The Lenten adviser

Sardines must of course be originally from the ancient Kingdom of Sardinia. They are little fellows, small herrings, that come in perhaps two dozen choice species, among more than three hundred that swim the open seas. “Sardines” are smaller & “pilchards” are larger; often different stages of exactly the same fish — all from the clupeiod family. Which is to say, herrings: a symbol of Lent. Brislings & sprats are from a more northern sub-family, but not inedible for that. The little sardines & their allies travel the world’s oceans, in their schools; & when they have tired of that, they swim into large nets, & are lifted, high. And then they continue their journeys, now at their ease in little tin boxes. There are kindly people who live by the seashore, & help arrange our little fishy friends, all cosily according to their size. They may fit two, or five, or even fifteen or more of them in each berth.

There is a famous painting by Goya — a real masterpiece, every brush stroke of genius — depicting “The Burial of the Sardine,” El entierro de la sardina. You may have difficulty finding the sardine in the composition, because he is very small. The painting is a mischievous work for, as ever with Goya, he is commenting on the human condition, & we are a mischievous race; especially compared with the innocent sardines. The people are shown masked, & frenzied. From the dark, grinning mascot on the banner they carry, a malign quality infuses the parade. It is a mob, & their intention must be sacrilegious.

My own understanding of the ceremony, however, is different from this. It varies, or varied, in different parts of Spain, attached in some places to the beginning of Lent, & in others to the end.  There is a great procession; the mourners weep & wail. The deceased sardine is carried in his little casket, under a large doll, called the pellele. Inland, he may be buried; but by the sea he is cremated, then carried out by the fishermen in a solemn fleet — his ashes scattered upon the waves. (I love the Spaniards; but of course they are all mad.)

In Aubrey somewhere, there is reference to an English culinary custom: the “herring on horseback,” by which, on Easter Sunday, the fish rides away. Through Europe, many similar Mediaeval customs survived until the other day; festivals often not of the Church, but of the people. Yet by proximity to Lent, they seemed less likely to be “pagan survivals” — as the idiots are constantly explaining to us — than rather imaginative & charming ways to express the idea that one is very sick of fish. I am told that, by the year 1960, when the Quiet Revolution came noisily to the Province of Quebec, the people were so sick of fish that they vowed never to look at another one again, until the end of time. This is given as the reason that per capita fish consumption in that province remains, to this day, lower than in Central Asia.

Up here in the High Doganate, we are well disposed to fish, & would not have them slighted. I rather look forward to Lent, for this reason, & for several like it. For I am, too, genuinely partial to bean dishes, on rice or some other grain — the staple of most of the world’s poor, who cannot afford meat, & are inclined to find luxury even in a little dab of fishpaste. God has blessed these humble with the tropical spices, & with the genius they have used to concoct a million ways to vary this frugal yet perfectly balanced, nutritious cuisine.

But let me not stray from the little fishes. Sardines may even be purchased fresh, from fishmongers in the Greater Parkdale Area. Grilled, they are exquisite; & the fattiest may be deep fried, with batters. But Edouard de Pomiane gave the best ten-minute approach. Run cold water over them, immediately on coming home, to wash away the salt. Pull off the heads, & the intestines will follow. Dry them. Fry, without dipping in flour, in a pan of smoking oil or very hot butter. Do not salt. Serve with curls of butter & a half lemon.

In the spring there were, & still are in many creeks emptying into Lake Ontario, smelt runs that turn the waters silver. Among my happiest childhood moments, in Georgetown, Ont., was helping old Mrs Pattenden gut & jar the harvest her old husband had brought home: great baskets full, by Saint Peter! A beloved old lady, salt of the earth, wearing a baseball cap over her white hair wild; & a thick hand-knitted cardigan, becoming waterproofed by fish oil. She had an errant daughter who once ran away, quite literally with the milkman. And so Mr & Mrs Pattenden did just what gentle reader would expect. They took in their abandoned son-in-law, & his two abandoned hockey-playing boys, to their very small brick cottage. (The boys, my contemporaries, slept in the rafters.) The yard of this cottage was a “victory garden”; its strawberries the finest in the world. They made a paradise on their small town lot, indifferent to the opinions of their middle-class neighbours, & in defiance of all the municipal by-laws. All gone under the asphalt, now.

