Sardines: a definitive guide to the taste of summer

One of the great tests of whether it truly is summer is how appetising the prospect of cooking a fresh sardine sounds. Doing so produces one of those strong food smells that is somehow only appealing on a balmy night outdoors, a glass of rosé in hand. At such a moment, the scent of grilled sardine — redolent of holidays in the Mediterranean — can be irresistible. As Edite Vieira writes in The Taste of Portugal, during the summer months in Portugal, “The characteristic smell of grilled sardines can be detected everywhere . . . in open-air restaurants, tavernas, sea-side cafés, funfairs . . . ”

Considering how good they are, it is surprising that the British don’t eat more sardines, which are in fact a whole group of oily fish in the family Clupeidae rather than a single species. Gus Caslake, chair of the Cornish Sardine Management Association, tells me over the phone that when it comes to fish in the UK, “We import what we eat, and we export what we catch.” Most Cornish sardines are exported to Portugal, France and Spain. More than 80 per cent of the total catch of 6,000-8,000 tonnes leaves the country. One reason, Caslake suggests, is that UK consumers associate fresh sardines with summer holidays abroad rather than eating at home. Yet there was a time, in the early 20th-century, when we had our own native version of the grilled sardine: the “scrowled pilchard”, a pilchard being nothing more than a large sardine. To scrowl pilchards, split and flatten two of them, pepper the insides and sandwich them together before roasting on a gridiron, an old-fashioned griddle. Minus the glass of rosé, this is not so different from a Portuguese grilled sardine.

Sardines are one of the few remaining prolific and sustainable forms of wild fish, as well as being packed with the omega-3 oils we are constantly being told we should eat more of. Unlike farmed salmon — which is often fed on fish meal made from sardines and herring — sardines are low on the food chain, signifying their relative sustainability. Caslake tells me proudly that Cornish sardines are now the only ones in Europe to be MSC certified, a mark of sustainability.

A fresh grilled sardine is a sublimely pleasing thing: the delicate flesh, the rich umami taste, the gorgeous silvery appearance. In his cookbook Take One Fish, Australian chef Josh Niland writes that sardines deserve to be “celebrated in the same way as truffles or caviar” for their “nuances of flavour”, particularly as their luxurious taste can be bought so cheaply. Niland is the creator of one of the most iconic sardine dishes of modern times: crumbed butterflied sardine fillets fried in ghee and made into a white bread sandwich with tartare sauce. The little tails peep out of the end of the sandwich.

Fried sardines on a red plate with lemon wedges
© Carmen Palma

Still, there is something about a fresh sardine that can make you hesitate, even if you love fish. Some fear the profusion of tiny bones, while others worry that a sardine will taste fishy, given how rapidly the freshness of oily fish can deteriorate. For years, I did not eat as many fresh sardines as I would have liked. As someone who lives inland, I was held back by two things: a prejudice against frozen sardines and a fear of fish butchery. Both of these things, it turns out, are easily remedied.

My prejudice against frozen sardines goes back to reading English Seafood Cookery by Rick Stein, first published in 1988, when I was learning to cook fish. Stein insisted that “frozen pilchards or sardines are not worth buying”, adding that oily fish such as pilchards, herrings and sprats “freeze well enough for a short time, but after a while the oil in them turns rancid”. This was probably good advice at the time but the technology of freezing sardines has completely changed. Caslake explains the process has got “a hell of a lot better”. The standard way to freeze sardines used to be in blocks, which meant the delicate flesh would get crushed, whereas now the fish are usually sprayed with a fine mist of water and frozen individually at very low temperatures. Each fish, says Caslake, is effectively “encased in its own little water capsule” when it is frozen. Sardines are caught so close to harbour in Newlyn only a few hours elapse before they’re frozen. And while back in 1988 the fish were caught by drift netting, now they are caught with soft ring netting, which causes much less damage to the delicate bodies of the fish before they are frozen.

Can a frozen sardine ever be good? Yes. And what’s more, it’s often the best way to buy them, depending on where you live. The Cornish sardine season starts in July but Caslake says that the July fish — though luscious if you can get them in situ — are actually difficult to process because the oil content is so high. He suggests that a sardine caught and frozen in January or February should be perfect for a June barbecue.

It goes without saying that the sweetest of all sardines are those straight from the sea. If you live near the coast and can buy them truly fresh or if you have access to a fishmonger or farmer’s market where the sardines are yesterday’s catch, lucky you. For the rest of us, good quality frozen sardines will usually be much fresher tasting than the so-called “fresh” sardines sold in the supermarket chill cabinets.

Like any filleted sardine, these are not 100 per cent bone free. (With fish this small, it’s almost impossible to get every last fragment.) I don’t mind the odd bone but if you feel differently, it may be better to cook them whole. Cooked flesh seems to come away from the bone more completely.

