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When you write “Santander” in the main search engines, the city where this story takes place doesn’t appear until a few entries down the list. That’s because a bank with the same name completely monopolises the results. This injustice is partially remedied if you enter the word “anchovy,” a seafood delight closely linked to this region, and which inspires genuine obsession among certain people, as we shall discover later.

The quality of this small, delicious fish is well known. It satisfies the taste buds of young and old, and causes surprise and admiration among visitors from other countries, who are unfamiliar with a salting and curing process that involves using the fish’s own blood to achieve a characteristic golden-brown shade. Although the Spanish language has two different terms for the anchovy — anchoa and boquerón, reflecting different ways of preparing this delicacy — in fact, there’s just one species: Engraulis encrasicholus.

Salted and marinated anchovies are often served together, which fish-pickling wit soon baptised “marriage,” without specifying the gender of each, but assuming that the salted fish is the bride and the marinated version, the groom.

By day, Professor Rivilla was a young but renowned academic who shared his knowledge in the lecture halls of the university. By night, however, he delved into the extreme side of his personality, tirelessly searching for the quintessential nature of the anchovy, his alter ego. A peculiar skin occurrence made him even more extraordinary: a large, location-swapping mole. It was situated over his left eyebrow during the day, but when night’s dark shadow descended on Santander, the mole migrated painlessly and almost in an instant to an alternative spot above his right eyebrow.

This led to frequent arguments in the bars on Calle Perines or Calle Vargas.

“Of course! The bloke with the mole over his left eyebrow!”

“No! Over the right eyebrow!”

Bets were even wagered on the issue. And in reality, both sides could have won if only they’d taken the simple precaution of observing Professor Rivilla during the day and by moonlight.

To the eyes of a novice, the instruments in his night-time laboratory seemed to be piled up in perfect organised disorder. However, the retorts, alembic stills, Bunsen burners, conical flasks, pipettes and other contraptions formed a kind of all-encompassing overall structure which was none other than the anchovifier: an invention, yet to be patented, that could turn any animal, however large, into an anchovy.

Professor Rivilla looked noticeably like the President of Cantabria (who has a remarkably similar name too), which led to no small amount of joking in the classroom, as the president is famed for his love of anchovies. He often asked himself, unsuccessfully, why the beach in Santander was known as El Sardinero, in reference to sardines, when the most emblematic fish in these waters was the anchovy.

A recurring memory tormented Professor Rivilla. He saw himself dressed up like a character from the 1940s, riding a merry go round located in the Jardines de Pereda. A pair of shorts, too long to look modern, socks that reached all the way up to his knees, a methodical expression and a waistcoat and tie typical of a forensic doctor was the child’s attire. Far from looking happy as he rode the dancing horses, the young Rivilla was the living image of a contradiction, of premature maturity.

On that torrid and distant summer afternoon, his aunt Edelmira, the only person in the family who inspired the boy’s interest, was wearing a gigantic scarf wrapped various times around her throat region. The explanation for this lay in a passionate romantic encounter which had left indelible marks on her delicate, swanlike neck.

On seeing young Rivilla get off his horse, a woman exclaimed in surprise, “Have you seen that boy?” She was standing alongside his aunt Edelmira, and Professor Rivilla would never forget her tone of voice. She had a foreign accent, although back then he couldn’t quite make out where she was from. With the pass of time, however, and his ever-deepening obsession with that scene, he managed to determine her origin with surgical precision. With an accent from that narrow stretch of land where Hadrian’s Wall and Newcastle meet, that young woman, without a doubt, said: “That lad’s got a face like an anchovy.”

Cabarceno Wildlife Park, located just a few kilometres north of Santander, is a zoo where the animals live in relative freedom. An unscrupulous building developer who had prospered during the real estate boom by colonising the Cantabria coastline, corrupting local authorities and good intentions alike, had fallen from grace during the crisis. As a result, he was forced to give up his favourite pastime: going on safari to hunt exotic animals. Cruelty and lack of sensibility, inherent to many hunters, was, in his case, added to by a rabid impatience to tally up kills. For this reason, in a fit of madness that would cost him a prison sentence, he decided to take his rifle to Cabarceno and open fire on the hapless animals that were wandering in the park.

The incident hit the news and Professor Rivilla, preceded by his reputation in the scientific community, turned up at the scene of the crime to request the bodies of a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a jaguar, a deer and an ostrich. With the help of various assistants, he transported the carcasses to his laboratory and asked to be left alone.

He then set the achovifier into action on the animals, which first reduced in size and later, morphology. The professor could have fit the whole zoo into his pocket, but his invention was designed with the aim of acquiring new specimens for his peculiar collection of anchovies, which already contained every known variety of the fish and its derivatives.

It’s true that Professor Rivilla’s fondness for anchovies can be traced back to that fateful day at the merry go round. However, it must also be said that by turning his trauma into a healing kind of passion, Professor Rivilla had been able to save significant sums of money on therapists, coachers and other charlatans. Comic-loving readers will recall that Batman chose this animal precisely because of the fear instilled in him as a child by these furry fliers. So it was that the “anchovy face” comment struck a chord deep inside Rivilla, inspiring him to learn everything about the Engraulis encrasicholus.

His collection comprised a huge variety of specimens, given that the anchovifier could produce an endless range of previously unknown varieties of this prized salted fish. Yet every night, before he managed to fall asleep, the same unanswered question gnawed away at Professor Rivilla: did he really have a face like an anchovy? There was only one way to find out and that was to submit himself to the effects of the anchovifier. He would become a posthumous specimen in his own, unique collection, and would leave instructions in writing donating this treasure to the city of Santander, to be exhibited in Cantabria Maritime Museum.

And there, the collection can be viewed to this day. Together with the anchovifier which, fortunately, no one really knows how to use.