Sardines for Summer

For a seasonal treat that is abundant locally, look no further than the simple but sensational sardine. Mitch Tonks explores some delicious ways to enjoy this flavoursome fish.

It  would be good for the world’s oceans if we shifted from our love of tuna and ate more of these delicious and abundant fish when they are in season, and that season is right now. They are readily available, very versatile, affordable, and they’re packed with healthy oils, so get yourself down to the fishmonger and get them on barbecue this month.

The good news for sardine and pilchard lovers is that numbers are at healthy levels, and they are caught in coastal waters off the south-west coast of England using traditional drift or ring nets. As usual, our continental neighbours in Spain and Portugal love them too, so let’s keep demand up for them here and keep them in the UK.

Over the years I’ve had inspiration from some wonderful cookery writers such as Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, and I think the essence of their cooking is putting together a few simple ingredients and producing an amazing result.

When it comes to fresh fish you need very little, in fact too many additional flavours will mask what you really want to shine through... that fresh taste of the sea. 

Barbecued sardines really capture the flavours of summer; the skin crisps up beautifully and locks in the juiciness of the flesh. Not much more than sea salt and lemon is needed for a great, simple Mediterranean lunch to be recreated in no time at all, and adding sunshine is a bonus, but not essential! If you throw a few herbs onto the coals you’ll get some wonderful aromatics seeping up into the fish too; oregano is one of my favourites with sardines. Scoop up the sardines straight from the barbecue in a few crispy lettuce leaves and enjoy the full impact of those deep flavours.

Here’s a few more simple ideas for the best way to use sardines:

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Pan-fried: Simply season whole, scaled and gutted sardines and fry them skinside down for about two minutes until the skin is crisp. Turn and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and sea salt and nothing else.

Baked: Put sardines in a roasting dish and cover with a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Add a splash of olive oil and roast in a hot oven for 15 minutes.

With Pasta: Lightly fry some onion and garlic and crumble in a bird’s-eye chilli then add in chunks of sardine fillets and cook for a few minutes. Add half a dozen fresh tomatoes, halved and sqeezed, and toss with pasta. Barbecued Place butterflied sardines or whole sardines on the barbecue, sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil and cook for a few minutes until the skin crisps.

Tip: Look for sardines that have hues of gun metal green and purple on their backs and avoid any with split bellies. Larger sardines, or pilchards, will be slightly less oily than their younger siblings.

� Mitch Tonks, fishmonger, food writer and restaurateur, has three restaurants – RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Bristol, and two others in Dartmouth – The Seahorse and RockFish Seafood and Chips. Find out more

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