“We’re packed in like sardines.”
We’ve all said something like that and when we do, we’re usually not happy. Sardines as pejorative. And then there’s the subtly maligning, “All he had in the house was a can of sardines,” as if the tasty little fish are lowly, peasant fare, associated with hard times and to be avoided.
Well, maybe the first-blush image isn’t that bad today. After all, Americans for decades have known how good for us these little guys are. You may have heard: they’re rock-star rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for heart health, and perhaps for cutting the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Sardines may also help lower blood sugar levels, and are a chock full of Vitamin D, calcium, B-12, niacin, essential amino acid tryptophan, and the strong antioxidant selenium. Plus, they’re a good source of phosphorus, a bone-strengthening mineral, and are amazingly rich in protein. Mercury’s not a worry.
They’re a kitchen staple and I eat them every day, just about, these saltwater, kin-to-herrings, named after the spectacular island Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where they once dwelled in abundance. These days, sardines, also known as pilchards if they’re longer than six inches, are mostly found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean; Spain, Portugal, France and Norway are the leading producers. I can remember eating these shimmering beauties in innumerable Japanese restaurants freshly cooked on a Hibachi grill. There’re called Shishamo. Fresh sardines are also pickled and smoked. Worldwide, more than 20 varieties of fish are sold as sardines. I have a passion for all of them. Usually, I buy them canned in water, adding a dab of mustard and perhaps a cracker. Best thing in the world. And they taste good; they’re not just fantastic for you. They also come already in mustard, of course, and in olive and soybean oils and hot sauce or other prepared sauces.
I like the more-common soft-bone-in variety, but you can get them boneless. We’ve got all kinds in our stores, where I often have a hard time keeping them. Seems like people, especially in these tough times, are increasingly hip to the value of sardines. Not only are they crazy healthful, but they’re portable, self-contained, and kind of fun and easy to stack. By the way, nearly all cans now have pull tabs, but remember back in the day when each tin had a key affixed to one side? The sensation of gently rolling that top back … marveling at the efficient, compact packing … and savoring the mildly briny, delicate, meaty taste of sea.
Sardines have been around. Although Morocco is the world’s sardine capital, the Balkans is where fishing for them began thousands of years ago. Under emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sardines became the first fish to be canned. It’s worth noting that, for whatever reason, the last sardine cannery in the United States folded this spring, after 135 years in operation. But most Americans know sardines to be affordable, delicious, and perhaps a lifesaver.
Sardines are cool.
And they don’t need a lot of fussing. You can simply sprinkle them with lemon juice and a lace of olive oil. Or you can combine them with onion (my dog Lilly likes them that way), or with olives or fennel, or top them with chopped tomatoes and basil, oregano or rosemary. Or topped with peanut butter if you’re so inclined.
Whatever, do yourself a favor and make sardines a regular part of your diet.
And now … a bit of Song of the Sardine by poet and writer Robert William Service:
A fat man sat in an orchestra stall and his cheeks were wet with tears,
As he gazed at the primadonna tall, whom he hadn’t seen in years.
“Oh, don’t you remember?” he murmured low, “that spring in Montparnasse,
When hand in hand we used to go to our nightly singing class.
Ah me, those days so gay and glad, so full of hope and cheer.
And that little supper that we had of tinned sardines and beer.
When you looked so like a little queen with your proud and haughty air,
That I took from the box the last sardine and twined it in your hair.”
No pejoratives there