The incredible story of a Sicilian guy who traveled to the Cantabrian looking for providers, fell in love with a girl from Santoña, invented anchovies in oil, created hundreds of jobs, and ended up changing the world’s diet.
France, 1809. Napoleon dreams of his great expansion across Europe. He launches a social challenge: a reward of 12,000 francs to whoever could come up with a reliable method for food preservation. His objective: improving the millitary provisioning system. The objective was that soldiers to be able arrive on the battlefield well-fed, and reducing the burden of provisions and kitchen utensils on campaigns. The winner was Nicolas Appert, a well-known chef, who, some say had already been using his formula in secret: appertization. The system would survive Waterloo, and would become one of the great legacies of the Napoleonic era. Additionally, by replacing the glass jars with tin -a British monopoly- cargo ships transatlantic journeys also incorporated mass preservation.
During that time, the first preservation factories began to appear in Cantabrian ports. Following the Appert method, they canned fish, meat, and vegetables, meeting the new demand. Sales to coastal shippers first, and oceanic shippers later, soon became one of the most important sources of local income.
But they had competition. In the seventeenth century, Anglicanism had reduced fasting days. There was a surplus of salted sardines and herring that were beginning to look for markets on the continent. The invention of tin, and above all its monopoly, will turn the islands into the world’s largest exporter of preserved fish.
Fishing-waters crisis in the Mediterranean
In the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a fishing crisis on the Italian coast, which forced the commercial fishing houses to increase purchases of raw material overseas. England would be one of the points of origin, and the other would be the Cantabrian coast.
So each season, merchants from Genoa, Naples and Sicily started to send commercial delegates to the Cantabrian Sea with a mission: stock up on anchovies, a fish that, then, was only good as bait for fish of higher value in the market, like bream, but that, in Italy, was consumed on a massive scale. These men reached the ports of Getaria, Bermeo, Laredo, Santoña, Llanes or Lastres, and set about ordering, storing, and preserving fish. For this, they rented ships (magazzines), and hired women to process the fish. The boxes of salted anchovies left by boat for Italy.
These seasonal workers arrived every year on the coasts and invigorated the local economy with a few months of frenetic activity. The Genoese arrived with money, orders and stories, and the local population adored them.
Il piú grande boccato
But his story is different from the others’. And the difference had a name: Dolores, a girl from the town. In 1889 he marries her and settles down in Santoña permanently. Giovanni applied the standard procedure, which began with organizing the catches and ended with the salted anchovies in boxes, ready to go back on the boat. Just as with sardines or herring, they canned them with skin and bones, which forced diners to clean them before being able to eat them.
Giovanni realized that this was a barrier for increased consumption. He needed to improve the “usability” of the product. He became obsessed with the idea of eliminating the barrier, and started working with the women in the warehouses, looking for an alternative way to preserve the fish. The first result of that search was the salted anchovy fillet we know today, without skin, without bones, ready to eat in a single bite.
The new product was a delicacy compared to the usual salted fish, and it deserved a new brand and new label: “Il piú grande boccato” or “El gran bocado” was marketed in little rectangular cans, also thought up by Giovanni. Initially, he used capers for aroma and butter to attenuate their strong flavor, following the Italian style of anchovy consumption. Due to the increase in costs that entailed, Giovanni in the end opted for packaging in olive oil. The can of anchovies that we know had been born.
The new technique of the “hand-packed” anchovy quickly spread to the nascent canning sector. In 1900, Giovanni starts the construction of what would be the first anchovy factory in Santoña: The Dolores, in honor of his wife. In the following years, he opens new salting workshops in Llanes and Lekeito, and invests in his own boats, also becoming a builder.
Atracting nomads as the basis of development on the Cantabrian coast
The canning process was popularized with the opening of new commercial routes; their delegates, who had been nomads for years, settled down and created the first businesses. Santoña, with the Oliveris, Gattos, Orlandos, Marinos, Zizzos, Sanfilippos, and Busalachis, experienced its greatest splendor.
The arrival of the Italians provided a boost for the canning industry. With the anchovies, an era of industrial explosion began in the coast of the Cantabrian. Just in Santoña, more than a hundred Italian families moved in, making it the port with the greatest concentration of anchovy canning in the world, with some thirty factories that employed more than 800 people besides fishers, shippers, and auxiliary industries, including the cans, designed by Vella and manufactured ever since by Basque ironmongers.
After Giovanni Vella
But that wave of innovation was not followed by another. The industrial sector created by Vella barely survives today, thanks to the anchovy fillet, which continues to say “hand-packed” as its seal of identity. That time of splendor could not be maintained over time. Today, there are scarcely a dozen canners in Santoña. The result of nomadism was the appearance of the canning industry in Santoña, and the result of specialization was its stagnation.
What happened? Simply that “outsiders” stopped arriving – because, in reality, what the story of Giovanni Vella teaches us is that the floating population is the true key to innovation, and through it, local development. Bring 100 canners, and one Vella will emerge. But don’t try live off the wit and innovation of a single man forever. Rents from innovation dissipate, and today’s Cantabrian Giovannis, those tuned in to consumer demand, are surely now in some port in the Pacific or the South Atlantic, dreaming of finding the way to innovate and become independent from their headquarters in Europe.
Local development needs “outsiders”
The Italians in the Cantabrian brought a “procedure” to organize the production of salted fish and the knowledge of packing in barrels. But faced with a new setting, they thought up new challenges. Instead of dedicating themselves to incremental improvement, they sought a completely new way to enter the market (fish without scales nor bones).
Surely, Giovanni Vella would not have led that process in Genoa. And the fact is, it hadn’t occurred to anyone else in the Cantabrian to do it on their own, until it was already a well-established industrial procedure. To expect anything else would be utopian… although that’s what most “entrepreneurship policies” and local development plans we find across Europe are based on.
Real innovation, as we saw in the Nintendo case, has to do with establishing conversation with people who are fundamentally different, with other contexts, with “another world.” That is to say, foreign. That’s what forces us to rethink everything, and to see ourselves in a different way. That’s how Philosophy was born in ancient Greece. Should it seem strange to us that we owe canned anchovies to that promiscuity?
The conclusion is simple: If you want to develop a city or a region, don’t ask yourself how make its inhabitants different, ask yourself how many different people you can introduce them to, and how many interesting people “from outside” they could convince to move there… at least for a season.
Translated by Steve Herrick