Why this little French fish has its own quality label

The famed Collioure anchovy is the only fish in France with a prestigious PGI label, but why it is such a gourmet favourite?

Anchovies being prepared in Collioure, France
Collioure is renowned by chefs for its anchovies

In summer, the pretty port town of Collioure, on the Côte Vermeille stretch of Mediterranean coastline, half an hour from the Spanish border, looks like a tranquil Saint Tropez. 

Known for its exceptional setting and unusual bell tower, it is also famous for its anchovies. 

This small blue fish, with fine flesh, and greenish back with silvery sheen, has made Collioure its capital, where it is known as the Prince of the city. 

“In France, if you ask a hundred people to name a town synonymous with anchovies, at least half will say Collioure,” says Rémy Desclaux, the dynamic owner of Maison Desclaux, one of two salting factories in Collioure – the other being Roque Anchois – where anchovies are prepared. 

“Collioure is the anchovy capital of France, because there’s no other town like it. Anchovies have been salted here since the Middle Ages, and the way they’re processed and prepared has hardly changed for centuries.” 

Only fish to have European quality label

The Collioure anchovy, defined as very soft and particularly fragrant, is sold in three forms: whole in salt, brined fillets or oil-packed fillets. Since 2004, it has been protected by the European PGI (protected geographical indication) quality label, the only one in France awarded to a fish. 

To qualify, it must be the Engraulis encrassicholus species, a fifteen to twenty centimetre-long anchovy from the Mediterranean and Atlantic. 

Fishing for the anchovies takes place at night in June-July. 

Anchovies are lured into nets called ‘rissoles’ using a ‘lamparo’, a lamp at the front of the boat. 

Town built on fishing heritage

In Collioure, this anchovy fishing tradition goes way back: traces of shipments of salted fish from 1397 have been found here and, throughout history, this salting activity never slowed down. 

During the second half of the 19th century, due to railway development, fishing reached its peak of prosperity, and became the town’s main industry. 

Up until the Second World War, around thirty salt-curing workshops still existed. 

Today, almost all have disappeared, often due to mergers. 

Collioure, of course, does not have a monopoly on salted anchovies. They are also found in the Basque country, northern France and elsewhere along the Mediterranean. Some supermarkets even produce their own anchovies in oil and salt. 

Nearby Spain is also a major producer: anchovies from L’Escala in Catalonia and Cantabria are particularly renowned. 

“But Collioure anchovies’ quality is unique,” says Rémy Desclaux, whose family has produced anchovies for six generations. 

“This anchovy has a silky texture, strong yet delicate flavour, and a slight bitterness that is its hallmark. The flesh is supple, not brittle and crumbly. Inferior anchovies are often over-salted due to insufficient washing after leaving the barrels.” 

He adds: “Collioure anchovies are also recognisable by sight. If you examine my anchovies closely, you’ll see they’re not uniformly coloured like L’Escala anchovies: there’s a blood-red side around the bone, due to several factors. Firstly, the length of time maturing in salt, but also salt quality. We use La Baleine, which is white. The Spanish use Murcia salt, which is brown, sometimes pink, and our brine is different.” 

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Women at centre of production

The production of Collioure anchovies is entirely manual. 

Once caught, the fish are salted and drain for 24-48 hours. They are then beheaded, gutted and placed in barrels, alternately layering anchovies with sea salt. All this is done manually, usually by women called ‘anchoïeuses’. 

The barrels are covered with a heavy lid, the pressure encourages salt to penetrate anchovy tissue. 

They mature for six months – this slow maturation allows the anchovies to develop all their organoleptic qualities. 

“After maturing, two options exist,” says Mr Desclaux. 

“Either we produce anchovies directly in salt, and the consumer must desalinate, de-bone and fillet them. 

Or we make fillets in oil. We use this preparation more and more because it maximises the product’s quality: the salted anchovy is washed, desalted, de-boned, filleted and put in oil. 

The finest fillets are selected and packed in jars, in tight rows starting against the jar’s outer edge and filled inwards. The tips of the anchovy tails must be perfectly aligned. They are carefully folded over, a bit like a flower, before closing the jar.” 

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Overfishing has led to scarcity

Of the 400 tonnes of anchovies produced annually in Collioure, 60 tonnes come from Desclaux. 

Unfortunately, neither the Mediterranean nor the Bay of Biscay can currently sufficiently supply Collioure producers. 

“Anchovies are increasingly rare here. This is due to warmer waters, pollution, the plankton quality, overfishing thirty years ago, and protecting certain species to the detriment of others, like bluefin tuna, which eats anchovies and sardines," Mr Desclaux said.

"So, I have three supply sources: first, the Mediterranean, from Sète to Valencia. However, this anchovy is small and when salted to mature, it shrinks by 20%. So, we use them to make anchovy cream, the basis for tapenade and anchoïade, or Boquerones; fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar for a few hours.

“My second supplier is the Bay of Biscay, from the Spanish and French Basque country to Brittany. 

The third supplier is Argentina, the world’s leading anchovy producer. Its anchovy, Engraulis anchoita, is a species we can process exactly like ours, enabling us to make ‘Collioure-style’ anchovies (non-IGP).” 

In response to the increasing anchovy scarcity, Desclaux has decided to concentrate on high-end products. 

“Since there are fewer anchovies, we must promote them differently, Before, we produced more volume, standard mid-range anchovies. Today, we produce less, but to a very high quality. 

Consequently, we don’t work with mass distribution or supermarkets. We select our buyers: gourmet shops, caterers, fine restaurants, discerning consumers.” 

Town prides itself on anchovies

In Collioure, you can buy Desclaux anchovies and all anchovy-related products in the historic shop in Collioure centre, founded in 1902. 

Recently, Rémy Desclaux added a gourmet shop, wine bar, anchovy bar, online shop, and an anchoithèque – an anchovy concept store. 

The Bar à Anchois, open since 2021 in the heart of Collioure near the bell tower and the royal castle, is probably unique in the world: everything from starter to dessert contains anchovies, which can be enjoyed fried with a homemade mayonnaise, in a salad, foccacia or even a chocolate mousse. 

In addition to the many restaurants serving Collioure anchovies, you can also sample them every first weekend in June during the Collioure Anchovy Festival, featuring a gourmet market in the harbour, a musical aperitif, tastings, preparation workshops, a traditional regatta and Catalan songs. 

Traditionally, anchovies are eaten in the region as an appetiser, drizzled with olive oil and accompanied by grilled or marinated red and sweet peppers. 

It is the favourite dish of three-star Michelin chef from Perpignan, Paul Pairet. 

“On grilled peppers, we place some beautiful salted anchovies that we’ve cleaned ourselves, with a little Collioure vinegar, grated hard-boiled egg, a little garlic, parsley and a splash of olive oil”, he says. “It’s so simple and just magnificent,” he says.