You may have noticed that my food articles don’t contain too many health claims. There is so much conflicting advice around that I eventually concluded that including maximum variety in my diet was the most important thing to do. That standpoint hasn’t changed, but at one time, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I spent some time trying to include more oily fish in my diet. Oily fish is good for all of us, but is said to be particularly beneficial to those with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
Oily fish tend to be pelagic in nature – that is they swim in large shoals, migrating around the coast, so that they are at times found in very large numbers but then move on somewhere else. The migratory path of herring was once so predictable that the fishermen and women processors followed the shoals around the coast, until over-fishing led to their virtual disappearance. Herring stocks are again at replacement level, although they are not as abundant as other varieties of oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Sardines, or the larger members of the family formerly known as Pilchards, were once synonymous with Cornwall until they also virtually disappeared. After a long period in which no-one bothered to fish for pilchard, Nick Howell, who runs the Pilchard Works in Newlyn, was the first to look for them again. The fish may previously have just moved on or, more probably, the period without fishing enabled stocks to recover, but for how long they might have been back before someone bothered to look is anyone’s guess. Nick was also largely responsible for their re-branding as Sardines, something the British had discovered on their holidays in places like Spain and Portugal, whilst Pilchards were still associated in people’s memory with wartime deprivation. Following the war people felt they never wanted to see or eat another Pilchard again.
Because the high fat content would quickly turn rancid, oily fish need to be eaten very fresh. Mackerel, which have the highest fat content of all, were once the only variety of fish that were legally allowed to be sold on a Sunday. Luckily, especially given that when you hit a shoal they are likely to be caught in large numbers, the same oily attributes make them very suitable for various methods of preserving. Smoking was, and still is, the most popular means, giving us that 70’s pub lunch and dinner party staple of smoked mackerel as well as the breakfast treat of kippers. Less popular in the UK, but extremely so in Italy, was salting. In 2005 The Pilchard Works in Newlyn finally closed its salting operation as even the market in Italy had now dried up. Salt fish are extremely concentrated in flavour, so that just one fish might flavour a meal for a whole family. They were especially important in inland areas as even a dozen miles from the sea was too far when horses provided the main means of transportation. Although my recipes are usually British I include the wonderful Sicilian dish of pasta con le sarde both because it is such a useful one to know for those of us who still find ourselves without an easy source of fresh fish, and also in recognition of the role that Britain once played in exporting salted fish here. The anchovies that I have listed as an optional ingredient are a substitute for what once were probably our salted pilchards.
Canning is another method of preserving fish. Sardines canned whole, i.e. on the bone, are actually said to improve with age. Margaret Costa’s classic Four Seasons cookery book actually devotes a whole chapter to the subject of tinned sardines. From this I learnt that Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, founded a vintage sardine club before the war and held tastings from members sardine cellars. They considered 1959 to be the best post-war sardine vintage. Sardines should actually be kept for at least a year before they are eaten, which makes them ideal for buying in bulk. The place to buy them is France, where the very best sardines are preserved in good olive oil, often with a slice of lemon. These are of a quality that should be enjoyed as they are, in a salad, but they are also what I use in my Pasta con le Sarde. The make to look for is Connétable. I would love to be able to recommend those canned by the Pilchard Works in Cornwall. Their fish and methods are good, but sadly, having done some consumer research, they found the British prefer their sardines ready filleted and their favourite sauce was the sweetened tomato sauce that the French produce for children. Come on Britain! Let Nick know that you would like to buy your fish on the bone and preserved in good quality oil.
Just a final word for those who are particularly interested in the Omega 3 health benefits associated with oily fish. One mackerel provides as much as three portions of a more moderately oily fish like salmon and tuna, although rich in Omega 3 when fresh, loses most of this in the canning or bottling process. This is peculiar to tuna and not true for sardines, so do keep a store in your cupboard.
Pasta con le Sarde
Mackerel with Gooseberry Sauce
See also Sardines on Toast – a modern take on an old classic this time using fresh barbequed sardines.