Humblest of the Mediterranean fish, probably also the most reckless one since it is caught in large quantities. Fishmongers never fall short on sardines. The ready availability made it a popular fish that remained in the popular kitchen for a long time. The salted sardines flavor many local dishes. And although still on the market, they are now usually replaced by anchovies.
‘Licking the sardine’ is a typical Sicilian saying. Poor people rubbed a salted sardine on stale bread, to savor it. Pane cunzato is an emblematic and tasty remainder of this habit. It furthermore implies that the sardine was ever present, even in dire times. It was poor men’s food and apparently wealthy people ate them secretly since doing so somehow gave away possible plebeian origins.
The growing popularity of sardines is somehow disturbing: a simple fish, inexpensive and symbol of abundance became the source of omega 3 for health freaks. People started seeing their salvation in eating so-called oily fish rather than simply eating less and moving more. Prices soared and the poor sardines ended up on the table of the affluent, as shaved monkeys at a gala. In the masquerade of oily fish anchovies where given a nightgown and invited to the descendant’s pyjama party. Mackerel lay uneasy next to the black eggs of their vaguely related relative sturgeon whom they now had to call uncle.
Sarde alla beccafico is a popular Sicilian dish were sardines imitate small birds (Sylvia Borin). Only the rich could afford to dine on such tiny fowl. Today the birds are left alone. It’s sardines for everybody. The new gained elegance clashes with humble origin. One can make peace with that, even force a smile, but having to pay your sardines a multiple of the price because they are now sought after by people who give little or no value to money is a crying shame. Let’s hope that when the fashion comes to an end, prices will go back to normal.
Roasted sardines are eaten all around the Mediterranean Basin, more or less in the same way. Usually the head is pinched off and the sardine is gutted. Some claim that the sardines should be eaten as they come. Salt and lemon are all one should add, although the lemon that often comes along with the fish is not seasoning but as to clean your fingers after eating. Please do not eat your roasted sardines using cutlery.
Cleaning sardines is not all that difficult, it even has a therapeutic value to it, bringing you closer to what you actually eat. You can have them cleaned by your fishmonger as more and more people do. Don’t forget to mention how you want them cleaned or what are your plans with them: simply cleaned means that the head is pinched of and the guts are taken out. Good for roasting, baking or deep frying. An additional step is to take the main bone out. Necessary when preparing pasta with sardines, beccafico, fried filets and fish balls.
Fried sardine filets
It is hard to quantify how many sardines to prepare per person, it is, more than anything else, a question of decency and discretion: it is so very hard to stop eating them, so having a limited number would be advisable.
1 kilo of sardine, cleaned and ‘butterflied’ (this leaves you with 650 grams of fillets)
2 cups of flour
2 cups of wine vinegar
vegetal oil to fry in
Cover the fillets with vinegar and let them sit for an hour; do not wash them with tap water nor before, nor after. Drain and dab them dry with kitchen paper. Pass them in slightly salted flour and fry away. The longer you let them sizzle away, the crispier they get and, proportionally, the further the fishiness recedes. Serve and eat warm. Instead of vinegar some use salted water (seawater if you can). After having them passed in flour, they can be then passed in beaten egg and coated off with breadcrumbs. It tends to draw the attention away from the ‘sardineness’ and excellent for those who do not love fish.
Serve in tomato sauce and they are a fabulous appetizer. They have, though, the potential to cover lunch, even dinner. Some bread to mop up the sauce and you’re in heaven. When preparing dinner, double the ingredients.
1 kilo of sardines, cleaned and ‘butterflied’ (650 grams)
4 slices of stale bread
chopped up parsley (a handful)
some mint (a profuse pinch)
50 grams of grated cheese, pecorino preferably
Cut the crust from the stale bread and let it soak in milk. Mince the sardines, cutting them up, not using any machinery. Do not exaggerate, leave some texture. If you are not to be trusted with knives, use a fork to squash them. Squeeze the bread and add it to the sardines, along with the eggs, cheese, parsley and mint. You are going to make little balls out of the mixture, so add some breadcrumbs if the mixture results to soft. Instead of using your hands you may want to use two spoons. Keep your hands wet so the mixture does not stick to them. Fry the balls in hot oil (180 degrees) till golden. Well drained they should cook for about 10 minutes in the tomato sauce. If you want to give it a Sicilian touch: add raisins and pine nuts, branding it “Sicily”. Breadcrumb gives the balls a firmer structure.
Sarde alla beccafico
From a mockery dish to the signature dish of Sicilian culinary activity, a dish with a story, a dish so rich in taste it might perplex you. There are as many variations as people preparing it, so be free to improvise.
The name ‘beccafico’ recalls a minute bird (Sylvia Borin) found around fig trees. They used to be caught with nets and served on rich men’s tables; only well-fed people could find satisfaction in eating so little. By filling sardines and rolling them tail-up, poor people imitated the birds, the tail reminding the wings. It is rather laborious and requires a certain skill, so let it be a challenge to prepare or simply eat it when visiting Sicily.
1 kilo of sardines: important to leave the tail on.
50 grams of breadcrumbs
25 grams of pine nuts
25 grams of raisins
20 grams of sugar
20 grams of salted sardine or two anchovies fillets
1 clove of garlic
The juice of half an orange
1 spoon of honey
Salt, pepper, olive oil
Heat oil in a pan together with a clove of garlic. Add the breadcrumbs when the garlic releases its fragrance. Mix the breadcrumbs till golden brown. Put aside to cool down. Raisin should be soaked in marsala wine or warm water, then squeezed and chopped up. As soon as the breadcrumbs cool down, add the chopped raisins, pine nuts, the salted sardine, sugar and the minced parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon some of the mixture on the butterflied sardine. Then roll the sardine up, towards the tail and place them –tail up- in an oiled oven tray, separating the rolls with half a bay leave, pointed up. The remaining mixture can be sprinkled on top, followed by the honey and orange juice. Bake it for 25 minutes at 180 degrees. Leave it for at least half an hour before serving. Neither stone cold, nor piping hot, room temperature would be ideal.