Travel: The patron saint of commuters? It's a fish

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Rory Mulholland explores an `imaginary museum' in the south of France, devoted entirely to the sardine

"Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines," Alan Bennett once said. "We're all of us looking for the key."

Philippe Anginot has spent most if his adult life looking not for the key, but for the tin. He now has an impressive collection of sardine cans and paraphernalia, housed in his sardine museum in the French Mediterranean port of Sete.

"In 1914, a tin of sardines was a luxury - it cost a worker the equivalent of two days' pay," says Anginot. "Producing a can at a Parisian dinner party was guaranteed to shift your social standing up a notch or two. Today, sardines are seen as a poor man's dish."

So he has dedicated his life to improving their status, and last year opened what he believes to be the first sardine museum in Europe. The visitor to this tiny exhibition space in the town's former public baths is regaled with details of the economic, cultural and culinary history of the sardine.

Sete, France's biggest sardine-fishing port, is a particularly apt location. After a few hours spent pondering the fish in its abstract beauty, the enthusiast can amble down to the quay to observe the reality of the 5pm criee, or auction, when the trawlers arrive back from a day's fishing.

Anginot's interest in sardines began with the can. As a teenager he liked the design so much that he stuck a tin on his kitchen wall. Another was soon placed alongside. By the time he was 18, he had as large a collection as his tolerant mother would permit. He began to read about sardines and found that much of what he was learning made him laugh. The aim of the museum that he founded, at the age of 40, is to pass on the joy of these discoveries, he says.

The museum itself is very small, and more like a competent school project than a proper exhibition. A score of display panels provides key data on the world of the small silvery fish: the economics of sardine fishing; the price of the fish through history; fishing methods; the trawlers, and the best ways of cooking and eating sardines.

We learn that it was a Frenchman, Pierre-Joseph Colin, who invented the sardine tin around 1820. The not-particularly-user-friendly way to get at the contents of the original tin was to bash it open with a hammer and chisel. Fifty years later the famous key was invented, and this held sway until the recently introduced pull-up ring.

The exhibition throws up other fascinating snippets: Christopher Columbus, we are informed, had 650 barrels of sardines aboard the ships that brought him to America. And, we are told, the sardine tin is a popular way of smuggling hashish out of Morocco; the little blocks the drug is sold in fit neatly into the rectangular can.

Alan Bennett noted that in any sardine tin there is "always a little bit in the corner you can't get out." Is that true for Anginot? His quest, he replies earnestly, is far from over. Apart from expanding his collection of tins, to which sardine fans around the world send contributions, he is researching more into one aspect of the fish.

"The sardine," he states with just a hint of a smile, "has many sexual connotations. Sardine in French is, for example, an obscure slang word for the penis."

Musee Imaginaire de la Sardine, 2 rue Alsace Lorraine, Sete (00 33 467 74 91 75). Open daily from 10am. Adults 10F, children free.