The Lake Ontario fisheries are still in business, incidentally, under elaborate, multiple layers of regulation. (The need for ever greater regulation being paradoxically “proved” by the consistently catastrophic effects of all past regulation, to the present day.) One may buy their harvest of whitefish, trout, perch, in the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. Around here it doesn’t sell, thanks to the success of depraved scaremongering about mercury levels, which started in the 1960s, & has since entered into our provincial folklore. In fact, the mercury levels were not lethally high, & have since been reduced to a tiny fraction of the danger levels for the human metabolism. And so the “environmentally aware” eat freshwater fish from afar, caught or farmed in places where the waters are grievously polluted, & the fish are refrigerated & shipped at huge expenditure in fossil fuels. And meanwhile, the environmental regulation is controlled by the sport fishing interests, whose ability to pose as “friends of the earth” is unsurpassed; while the “First Nations” win court decisions to let them flout all rules. A massive bureaucratic machinery, with enormous investments in hatchery infrastructure, stocks the Great Lakes with Pacific salmon & other exotic species for the sportsmen, carefully monitoring the commercial fishermen, to be sure they don’t touch any of it. This status quo is reinforced by the lobbying efforts of the many vested interests established & enriched by the political process: the charter boat operators, tackle shops, marinas, & shills for the tourist industry. On the plus side, the American bureaucrats have driven their own commercial fisheries into extinction; so that what little remains of the industry is now our proud Canadian monopoly.

But that was just an aside. The real purpose of this Essay is to celebrate the little fish in little tins, from wherever they may hail; the joys of Lent. Why, for dinner just now we opened a tin of the most delicious sardines from Messrs Hyacinthe Parmentier in France, in olive oil with peppers; mixing this with peas into a bowl of white rice. These people know their little fishes. May I further recommend their grilled sardines, delivered “dry” in their beautiful yellow tins. (With sardines, I have found it a general rule, that the prettier & more tastefully typographed the tin, the better the fish inside it.) But that is not to overlook La Quiberonnaise, a brand from Brittany I have tasted but once, & found extraordinary. The French do almost everything better.

And the tinning of sardines was itself a French invention. It was a happy combination of three things: the landing of the exquisite Clupea pilchardus Walbaum by Nantais fishermen; the tradition of preserving them in sealed clay jars called oules, after frying in their fabulous Breton butters, & olive oils imported from Provence; & the introduction of François Appert’s canning process, inspired by Napoleon’s prize to find new methods of food preservation to serve his troops in the field. (The adored Elizabeth David explained all this in an article for the Spectator, half a century ago.)

Joseph Colin, a confectioner of Nantes, brought these three together. The process he developed was by no means simple. Sardines being among the most perishable of fish, the canning must be done immediately ashore, by a series of very quick processes — the sorting by size; the beheading & gutting; the rinsing; the plunging in mild brine; the rinsing again; the drying in warm air; the sudden frying; the draining, & packing, & covering with an olive oil specially married to the qualities of the fish, so they may mature happily together; the sterilizing — each stage timed to the minute or second, adjusted to the size of the fish.

Different but parallel methods have been developed for other species of sardine, in other locations; but anywhere it must be a careful art. The Europeans have understood this, but alas on this side of the Atlantic our canners are not so discerning. Our idea of art is economy of scale. We choose the cheapest available raw materials, & use industrial methods that eliminate the requirement for human skill, or any other scope for the dignity of labour. For quality we substitute a fanatic obsession with hygiene, enforced by our bureaucratic apes. Love & pride in craft is systematically replaced with impudent salesmanship. That is why North American sardines are, today — unless I am blind to some exception — the same rubbish they have always been. (But of course, the big European concerns have copied “American standards,” to compete with our knock-down prices.)

