“Pollo alla Cacciatora” (Chicken Cacciatora) is a very common, almost ubiquitous dish throughout Italy. Like other recipes that are present in almost all regions of our country, you can come across many variations on the theme, almost like it happens with basic red or meat sauces… Every grandma has her own way of doing things, and this is abundantly reflected on the plate that will be served to the table.
The basic ingredients however do not change; by definition, Chicken Cacciatora, is cooked in a red sauce with Black Olives, Red Wine, Tomatoes and country herbs. It is a rich peasant dish that everyone in the family will enjoy, it holds cooked in the fridge for two or three days and makes great leftovers.When I started doing research through my papers before writing my final version of this dish, I came across a recipe that called for anchovy fillets: “How weird”, I told myself, “Why would you use such a flavorful ingredient in this recipe? Isn’t fish slightly out of context here?” and more… ‘Who is the dumb-ass that came out with such a ridiculous suggestion?”
I do realize I am a bit too much prone to rant about anything I do not recognize as “Tuscan” when comes to food and ingredients, but this time, for some reason, I held off my thoughts and bit my tongue… Instead, I decided to go to the source. Who better than my own grandma, can give me the whole inside out about this dilemma? Answer, either my local butcher in Fiesole, or a hunter… a real “Cacciatore”. So, the last time I visited home, I made a point of tracking down one of the oldest men that worked the country where I grew up. Beppe, his name, has been taking care of our Olive Trees since before me and my brother were born; he also used to gun down every bird that dared to fly the sky over my house on any given Sunday morning, during hunting season. I still can recall waking up at dawn during Winter when growing up; per every two gunshots fired, a cascade of metal pellets would be bouncing on the cotto tiles of the roof of my house… Which clearly meant that shot were fired in our direction!
That added insult to injury: not only I was woken up with gunshots right out of my window, but I could not jump on my bicycle and go play with my brother in the fields, without risking more than was necessary!
When I explained Beppe my culinary dilemma, he cracked a smile at me, and I could tell, he knew exactly what I was talking about then, instead of diving into a rant (the way I expected) he got serious and explained to me, as he was passing on a very important secret about life, hunting and cooking.
According to him, the anchovies are used to season the recipe, to make it salty! Hunters are very habitual, they have their own spot and their on shack… Inside their little wood cabin, along with some tools of the trade, they all have a little gas fire set up for cooking. Problem is, it is extremely hard to properly store ingredients in a cold, humid shack, that is surrounded by mud and battered by rain during hunting season. Therefore, the only food that can be left behind and used as needed, is canned food: salt would last a couple of days, before turning into a ball or even melt completely because of the moisture.
Canned anchovies don’t! The fish flavor is lost in the sauce and the bitter back taste of black olives helps tamper it as well, at the same time though, all the saltiness is released in the dish.
Hunters used to arrive to their shack at dawn, with a tupperware of marinated chicken, and a flask of wine.
They would open a can of pelati, a can of olives and one of anchovies, and by the time they would have done depleting the sky of any living creature, their lunch would be ready.