Tinned Treasures

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Christopher Hirst discovers the savoury possibilities of the delicious, cheap and wholesome sardine

Convenient, tasty and healthy, a key ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine is available in virtually all supermarkets and grocers at minimal cost. A 120g tin of sardines in olive oil costs 55p at Sainsbury’s. Of course, you can pay more. Moving into the gourmet area, a tin of French Parmentier sardines costs £1.99 while a 140g tin of the Spanish Ortiz brand costs £3.95. But for everyday purposes, Sainsbury’s sardines from Morocco or M&S sardines from Portugal  do the job very well. They are particularly good when mashed on toast and topped with cut spring onion and a dribble of the olive oil in which they were packed. Thin sliced radish or tomato also works well. Or you might consider freshly-made pickle onion (slice thinly, blanche briefly in boiling water, drain and marinade for half an hour in balsamic vinegar).
Yes, I know you can get sardines tinned in all sorts of liquid including spring water and tomato sauce but olive oil remains the ideal medium for preserving and penetrating the little fish. The oil may increase the calories but also make the vitamins in sardines easier to digest. An article in American Vogue, a journal not exactly indifferent to calories, refers to ‘the glorious sardine’.
Sardines were the first fish to be preserved by canning in 1824 and, along with anchovies, remain the most popular. Since then, everyone has been able to enjoy a nibble of the warm south. According to Jane Grigson, ‘The thing is to find a good brand of sardines [she recommends Marie Elisabeth from Portugal] and serve them on their own with proper bread, fine butter and some lemon.’ The French incorporate butter to an even greater extent. In his tempting little guide, Favourite Savoury Tartines [open sandwiches], Lionel Poilane wrote,  ‘Purists will want to stick with the basic recipe: skin and bone the sardines and mash them with their weight in butter.’ The founder of the splendid bakery suggested a couple of variations ‘for the adventurous’. Gastronomic daredevils can add ‘a teaspoon of [Dijon] mustard with a small amount of chopped parsley pr chervil.’ Whatever your preference, lemon juice is recommended.
Another devotee of the tinned sardine was Elizabeth David, who wrote an impressively researched essay on their history in 1962. Preserved sardines started off by being cooked in butter or oil and packed in clay jars. Canning began in 1824 in the port of Nantes, much to the outrage of residents, who, like the inhabitants of Yorkshire coastal communities today, had to endure the constant smell of frying fish. Elizabeth David noted that the French tinned sardines are ‘a treat rather than a daily commodity’. There are usually eight minnows in a French tin as opposed to three whoppers in tins from Morocco. Any notion of cooking tinned sardines was briskly dismissed by a director of a Nantais canning company interviewed by Elizabeth David. ‘The taste [becomes] coarse. Perhaps for inferior sardines… but ours are best just as they are. A little cayenne or lemon if you like and butter is traditional in France, although they are fat and do not really need it. But, please, not shock treatment.’
Operating only from May to October, French sardine factories rush production to capture these highly perishable tiddlers at their peak. The little fish are beheaded and gutted, rinsed, briefly brined, rinsed again, dried in warm air and fried, according to Elizabeth David for ‘no more than a few seconds in sizzling oil’. They are then drained, packed in tins and covered with specially selected olive oil. The quality of the oil is important because ‘the sardines are going to mature in that oil and acquire some of its flavour.’
Along with beef, Worcestershire sauce and English tomatoes, tinned sardines improve with keeping. Look at the tins in your cupboard and you’ll see a distant ‘best before’ date, maybe 2023 or 2024. Sardines were once matured for many years like wine. Different vintages were sampled by sardine lovers including Oscar Wilde’s son Vivian Holland. In fact, tinned sardines at their peak after three years. If you keep them, tins must be regularly turned to mix the oil and the fish juice. They should be kept cool but not in the fridge or the oil will solidify and fail to penetrate the fish.
It is a mistake to regard tinned sardines as being a foodstuff solely consumed at genteel teas. According to The Sardinistas*, a Manchester-based importer of Portuguese tinned fish, ’Tins have become the new tapas and a rising trend in Europe. Canned fish really has gone gourmet.’ Forget the traditional tins bearing pictures of grizzled old salts in sou’westers, the Sardinista range includes scores of different products in dazzling packaging. One of its brands worth seeking out is called Sardinha. Inside a wrapper bearing a sort of merman (fish head protrudes from human trousers), it contains a decidedly classy sardine, juicy and healthy, being steamed rather than fried.
In keeping with the hip new image of sardines, it may be worth trying a recipe from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s hefty guide Fish (Bloomsbury, £50). Bloody Mary sardines on toast may not be to the taste of French producers (though one of their tins appears as illustration) but Hugh FW begs to differ. Sardines on hot buttered toast is ‘as simple and wholesome a snack as you’re likely to come across,’ he writes. ‘We did feel, however, that the toast/sardine partnerships wouldn’t suffer if given a boost. Sardines and tomatoes are classic bedfellows, and we thought the classic flavourings of a Bloody Mary cocktail might be the perfect way to spice things up. We weren’t wrong.’

Blood Mary sardines on toast

Serves one (somewhat generously)

  • 1 tin of sardines in oil, drained
  • 1-2 tsp tomato ketchup
  • 2-3 shakes Tabasco
  • 4-5 shakes Worcestershire sauce
  • Lemon juice
  • Pinch of celery salt
  • 1 slice toast
  • Butter
  • Dash of vodka (optional)
  • Black pepper

Mix the sardines with the ketchup, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, roughly mashing them all together. Season with lemon juice, celery salt and black pepper to taste. Spread your hot toast with butter, the pile on the sardine mixture. Finish with a light sprinkling of vodka, if you like, and serve straight away.

*The Sardinistas will pop-up most Saturdays in Manchester’s Out of the Blue Fishmongers, and  will be at Altrincham Market, Manchester, from 30 November – 24 December. For further details visit  www.thesardinistas.co.uk  or www.outofthebluefish.co.uk