The Surprisingly Rich History of Sardines

Sardines are as rich in history as they are in flavor. Read on to learn about how these little fish have reached great popularity and accessibility throughout the world.

Zingerman's Illustration of three blue sardines

Mediterranean Marvels

While little fish here in the US provoke a bit of culinary panic, in the Mediterranean sardines and anchovies are workers’ food. My 1938 copy of The Golden Book of Portuguese Tinned Fish says, “Among the great variety of Portuguese tinned fish, the sardine occupies the most important place.” The first sardine factory was founded in the town of Setubal in 1880 to overcome the shortage of fish on the Breton coast. In 1930 Portugal surpassed France to become the era’s largest producer; they still account for about a third of the fish brought to port each year. Sardines practically have their own holiday; on St. Anthony’s Day (June 13th) freshly grilled sardines are the street food of choice for celebrants. The Portuguese sardine season runs from May through October, which contributes to their popularity as beach food; grilled sardines, accompanied by potatoes, bread and a salad, are probably the summer meal in Portugal.

It’s similar on the southern side of the Mediterranean. Majid Mahjoub, from whom we get marvelous harissa, sun-dried couscous and Onsa’s Olive Oil bottled just for us, told me that sardines are “a giant food in the kitchen of the Tunisian coastline.” Tunisians eat them both fresh and tinned, preferring the smaller, skinnier sardines. “They are,” Majid explained, “the fish of the poor.” Just-caught sardines are frequently grilled, then served with lemon and fresh, green olive oil.

Sardines are big in Greece, too. A Greek salad with a tin of sardines is a good way to go. A green salad with roasted peppers, some cucumber, olives and other assorted vegetables is excellent. Greek cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi (whose work I highly recommend) has a recipe for sardelosalata—the sardine version of the classic taramosalata spread (made from carp roe). It makes an excellent hors d’oeuvres or sandwich.

Different Countries, Different Fish, One Name

Although they all bear the same name on package labels, there are dozens of different small fish sold as sardines. Sardine producers in Portugal, Spain and France work with what are known as pilchards. These are fat, flavorful fish, usually fitting only 3-5 to a can. The Codex Alimentarius, the international body that oversees labeling laws, requires that the label for any fish other than pilchards that are canned as sardines must state the type of fish inside the tin. On the American East Coast what we used to call “sardines” (before the Maine sardine plants closed) were actually North Atlantic herring. Pacific sardines are sardinops sagax, and are also in the herring family. Norwegian sardines are Brislings (also known as silds or sprats), a small fish native to the North Sea. The good news is that all of these can be excellent!

The Innovation of Canning

Canning is a relatively recent innovation in the big picture of history. Up until about two hundred years ago there were no tinned sardines. This changed in the early 19th century. Nicolas Appert, a Frenchman from the Champagne region, started his career as a professional cook. At 31 he moved to Paris, where he set up a confectionery shop and started to experiment with conserving sweets in sugar. According to Sue Shephard, in her book Pickled, Potted and Canned, Appert was “determined to find a way to keep food successfully without spoiling either its flavor or texture.” He was also generous and happy to share his technique with others. The local paper reported that Appert had “found a way to fix the seasons; at his establishment, spring, summer and autumn live in bottles.”

In the North of France, along the Breton coast, fishermen fried sardines, then put them into clay jars called oules to preserve them. Joseph Colin, a friend of Appert who lived in the town of Nantes, applied Appert’s new approaches to the existing Breton conservation methods, creating what we now know as the canned sardine. In part his push was to open markets for sardines—places too far from Brittany for then-standard shipping and storage methods. At the time France also had a big push to figure out ways to feed the growing—and further afield—military. Thanks to Appert and Colin, tinned sardines quickly became popular with French foot soldiers.

By 1836 Colin was producing about 30,000 cans a year, and his success spawned about 30 other small factories. By 1880 the region was turning out over 50,000,000 tins. For context, remember that everything was still done by hand—each tin made by hand before it was packed. And after the sardines were fried in oil, they were placed one by one into the tins, which were then hand-soldered to seal the cooked fish safely inside. The Breton run ended when sardines disappeared from the coastal waters in much the same way as they did a century later in Monterey. The fish did return but not until much later. They’re back now, to be enjoyed regularly.

Sardines from Sea to Shining Sea

For decades, French sardines were shipped to North America. But the 1870 Franco-Prussian War interrupted imports and created an opportunity for American entrepreneurs. Commercial canning on the East Coast began in 1875 in Eastport, when a New York-based businessman set up the Eagle Preserved Fish Company. Volumes increased throughout the end of the 19th century, continuing to climb until the middle of the 20th. The fish was actually Atlantic herring—meatier and less tender and probably less flavorful than the pilchards coming from Europe—but still good and ever more popular.

In his 1904 novel, A Case of Sardines; A Story of the Maine Coast, Charles Poole Cleaves describes Maine fishing communities in great detail. The fish business dominated the region in the same way that cheese took hold in Wisconsin. At its height, nearly every town along Maine’s coast had a small sardine factory—over 400 total when the industry was at its peak. Sardines brought a lot of commercial growth to the coast. But as is so often the case, where there’s a boom, there are also busts. Sardines dominated the economy and most everything else.

Most of the packers were women—their hands were believed to be better suited to the small tins, quick motions and hand-eye coordination needed. In the local vernacular they were known as “herring chokers.” Cleaves, though, describes people from all backgrounds working in the factories. “Is there anywhere you can see the inner side of human nature as you can in a sardine factory?… [Here] you can see people for just what they are.”

