di alici is a product of the spring-summer fishing season, between the Annunciation in late March, and the Feast of Mary Magdalene in late July. Scores of small boats head out of the harbour in the dark of night, using a lamp to light up the water and lure fish to their capture. Anchovies, along with tuna and sardines, are the prevalent catch. The anchovies are gutted and the heads are removed, then they’re layered with salt into chestnut barrels, and weighed down. They’re left to ferment for five months or so before the “liquid gold” is collected by piercing the bottom of the barrel.


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With only small amounts produced, colatura di alici isn’t widely available, but Delfino delicatessen on Cetara’s harbourfront fronted up with the goods, its shelves arranged with its own line of fishy preserves, sauces, and more. We bought petite bottles of colatura di alici along with little jars of bottarga (cured roe, in this case mullet). And in our two nights in the village, we sought out dishes on menus featuring the local specialities.

Punto e Pasta is a must for anyone keen to taste Cetara’s fresh fish, advertising its ethos as “fish of the day from 0 kilometres”. A small, family-run kitchen serves a handful of tables inside and out on the footpath, and a blackboard advertises specials built around what’s come off the boats that morning. Our meal began with delicate anchovy fillets nestling on top of ricotta-smeared bruschetta and progressed onwards to pasta dishes including scialatielli (another local product, this pasta shape is native to Amalfi Coast) tossed with anchovies, almonds, fennel, and finished with colatura di alici, and more excellent seafood dishes like braised octopus and perfectly dusted-and-fried calamari.

You’re hard-pressed to find real-deal colatura di alici outside Amalfi. Some specialist delicatessens in New Zealand sell a version made in Sicily, but it has other flavourings added, whereas Cetara’s version is only ever simply anchovies and salt. Garum is a better bet – thanks to the revival, it’s popping up on menus all around in all sorts of guises, not only fishy – mushrooms and parmesan heels are a go, and on social media I’ve followed the highlights of local serial fermenter and chef Russell Holder (@therealrmholder) making garum from prosciutto offcuts. Recently at Parcs, a tiny central Melbourne wine bar with a strong food rescue and fermentation lean, I had a beautiful plate of wok-tossed gai lan seasoned with a delectably umami garum the kitchen had made from all manner of food scraps from its larger and more fine-dining angled sister restaurant.




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Get to the Amalfi Coast via Naples – fly via Dubai with Emirates and flydubai, then catch a train from Naples to Salerno.



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