This is why, in turn, it makes no sense to buy a tin of sardines, or almost anything else, from a North American supermarket, which offers myriad interchangeably artificial brands, each “product” reduced to a bulk commodity, & democratically pitched at the lowest common denominator to people themselves considered interchangeable. (Capitalism’s answer to the promise of Communism.) Buy what you need, instead, from the small family & ethnic groceries — or more precisely, from those shopkeepers who know their goods. This will always cost you more, in money & possibly unwanted human contact. But should the prices seem too high, there is a simple remedy. It is to eat less.

The French make the best, & have brands of sardines at stratospheric prices, which I will not mention. These are sardines for the connoisseurs; the truly monied who will pay whatever is asked for the correct or fashionable “vintage.” I am willing to settle for mere excellence.

Beyond France, let me mention the Pinhais company in Portugal, their “Nuri” brand; but look also for the names Idamar, & Gonsalves. From Spain, Ortiz, & Arroyabe, are the grand family fish-tinning firms, knowledgeably working the Cantabrian Sea; but their specialties are more tuna & anchovies. (Ortiz “Ventresca” belly meat of albacore, packed in olive oil, is so delicate & tender, so sublime, that I would avoid it in Lent, except on Sundays. It may be eaten in the Spanish style: which is, straight from the tin, with a good wine beside it; a Corvo, though Sicilian, would be the right idea; perhaps even a dry sherry.) Matiz Gallego are I think the Spanish sardine specialists.

From Italy, Angelo Parodi, & also Bertozzi, I can recommend from direct experience (the latter also for their tinned squid, & octopus in ink). John West, from Scotland, could be mentioned, with hesitation, for brisling. I have heard good things about sardines from Freemantle in Western Australia, but never had the chance to try them. I have tasted quite fabulous iwashi (“sardines” in Japanese), packed in shoyu & teriyaki marinades; & niboshi (sun-dried sardines) in a stock with kelp; but I can no longer recall the best tinned brands of Japan; or Taiwan. Red China I will not mention, except to say I read “Product of China” on any package in the same way I’d read a skull & crossbones.

As a general direction, let me add that sardines packed in tomato & mustard sauces are invariably refuse; they need these strong distractions to conceal the taste of the fish. “Vegetable oil” should also be avoided; it should be olive oil, or water. Marketing claims such as “wild sardines” & “organic” should be treated with contempt. All sardines continue to be harvested wild; & the “organic” can refer only to the sauce ingredients.

On the other hand, try herbed & spiced varieties, which can be marvellous. The flavour combinations depend on prolonged steeping within the tin, & cannot be reproduced by last-minute additions. In the case of chilli partisans (& I am often one) do not look for heat in the tin. The sweeter, milder chillies make the more subtle flavouring agents, & more heat is better added at the end.


Now, I was taught in the newspaper business that one does not end a culinary article without supplying some kind of recipe suggestion; so let me mention Stargazey Pie. It is a speciality of my paternal grandmother’s native county of Devon. The heads of the sardines, or better larger pilchards, are left on for this, & the tails, too, but the rest of the fish boned & stripped for eating. A shortcrust pastry is applied, thin to the bottom, thick across the top. The filling will be a mash of boiled potatoes, with any available herring flesh, cream, eggs, chopped onion, perhaps a splash of white wine.

The whole pilchards are stuffed with herbs, samphire, apple. They are inserted so that their tails rise at the centre of the pie, through the top crust, & their heads likewise through the crust, around the edges. Or vice versa: tails at the circumference, heads in the middle. In either case the heads must emerge from the oven, gazing up towards the stars in wonderment.

According to the global village explainers, the reason they were so arranged is that the excess oils, in the heads especially, drip down, adding flavour to the pie. This is nonsense, however. Tests have been conducted to prove it makes no difference at all. The real reason the heads & tails are arranged in that unusual way is something that the post-modern man cannot quite remember. It is for the sheer blooming joy of it.