When is a sardine not a sardine…….?

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When is a sardine not a sardine.......?

The grilled or barbecued sardines in Greece, just like all over the med are tender and sweet. I tried them for the first time in my life out in Greece 30 odd years ago (very odd at times!) and I have loved them ever since. I have tried barbecuing them at home but only our good Spanish friends, Carnita and Fernando, do them like they do abroad. No idea why. Just one of those magic touch things some people have with simple ingredients. Whilst I am on the sardine subject, I just want to clear up a confusion that puzzled me for years and may be something you are not sure of either. What IS the difference between a pilchard and a sardine?? Well, the short answer is that a sardine is a young pilchard and a pilchard is a grown up sardine. So there.

However, pilchard actually only refers to one species, Sardina pilchardus ( I promise I have not made this up ), which has a range extending further north than other sardines, indeed not only to the south of England, where pilchard fishing is important, but far beyond, even as far as Norway. They can grow as long as 10 inches or 25 centimeters. Canned sardines are possibly one of the few canned products which have their own following of connoisseurs. They even have vintage years. I kid you not!

The competition between French, Spanish and the Portuguese producers is pretty intense. The late great cookery writer Elizabeth David wrote a marvellous essay in 1984 on the subject in her book ‘An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.’ If you do not own a copy go out and buy one asap…or order it on
line. She wrote about the history of the canning industry in Nantes in France.

Apparently, the first sardine-tinning factory was established in Nantes way back in 1824. A guy called Joseph Colin discovered that olive oil made a better preserving agent than the previously used butter and adapted the tinning process of a colleague who worked in the confectionery business to sardines, which had previously been preserved in jars and bottles. In 1830 a restaurateur called Millet turned his establishment into a sardine canning factory, but as it was slap bang in the middle of Nantes, the smell of frying fish not surprisingly, upset the locals. He was taken to court and had to move his factory to the outskirts of town. David tells of how the French had a monopoly on canning the fish for 50 years until the Spanish and Portuguese got in on the act. Anyway, go and read the essay for yourself; ’tis quite a history!

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