John Steinbeck’s ‘silvery billions’

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Christopher Hirst fishes out the facts on the cheap nutritious and tasty sardine…

Probably the busiest time the girls of the Bear Flag ever had was the March of the big sardine catch. It wasn’t only that the fish ran in silvery billions and money ran almost as freely… The men from the sardine fleet, loaded with dough, were in and out all afternoon. They sail at dark and fish all night, so they must play in the afternoon.

(Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, 1945)


Though I don’t deliberately seek them out, I have often holidayed near sardines works, both active and moribund. They tend to be in attractive locations at the seaside and, if still operative, ensure a souvenir that is both tasty and inexpensive. Monterey’s Cannery Row, setting for Steinbeck’s colourful tales about the lower strata of Californian life, is now a picturesque tourist trap, well worth visiting for the aquarium, but the canning factories of Quiberon and elsewhere in Brittany continue their fragrant trade.

Convenient, tasty and healthy, sardines are available in virtually all supermarkets and grocers at minimal cost. They are particularly good when mashed on toast and topped with fine chopped 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 pickled onion – slice thinly, blanche briefly in boiling water, drain and marinade for half an hour in a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
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 makes 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 booklet Favourite Savoury Tartines, a tempting guide to open sandwiches, the great baker 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.” (Personally, I wouldn’t bother with the messy skinning and boning. Just mash the lot.) He suggested that “the more adventurous tartan makers will try more subtle mixtures as they gain confidence.” Gastronomic daredevils can add “a teaspoon of mustard [he means Dijon] with a small amount of chopped parsley or chervil.” A few drops of lemon juice are recommended “whatever the configuration”.

Following the Poilane guidelines. I mashed a drained tin of Parmentier brand French sardines with the same weight (100g) of unsalted French butter. The result was a pleasant spread though perhaps a little on the mild side for sardine devotees. Lemon juice helped deliver interest but the addition of a little Dijon mustard was a revelation. The humble tinned sardine was transformed into sophisticated party food. Mixing sardines with butter and mustard has the additional benefit of extending the fish so you have pretty much double the quantity for spreading.

One devotee of the tinned sardine was Elizabeth David, who wrote an impressively researched essay on their history in 1962. The first preserved sardines in France were 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 British coastal communities today, had to endure the constant smell of frying fish.

David maintained that the French tinned sardines are “a treat rather than a daily commodity”. Any notion of cooking tinned sardines was briskly dismissed by a director of a Nantais canning company. “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, no 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 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.”

Like beef and Worcestershire sauce, tinned sardines improve with keeping. Sardines were once matured for many years like wine. Oscar Wilde’s son Vivian Holland, who founded a sardine appreciation society, maintained that the 1959 vintage was outstanding. In fact, tinned sardines are 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 by the elderly at genteel teas. According to the Sardinistas, Manchester-based importers 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.

Ignoring the pleadings of the Nantais sardine executive interviewed by Elizabeth David, some recipes take a spicy approach to the tasty tiddlers. In his book Fish, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall proposes Bloody Mary sardines in which they are mashed with tomato ketchup, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and celery salt and before being spread on toast. If you so desire, you can finish with a light sprinkling of vodka. Even in their home land, French sardines are subject to a little “shock treatment”. At Poilane’s Cuisine de Bar on Rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris, sardines are mashed with butter, horseradish, wine vinegar and herbs before being spread on the company’s incomparable sourdough.