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Zingerman's News Feature

26 Things You Never Knew About Sardines

I love sardines, and I also love the people I work with, buy from and sell to. That’s why I want to write about sardines and the people who purvey and eat them. The better I tell the story of sardines, the more likely it is that others will start loving them too. Sardines are one of my all-time favorite foods because they have everything I want in a food:

  • full of flavor
  • easy to use and easily accessible
  • a lot of obscure folklore and history
  • one of the healthiest foods I know of

Everybody knows something about these delicious little fish, but I’m confident that I’ve got plenty of new sardine info in here for you. Most people I know are always seeking out bigger and bolder flavors. Sardines fit, as they are full flavored, rich, and meaty, and can stand up to hot sauce, mustard, olives, tomatoes, garlic and most anything else you want to throw at them.

Sardines smash Stereotypes
Besides tasting so good, sardines defy social stereotypes. They appeal to almost everyone, from salt-of-the-earth workers to culinary elites. Sardines were a staple of the coastal Native American diet long before Europeans arrived on the continent. Poor Eastern European Jews ate abundant quantities of them; there are many stories of poor Jewish families honoring the Sabbath tradition of eating fish by sitting down to a Friday meal of nothing but tinned sardines and hard-boiled eggs. Here in Michigan, sardines were a staple in the lunch buckets of ironworkers who built the Mackinaw Bridge in the 1950s. Sardines have been shipped out to troops around the world for two centuries; environmentalists and lefty foodies love ‘em too. Some folks eat them right out of the can, while aficionados age them in private cellars and crack open vintage tins to celebrate special occasions.

(for more info on sardine history and culture, click here)

Great Sardines on Our Shelves
We have four superb sardine offerings on hand now and more on the way. All of these are excellent; I’ve eaten large quantities while coming up with the recipe ideas in this piece. Each has its own unique character, and I’m happy having any of them on my dinner table.

Matiz—Spanish Sardines in Olive Oil
These beautiful silver-skinned sardines come from the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. More specifically they come from the coastal town of Vilaboa, in the Río Vigo, a deep estuary near the Portuguese border that’s known for its calm waters, high level of natural diversity and great seafood. The fish are all traditional pilchards, the old European sardine variety that make for the fattest and most tender sardines. The fish are caught using seines, large fishing nets that allow fishermen to take in a school of sardines without damaging other sea dwellers. The fish are cleaned and prepped—primarily by hand—before being canned. The firm has a long list of certifications to show off including HAACP, ISO and others. They’re also environmentally conscious—the fish are caught sustainably, and even the packaging is from recycled materials. Matiz sardines have the mellowest, mildest, cleanest flavor of our offerings—if you’re making your first foray into sardines, eating Matiz might be the best place to start.

Da Morgada—Portuguese Sardines
in Extra Virgin Olive Oil

These are caught further south, off the coast of Portugal, taken in at the port of Matosinhos, near the city of Port (which most of you will know for its famous wine). Again, the fishermen use seines and (as with all our offerings) the tinned product is made only with fresh fish—the season of the Portuguese coast runs from April through November. Most of the fishermen are second-generation with the firm, so the quality of the fish is high. The sardines are packed in extra virgin olive oil, their flavor a touch bigger than that of the Matiz, while equally tender and impressively delicious.

Gonidec—Old-Style Sardines
from Brittany

These traditionally prepared sardines are packed by the Gonidec family in the old Breton port town of Concarneau. If you look at a map of the French coast and find its westernmost point sticking out into the Atlantic, Concarneau is a bit south and a touch back to the east. Gonidec, currently run by the third generation, remains true to the old methods. The fish are (again) all fresh, never frozen. As per the old Breton way, the newly landed sardines go into a bath of ice and salt water. Called “pickling,” this process firms the flesh. The fish are then laid out on racks and dried slowly in kilns. The drying is essential for the next step—frying in oil. The fish are then allowed to drain and finally packed in extra virgin olive oil before being sealed into tins. Taking into account the equipment’s modernization, this Gonidec process is essentially the same as that used by Monsieurs Appert and Colin early in the 19th century, when the first sardine canning was coming together.

Gonidec 2009—
Vintage Sardines from Brittany

Each year the Gonidec family selects the best and most beautiful of the season’s sardines and sets them aside for maturing. They’re now about two and a half years in the tin. The maturing makes the flavor more intense, the extra virgin olive oil penetrating more effectively into the flesh of the fish. Great eating for the connoisseur!

