Sardines - A Food Geek's Guide

| Brindisa Marketing

Sardines are small, silvery, fish, ranging in length from about 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 inches), they live in dense shoals, migrating along the coast feeding on plankton. The warmer months, between May and October, are the best time for fishing sardines off the northern coasts of Spain. As the surface waters heat up plankton become more abundant and the fish gorge, building up their reserves of fat.

What are sardines?

There is considerable confusion over what a sardine actually is, with different species of fish being called sardines in different parts of the world. Sardines are part of the herring family (Clupeidae) which includes many similar fish, amongst them, pilchards, herring, brisling, sprats and silde and all of these are consumed, in different parts of the world, under the name sardine. The FAO /WHO cites 21 species that may be classed as “sardines”.   Those caught in the North-Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean are generally sardinus pilchardus (European pilchard), but even this is not clear cut with, for instance the UK classifying sardines as baby pilchards. With sardinus pilchardus, in simple terms, sardines are young fish and pilchards the mature fish.

Good for you

While there may be uncertainty over the definition of a sardine, there is no doubting their health benefits. Sardines are classified as “oily fish”, fish whose fat contains high quantities of Omega 3 fatty acids; others include mackerel, herring, anchovies, some species of salmon and tuna. Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in the body, as they reduce levels of LDL and increase levels of HDL cholesterol crucial to our cardiovascular health, recent studies have also suggested that they may reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and help to boost brain function. Sardines also contain large quantities of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D and minerals vital to the body’s functioning such as phosphorus, calcium and selenium.

The populations of sardines also appears to be robust, though our knowledge of the spawning habits of oceanic fish is far from encyclopaedic, and we do know that there has been a reduction in their predator species, which would tend to confirm this view.

The tin is king

Oily fish need to be eaten quickly as the unsaturated fat, up to 30% of the body weight, oxidises very fast to produce rancid flavours. Salting and drying in the presence of air is therefore not an effective method of preservation, whereas pickling, brining, smoking, cooking and canning, or a combination of these processes, all work well.

The commonest method of preservation is, of course, canning, a technology that has been in existence since the late 18th century and is widely used across the world.  At the beginning of the 19th century a Frenchman, Nicolas Appert, discovered the effectiveness of heat in preventing microbial activity in tinned foods and created a method of processing on a larger scale. He actually used glass bottles for his first products but, once word of his method spread, tin cans became the container of choice for heat sealed preservation. Slightly oddly it took decades after the invention of the sealed tin before anyone thought to invent a tin opener, in the interim they had to resort to hammer and chisel!

It was the Bretons of northern France who took advantage of this technological advance to begin the canning of sardines on an industrial scale (though this still involved huge amounts of manual labour, each tin hand-made, the fish packed and the tins sealed by hand), evidence of the explosive growth in this new industry can be seen in the statistics; by 1836 Pierre Joseph Colin’s factory in Nantes, Brittany was turning out 30,000 tins per year, just 40 years later the province of Brittany had 30 factories producing 50 million tins per annum.

Spain, where the sardine had always been an important catch, took to the new technology quickly as well. Both on the northern, Atlantic, coast and on the Mediterranean coastline factories sprang up to produce this new, portable, long-life foodstuff.

Which are best?

Not all sardines are the same. The time of year when are caught; the care taken in the preparation; the size of the fish and the cooking methods will all have a direct impact on the final product.

You can generally judge the size of the sardines from the label which tells you how many fish the tin contains, normally varying from 3-4 per tin up to 16-20. The larger fish will tend to have softer flesh and a fuller flavour.

The best processors will prepare the sardines by hand, removing the heads and guts, then washing in brine and drying them before cooking.

The fish may be fried or steamed, depending on the preferences of the producers, but the quality of the finished product is more dependent on the raw materials, the skill of the cooking and the knowledge and experience of the processors.

The medium in which they are preserved has the most immediate impact on the flavour; olive oil has always been most widely used (the reason that sardines are packed so tightly is that the oil used to be more expensive than the fish), but there are differing views as to whether extra virgin olive oil is better than a milder oil or if it is too strong and masks the flavour of the fish. Other sauces are quite widely used, most frequently tomato or mustard variations, and the use of chillis to spice up the oil is also quite common. It could be thought that some of these may be used to disguise the flavour of poor quality fish?

For the connoisseur age is also a factor; the technical manager of a well-respected brand told me that, if she had her way, the tins of newly packed sardines would not leave the factory until they were at least a year old, it wasn’t until then that she considered the texture and flavour good enough to send out. Unfortunately for them (and for us?) commercial imperatives demanded that the sardines found their way to the customers without this period of rest. There are people who fully believe in the benefits of ageing tinned sardines and carry this out at home, maturing the best vintages like fine wines; stories of people keeping their sardines for decades are not unknown, during which time the fish absorbs the rich olive oil which, in turn, becomes completely infused with the delicate fishy flavours.

Sardine celebrations

This cultural focus on food, and the regional variations found throughout the country, typical of many of Mediterranean countries, can be seen in the numerous festivals of foods throughout Spain. There are nationally famous celebrations of olives, artichokes, cider, hake, tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, cheese, garlic and octopus in different parts of the country, as well as countless local fiestas celebrating local seasonal produce.

In April in Murcia the arrival of spring is celebrated with the “Entierro de la Sardina”, the Burying of the Sardine, whilst in the northern summer Candás in Asturias and Vigo in Galicia hold important annual fiestas celebrating the sardine. These festivals are about more than just having a good time, they are indicative of the importance to these towns of a fish that has brought wealth, employment and provided a crucial source of food for many generations.

The sensual pleasures are a fundamental purpose of the fiestas though and tons of the fish will be consumed over the course of a few days; grilled fresh fish simply served, or beautifully garnished tinned fish turned into spectacular pintxos or montaditos competing to win coveted prizes for the creators. History, culture and gastronomy all combined in one delicious mouthful. As they say in Galicia, “Bo proveito!”


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