Sorting the Sardine

The popularity of sardines during the lockdown/quasi-lockdowns got me thinking about this old staple of the pantry.

Even before the pandemic, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and some northern European brands (also for brisling, sprats, pilchards) were enjoying good popularity. The classification of the various sorts can be daunting but suffice to say numerous kinds of fish are canned as sardines, most of the herring or a closely related family.

Good canned fish was always appreciated in Europe, but fashionable restaurants and bars are now featuring top brands, as a specialty. In part it entices younger patrons with something that seems new. Often the can arrives at table with the top peeled back. Many tins are colourful and attractively designed, which helps.

Right here in Toronto Birreria Volo, one of the top beer destinations in the world, offers a superb quality line of tinned sardines and other fish. See here.

Some reading may remember the sardine sandwich of school days or from picnics or community gatherings. That food was always good but a good can with compatible foods – olives, salads, good bread, etc. – and drinks well-selected – wine, beer, cider – can raise things to another level.

I mentioned a book recently for its beer notes, the 1932 Gone Abroad by Charles Patrick Graves. In the book he states he indulged a lifelong wish, by eating a restaurant meal, in Belgium, composed solely of hors d’oeuvres!

His wish can today be our command, particularly in present circumstances. Graves was avant la lettre, so to speak.

A top brand of sardine will improve with aging, it seems. In Fish Cookery (Penguin, 1974) Jane Grigson suggests rotating the stock, to treat the comestible as a vintage item. The oil penetrates more fully when the fish is kept longer, in particular.

She states too in her forthright way:

…methods of canning have produced not just a poor substitute for the real thing (like canned crab and lobster) but a product worth eating in its own right.

Grigson opines that the French do the finest work, due largely to their cold Atlantic waters. Many feel cold water fish have a firmer, better texture than from other waters. Yet, some consider Iberian sardines the best – more meaty, says one account. As always, tastes will vary.

The Algarve was once a famed fishery and cannery region; today, the venerable, family-owned Ramirez still carries the flag. There may be one or two other local producers as well.

An engaging history of Ramirez is offered in this link, from one of its associated brands, LaRuche. It states Ramirez is the oldest fish cannery in the world.

Nowadays in the countries mentioned the fish being canned may be imported, from waters off North Africa or further afield. The cans will indicate the source, or least the fishing area or “zone”.

Ramirez still cans some sardines from local waters, its Queen of the Coast range. The quality of graphic art displayed in these examples is impressive, no doubt with quality to match inside.

It’s not just the fish itself though that denotes quality. Much depends on the kind of oil or other medium used, the spices, and other flavouring.

Some packers use recipes handed down for generations that have a winning taste. New flavours are continually introduced as well, as for other prepared foods and drinks.

Norway, for its part, specializes in smoked sardines. Its brisling enjoy a market around the world. This type, noted for its mild flavour, is also canned in Britain.

I remember from my youth the iconic Brunswick brand in Canada. Checking on Brunswick today, I learned that Quebec celebrity chef Ricardo Larrivée is a particular fan. In 2019 he made a short but lively video of the sardine fishery in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick.

He interviewed one of the canners who stated Canada stands at the top of the quality range due to our cold waters and quality in production. Brunswick enjoys an enviable export market, certainly, and is available everywhere across the country. I intend to revisit the brand soon, to add to the four pictured below.



I’ll sample them all as the weather gets colder. With good bread, prima butter, a crispy salad, and firm, brown-black olives, delectation awaits, I have no doubt.

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