The small sea fish anchovy (Engraulis encrasicholus) is fished mainly for the canning industry. Rarely available fresh, it is usually sold salted and canned or bottled in oil or brine.
Picture on left: cured, canned anchovy fillets.
The rather intense flavour of preserved anchovies is developed by curing the fish with salt and letting them mature for about two months.
Canned or bottled anchovy fillets are very salty, thus used only in small amounts to flavour many dishes, especially in Italy and the regions of southern France.
Picture on right: Italian brand of anchovy fillets bottled in oil.
In the Nordic countries, types of Swedish sprat fillets canned in sugar and spice brine are used to flavour many local dishes, like the Swedish potato gratin dish Jansson's temptation.
Picture on right: Swedish anchovies (sprat fillets) canned in spiced brine.
These fillets are called anchovies in Sweden, Denmark and Finland alike, although they are prepared from a small sardine-like fish sprat (Sprattus sprattus) and not from the genuine anchovy (Engraulis encrasicholus, see the top of this page), a fact confusing many foreigners trying to decipher Nordic recipes.
Swedish canned sprat fillets have a very soft and tender, melt-in-the-mouth, texture and a distinctive, piquant flavour, both differing greatly from those of real canned anchovy fillets.
Picture on right: various brands of Swedish canned anchovies (sprats).
Besides salt, spices like sugar, cinnamon, sandalwood and ginger are used to season their brine, among other ingredients.
This is an important fact to know when preparing original Swedish or Finnish dishes calling for
anchovies to be used, thus meaning Swedish canned sprats. In these dishes, Swedish canned sprats cannot be replaced with regular Italian, French or Spanish type canned anchovies without completely altering the flavour of the dish.
Picture above: whole Danish canned anchovies (sprats).
On the other hand, one should note that despite of the great difference in both flavour and texture, especially here in Finland, Swedish canned sprats have always been quite heedlessly and inaccurately used to replace genuine anchovies in any French, Italian or Mediterranean dish calling for them, as well as in Caesar salads, as pizza topping, etc.
The above practise was more common in former times, when genuine anchovies were not as readily available in every store as the Swedish ones.