While the Cold War probably wasn’t good for much, it did bring good years for sardine sales. Chuck Prine, who worked for about forty years for Stinson Seafood, the last sardine canner in Maine, once told me, “Back in the bomb scare days the government bought tremendous quantities.” Jeff Kaelin, who worked for the Maine Sardine Council, told me that in the 1950s, “everyone would put a can of sardines in their lunch box. That was the main convenience food there was.” This put sardines in a whole new light for me, and it helped explain one reason why people don’t eat as many as they used to. While the sardine has stayed essentially the same, it’s now surrounded by hundreds of other ready-to-eat foods—shelf stable or otherwise.

Over the years sardines became the budget food of North America; they were the ramen of the middle of the 20th century, the cheap fare for students and people living on the poverty line. One of our customers remembers eating so many sardines in her dorm in the 1960s that she can’t stand to see any more: “We were always hungry, and sardines were cheap. What we would do was buy a can of sardines in tomato sauce. We’d cook some rice, with some onions, and then we’d mix in the sardines. That was our dinner if we didn’t want to eat in the cafeteria.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, sales started to slip. Sadly for both sardine lovers and the Maine economy, the last factory in the state—Stinson Seafood in Prospect Harbor—closed in the spring of 2010. If you’re up that way, the best you can do today is to visit the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum in Jonesport, put together by Ronnie and Mary Peabody.

West Coast Wonders

On the Atlantic Coast we had Sardineland; out west it was Cannery Row. The California sardine industry took off at about the same time as that on the East Coast. Pacific sardines, known scientifically as sardinops sagax, were plentiful. Monterey became the center of the sardine world, immortalized when John Steinbeck published Cannery Row in 1945. Unlike Europe’s spring-summer sardining, California’s big season ran October to March. At their peak, Monterey’s factories produced over 250,000 tons (well over 10,000,000 tins) a year. In the 1930s and 1940s over 4,000 sardine fishermen worked in California with over 30,000 people in the industry. Demand for sardines was so strong that during the Depression, Monterey—the “Sardine Capital of the World” —didn’t suffer as much as most areas. But in the 1940s things started downhill. West Coast sardine fishermen had traditionally been Japanese, or Japanese American, and during WWII the US government sent most away to internment camps. Most never returned to the industry.

The only positive side of that painful piece of American history is that the fishermen were saved from the failure that came a decade or so later. By the late 1950s West Coast sardine fishing had almost ceased. By 1967 it had shrunk so far that the government officially declared the fishery closed. No one at the time was sure why the fish had disappeared. But the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch, which monitors production to support sustainable seafood, cites “natural oceanographic cycles: fossil evidence suggests that Pacific sardines have experienced such ‘boom-and-bust’ cycles about every 60 years over the last 1,700 years, independent of fishing.”

Vintage Sardines

Although most mid-century North Americans experienced sardines as low-end eating, they’ve occupied the other end of the culinary spectrum in Europe. According to John Thorne, author of Simple Cooking, Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, started London’s first sardine tasting club in 1935. Writing in the Spanish journal Gourmetour, Jose Carlos Capel said, “In the larders of some European gourmets, tins of sardines in olive oil occupy a place of honour alongside pots of foie gras with truffles or jars of caviar. A cult has built up around these canned fish, which, with its preaching of the special qualities of the best brands, the correct year and maturity period within the tin, constitute a kind of gastronomical religion.”

The tastiest sardines are those that have been allowed to mature for years—if not decades. To quote food writer Patricia Wells’ Food Lovers Guide to Paris, “Sardines destined for millesime stardom bear no resemblance to the cheap garden-variety canned fish. Vintage sardines are always preserved fresh. Whereas most ordinary sardines are frozen, then fried and processed.” A few French tinned-fish producers still actively age their products.

For a reality check, I asked Chuck Prine, who sold sardines for four decades, about sardine aging. He didn’t hesitate: “Stinson Seafood, Maine’s last sardine factory, used to guarantee their sardines for 10 years. The Norwegians guarantee theirs for 15. And I’ve eaten 30-year-old sardines that were excellent. When I first went to Norway in the early ’60s, I asked several of the Norwegian plant managers what their favorite sardine was. I thought they’d tell me that maybe they liked ‘a double-layer sardine packed in mustard sauce.’ But they’d say, ‘Oh, I like the Brisling 1953 from such and such a cannery.’ Basically they treat them very much like wine.”

Lest you think sardine aging is for elite Europeans, I can tell you that one of the most adamant sardine agers I know is Norm Brodsky, co-author of the business book The Knack and a regular columnist for Inc magazine. He’s been aging and savoring sardines ever since he discovered them on a trip to France in the late 1990s. “I have different years,” he related with relish. “I turn ‘em every 30 days. It’s like good cigars. Or good wine. They’re excellent. I serve those maybe on a cracker or just plain.” His enthusiasm was obvious. “You really can taste the difference,” he added.

If this appeals to you, clear out a corner in your cellar so you can fill it with your new sardine stocks. For a few hundred dollars at most you can have the most impressive sardine cellar in town. I’ve already started mine to assure myself of a steady supply of savory little fish for years to come. It doesn’t take a lot of work; just turn the tins over occasionally so they age evenly. In Gourmetour, Jose Carlos Capel recommends keeping sardines four to five years, but you’ve already read about fish kept for three decades. Maybe we should start on a Zingerman’s 50th-anniversary tin for 2032?

If you want to try some, we have delicious aged sardines available now from 2013 (from the iconic, if not dominant French producer, Connetable) and 2019 (made by Les Mouttes d’Arvor, a comparable French powerhouse). I like to eat aged sardines simply—next to a green salad or with some toast topped with butter or extra virgin olive oil. A sprinkling of sea salt seals the deal. Breton fleur de sel would be geographically correct and its delicate texture is a good complement for the sardines.

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> SARDINES! WHAT CAN’T THEY DO? from Zingerman’s Press