Sarding cans from different brands with an opened can in the middle
© Carmen Palma

The Fish Society, where I’ve been buying them, sells whole Portuguese frozen sardines but they are unscaled and ungutted. The very idea of gutting a sardine used to fill me with feelings of inadequacy and dread. All I can say is that this is what YouTube is for. One minute watching a video from a series called “Passionate About Fish” taught me how to run a blunt table knife over the fish’s body to remove the scales, before locating and removing the gill on each side. You then run a knife along the belly, and the guts come out in one easy movement. I can’t pretend it isn’t bloody work — you need a big bowl of water handy to wash the fish after — but it’s also strangely satisfying.

Recently, I discovered an even easier way described by Josh Niland. “Using a sharp knife, make a cut behind the head on both sides running adjacent to the sardine’s collars, then remove the head by twisting and gently pulling it off — the organs will follow in one piece”. This really works and is much quicker and less messy than the traditional head-on method. Niland advises keeping the head and organs to make your own fish sauce. I have never done this, though I admire the frugal spirit.

If the last two paragraphs give you the heebie-jeebies, you could always ask your fishmonger to do the gutting. Or emulate the Portuguese and cook them guts, scales and all. Vieira writes that true Portuguese grilled sardines should be washed but not gutted, scaled or beheaded because “gutting and scaling would have the effect of drying them too much”. Then again, in many of the great sardine cultures in Italy and France, the fish is traditionally cleaned and gutted before cooking.

Barbecuing a sardine is cooking at its most basic: fish, salt and fire. And maybe lemon and oil. One thing that makes a huge difference to the flavour is to salt the sardines 15 minutes or more before you cook them. In some recipes, they are also floured first, which seems to help them stay juicier on the inside but you lose some of the silvery aesthetic. Either way, they take about two to three minutes a side. Chef Pierre Koffmann adds that “they should still be pink on the bone. If they are undercooked, they’re still raw; overcooked and they’re dry”. Caroline Conran in By the Atlantic advises turning them every minute and sprinkling with lemon to make grilled sardines like the ones in Santurtzi, a port near Bilbao famous for its sardines. In Santurtzi, sardines are grilled over dried vine prunings instead of charcoal, apparently adding to the flavour. Or you can cook them in a heavy oiled pan on top of the barbecue. (I use a spun iron pan from Netherton Foundry.) It’s easier to prevent the little fish from breaking up in a pan and it also spares you the job of cleaning a fishy griddle. But you won’t get the romance of the black stripes.

Deciding how many sardines to serve can be tricky. In Cuisine Niçoise, a book replete with sardine recipes, Jacques Médecin notes that on average you should allow 150g per person unless you have invited someone from Nice, in which case it is wiser to provide at least 250g. A Spanish humourist called Julio Camba remarked (as quoted by fish expert Alan Davidson) that “one should never eat fewer than a dozen at a time”. Either appetites are bigger in Spain or sardines are smaller. I don’t think I could manage more than three or four.

Fresh sardines on a red background
© Carmen Palma

If you ever tire of plain grilled sardines, the other obvious thing to do is to make the Sicilian dish of pasta con le sarde in which the sardine is cooked with fried onion and green fennel, with or without pine nuts and raisins, and perhaps some toasted or fried breadcrumbs at the end. (Claudia Roden observes that the breadcrumbs were known in Italy as poor man’s Parmesan. But actually, I think this dish is lovely made with canned sardines instead of fresh, which also make it far easier to shop for and prepare.) I like to double up the note of fennel by adding some fennel seeds and garlic to the breadcrumbs as you toast them in oil in a pan. For one or two, I take a finely chopped onion (plus some chopped fennel or celery) and soften it in oil before adding a can of sardines and warming it through without breaking it up too much. When the pasta is done, I toss it all together with some lemon juice, pine nuts and a little of the pasta water before sprinkling with the toasted fennel breadcrumbs.

A fresh sardine may be lovely but a canned sardine comes a close second (and all the worries about bones and freshness fade away). Sardines are one of the few canned foods to have attracted serious connoisseurship: the beauty of the tins, the feeling of excitement when you peel back the lid and see the silver treasure inside. Some claim that sardines mature in the can over many years like brandy in a barrel, though I have never kept them long enough to test this. In cookery books from the 1930s, canned sardines have an air of glamour. Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath published in 1934 includes recipes for sardine canapés, sardine toasts, iced sardine paste and — I love the name of this one — sardine cigarettes made from rolled-up pastry filled with mashed sardines, deep fried until golden.

Even in Portugal, where fresh sardines are so abundant, the canned ones are popular. In Piri Piri Starfish, Tessa Kiros remarks that canned tuna or sardine pâté “comes before every meal in Portugal . . . It is on the table as soon as you sit down, in tiny pre-packed butter-like parcels”. You can make this pâté by blending together equal quantities by weight of butter and sardines canned in oil. Season with a little lemon — Kiros adds a splash of whisky and some hot piri piri. This may not have that grilled sardine smell but eaten outside with radishes and olives and good bread, it’s still a taste of summer.

Bee Wilson is author of “The Way We Eat Now”

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