Canned sardines seem to have been developed in France as one of several food items intended to help feed the armies of Napoleon. As there was no refrigeration in those times, Napoleon had them packed in oil or tomato sauce to help them retain some freshness long after they were canned.
A few years ago, at a small specialty shop in Reims, France, I noticed that the sardines had the year they were canned indicated on their labels. The sardines were designated by vintage! I asked the shopkeeper what that was all about, and he told me that for several years, he would turn over the sardine cans once every six months. I found this hilarious: in Reims, the major city in the Champagne region of France, where Champagne bottles are turned, or riddled, to help the wine mature, this shopkeeper riddled his vintage sardines to help pass the oil through the fish, reducing them all to a tasty mess. This I took as further confirmation, if any were needed, that the French are, indeed, the most awesome food people on the planet, a civilization that has found a way to elevate a simple tin of sardines to gastronomic excellence.
My dad used to make a kind of sardine salad, which also transformed the fish to a savory paste through vigorous fork-mashing. Mixing in some sliced sweet pickles (yes, for some reason, sweetness works with sardines), my dad made an inexpensive fish salad that we’d spread on bread. I liked it.
More recently, we’ve seen sardines (and their cousins, anchovies) making their way onto fancy menus, usually presented fresh off the grill. Grilling these fresh and larger sardines causes a slight caramelization on the skin of the fish (again, sweetness seems to work with sardines). Perhaps, just as tuna graduated from cans to being served fresh as tartars or steaks – heck, tuna steaks are even on the menu at Portillo’s – so too perhaps will sardines, someday, be commonly served fresh.
Sardines, unlike tuna, actually have a lot of flavor, and they’re very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which should appeal to an increasingly health-conscious eating public.
Sardines now and again make an appearance on local restaurant menus. At Bistronomic, an updated French bistro in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, we’ve been served the little fish right out of the can. At Oak Park’s Saigon Pho, you can order a sandwich that the menu describes as “canned tomato sardines” on French bread, dressed up with bahn mi ingredients like cucumber and pickled carrots. Nice.
There are a lot of delicious ways to serve sardines, and on National Sardine Day, November 24, I plan to celebrate with my dad’s sardine and sweet pickle salad.