High-Class Convenience Food
Aside from tasting so great, canned sardines are an incredible convenience food. Keep a tin on hand, and you can prepare a great meal quickly. The other night I made a simple dish of pasta with sardines. It’s my downscale, last-minute version of the classic Sicilian pasta con le sarde. The traditional dish is super-delicious but calls for fresh sardines and wild fennel fronds, neither of which I had on hand. Here is how to make my version:

  • Sauté a bit of chopped fresh fennel in olive oil.
  • Add a bit of garlic as well – I recommend the sun-dried garlic we get from the Mahjoub family in Tunisia.
  • Add a handful of raisins
  • Add a bit of red pepper flakes – I recommend Marash red pepper from Turkey.
  • Cook some spaghetti (Martelli is my choice) till it just reaches al dente texture.
  • When the pasta is nearly ready, open a tin of sardines and add them to the fennel.
  • Add all the liquid in the tin—there’s a lot of flavor in the oil—and a tablespoon of pine nuts.
  • Stir gently.
  • As the sardines warm, take the pasta out of the pot and add it to the sauce. Stir for another minute or two to make sure it’s all hot and the pasta absorbs the flavor.
  • Serve it in warm bowls. Grate some bread crumbs over the top (which can be made in the moment by toasting some Bakehouse bread and running it through a hand grater).
  • Pour on a ribbon of good olive oil and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Other Ways to Use Sardines
Sardines are definitely one of the best convenience foods we’ve got. I like that they’re always ready and waiting for those days when I forgot to shop or haven’t got the energy to get creative. Here are some recipes I’ve really enjoyed:

This is the sardine version of the classic taramosalata spread (made from carp roe). It’s easy to do:

  • mash a tin of sardines, along with a clove of peeled garlic (Les Moulins Mahjoub sundried garlic available at the Deli is perfect) or three or four chopped scallions.
  • Add two well-cooked, medium-sized potatoes, a squeeze of lemon juice and a touch of sea salt, and mash again.
  • Slowly add ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil. Add the oil a drop or two at a time while stirring with a wooden spoon so that the oil is beaten into the sardine-potato mixture and emulsifies. It should be creamy and thick.
  • Let the spread rest in the refrigerator for two or three hours before serving. Garnish with chopped fresh dill and freshly ground black pepper. An excellent hors d’oeuvres or sandwich.

This is a classic simple dish of the Veneto region of Italy that makes a sauce out of an ample amount of onion, along with sardines and/or anchovies. Here is how to prepare this dish:

  • Use about half a large sweet onion per person.
  • Add a pinch of sea salt, then cook slowly in olive oil and a little water for about 20 to 30 minutes until the onions are soft and golden. They should be almost broken down into a creamy texture.
  • Cook your favorite pasta as well.
  • Bigoli recipes call for either freshly cooked sardines or salted sardines—in either case take the fish off the bone and cook it slowly into the onions.
  • Slowly cook the fish until it breaks down into the onion. When the pasta is ready, drain it and toss with the sauce. Serve with lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Author Clifford Wright says you can make do with a tin of sardines and some added anchovies, and I’ve certainly done it. It should be a good bit of fish—about a tin of sardines or anchovies per person. (You can also use anchovies and no sardines at all.)

Leslie Kish’s Sardine Spread
Leslie Kish, one of my all-time favorite customers, passed away in 2000, at age 90. At first I knew him only as a customer—he liked good cheese, good bread and sardines. Over the 15 years or so I waited on him, I discovered that he’d been born in Hungary and came here when he was 15. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and was active in the International Peace Movement for decades. He was one of the original founders of the now internationally famous Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor. In 1947, while pretty much every pundit was predicting a Dewey landslide in the presidential election, he predicted that Harry Truman would triumph. Suffice it to say, he was not your average human being.

I knew Leslie mostly because he liked to eat good food wherever he went. Seemingly every time I saw him he’d have just returned from a trip to China or Italy or some other glamorous location where he’d received some new honor. It turned out his mother had one of the best pastry shops in New York, patronized by people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Gypsy Rose Lee, Eugene Ormandy and Fritz Kreisler, so food fascination had been part of his upbringing. When we both had time, we’d sit over coffee and discuss everything from social movements to sheep’s milk cheese. I learned this recipe from Leslie, who learned it from his mother. You can use it on sandwiches or for hors d’oeuvres.

  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 4-ounce tin sardines
  • 8 ounces of Zingerman’s Creamery cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced onion
  • freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper, to taste

To make the spread, dissolve the salt in the lemon juice in a medium bowl and mix well. Add the sardines and mash together with the juice. Add the cream cheese and gently mix well. Add parsley and onion and mix well. Add freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper to taste. Serve with slices of toasted rye bread or crackers.

Sardines with Les Moulins Mahjoub Harissa
In Tunisia, sardines are often eaten with harissa. Here is how to make a fabulous hors d’oeuvres:

  • Pour a bit of good green olive oil on a plate.
  • Spoon on some of the Mahjoubs’ amazing harissa sauce. Open a can of sardines and lay them across the top of the harissa.
  • Grind on a bit of black pepper, sprinkle a touch of sea salt and a squeeze of lemon over the top.
  • Serve with warm Paesano bread.
  • For an extra treat, put a few pickled peppers, fresh radishes or sliced fresh turnips on the side.

For a main meal, take a bit of tomato sauce, season with harissa, capers, lemon and some sardines, and serve over freshly cooked couscous – I recommend the great couscous we buy from the Mahjoubs. Add a few slices of room temperature, barrel-aged feta, and you’ll take it up another notch still.

You can find really good sardines for any of the recipes I’ve listed – or just for eating as is – right now at the Deli. Or, come to the Roadhouse to try them grilled. The grilled sardines have a wisp of wood smoke in the flavor, which I love. Call the Deli at 734-663-DELI or the Roadhouse at 734-663-FOOD to find out what’s available today. Or better yet, stop in for a taste!