For Stefan Glinski, in the small Cornish fishing village of Newlyn, nightfall means one thing: sardines. Every day, as families around the country settle down to dinner, he heads out to work, braving wind, rain and waves in his 70-ton 44ft boat. "I've gone out in full-blown gales," he says. "The only time I stop is when I can't stand up."
Glinski has been catching sardines for almost a decade; along with the occasional foray into anchovies and herring, they are the mainstay of his existence. Until recently, most of those sardines were destined for one of two things: either the canning factory, where they would be filleted, steamed and then packed tight as the proverbial, well, sardine, or the continent, where they would be turned into something delicious – something we might eat on holiday, like sardine spaghetti or sardines a la plancha. Mmm, we'd think, that was nice. And then we'd go home and forget about them until next year.
But things are changing. More and more sardines are staying in the UK – and we're buying them. Not tinned, but fresh. "They're much more popular than they used to be," Steve Nile, of North East Seafoods, says. "It's a totally different market." Nile heads up the company's account with Marks & Spencer, where this month, under his watchful eye, Glinski's Cornish Sardines have gone on sale in stores across the country.
Part of this is down to awareness. Sardines aren't just local – they're sustainable, too, a characteristic that has become increasingly important to shoppers. Thanks to a series of high-profile campaigns – from the Government-backed to the celebrity-endorsed – consumers are concerned with fish stocks as never before. Now chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have returned for a second series of Hugh's Fish Fight, raising the issue even higher on the agenda.
"Eighty per cent of fish eaten in the UK is one of the big five: cod, haddock, prawn, tuna or salmon," says Hannah MacIntyre, the marine biologist overseeing Marks & Spencer's sustainability-driven Forever Fish campaign. "The result is depleted stocks. Sardines are different because they're a particularly robust species. They're seasonal spawners so the population bounces back regularly. When we fish them, we use a ring net so there's very little bycatch. They're ideal for consumers."
They're also delicious – as demonstrated by their increasing presence on restaurant menus across the country. At Brawn they're marinated and served with harissa and aubergine caviar. At the Westbury's Gallery, they come toasted and served, Niçoise-style, in a salad. At the Michelin-starred Hibiscus, the head chef Claude Bosi has created a dish of grilled sardines accompanied by a white bean purée, confit tomatoes, red peppers, and frozen raspberries. At Wright Brothers Soho Oyster House they come, simple as can be, on toast, with garlic butter.
"I love sardines," says Wright Brothers' executive chef David Gingell. "When they're in season, they're cracking. If I'm doing a barbecue, I'll always have whole sardines on there – they're a good size and you can eat them with your hands. Or I'll have them with some really over-ripe tomatoes and garlic on toast."
The thing is, we used to eat sardines all the time. In the Cornish village of Mousehole, pilchards – Cornish sardines – have been celebrated since the 16th century, in the flamboyant form of stargazy pie. Legend has it that the dish was first devised when, during a particularly stormy winter, the area was threatened with starvation due to the lack of fishing boats braving the waters. Two days before Christmas – or so the story goes – an intrepid fisherman named Tom Bawcock threw caution to the wind (literally) and took his boat out.
He returned with a catch of such bounty that it could feed the whole village. To celebrate, the inhabitants of Mousehole baked a pie filled with the entire catch – and, of course, topped it all with the upturned pilchard's heads that give the dish its name.
Sardines used to be a part of life," Gingell says. "The original pasty had pilchards in it. It was only later, when British food got worse after the war, that a stigma became attached." The sudden proliferation of tinned sardines, combined with an apparent reluctance to eat anything that hadn't been skinned, boned and neatly filleted, worked to deter the evermore-homogeneous diner. Sardines – along with other small, bony fish-like herring – fell by the wayside as the British public embraced a diet of cod, haddock, salmon and tuna.
"It's such a shame," Bosi says. "There's such diversity in the sea – why would you want to eat the same thing all the time? I always try to use some more interesting fish. In Europe, they have been serving delicious sardines for years. They can be so versatile."
Indeed they can; though his offering at Hibiscus might prove a challenge for even the most confident of home cooks, when he's off duty Bosi likes to eat sardines plain – simply barbecued and served with butter and lemon. Meanwhile, Sam Hart, co-founder of the Barrafina tapas bar, has a host of suggestions for how they can be done. "We serve them cooked on the plancha – a kind of flat grill – and dressed in olive oil, parsley and lemon, but you can do all sorts of things with them. If you get the smaller ones, leave the fillets in some lemon juice until they turn slightly white and then serve them raw, like anchovies. Or you could coat them in a light batter and make a lovely tempura."
Gingell agrees: "At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what you do with them – it's far more important that they're fresh."
Finding fresh ones shouldn't be a problem, thanks to the rapid-fire turnaround made possible by Glinski et al. "I've been out on the fishing boats at night and seen the catch in the London markets the next day," MacIntyre says. "The whole process is fully traceable."
Then, identifying which sardines are the best is just a simple matter of checking a few criteria. First of all, check the fish's eyes. "Most of the time, with fish, you're looking for a clear eye but funnily enough that's not the case with sardines," Hart says. Instead, look for a bloody eye and a body that is stiff with rigor mortis, with nice, firm flesh. When you get them home, use them as quickly as possible. "The oilier the fish, the less nice it is when it's not fresh," Hart says.
Of course, while they might not keep as well as their less-oily equivalents, sardines – like mackerel, salmon and trout – have another advantage. They're extremely good for us. The Government recommends we should eat at least one portion of oily fish a week, thanks to its high Omega 3 count. Sardines also boast particularly impressive levels of iron and vitamin B and, unlike larger predators such as salmon, contain very little mercury, since they sit low on the food chain. The less a type of fish is consumed by other fish, the lower its mercury levels will be.
Healthy, sustainable, delicious and affordable: sardines have a lot to recommend them. But what about the much-spurned tinned version? They may not be able to compete with their fresh equivalents in the taste department – but do they really deserve their bad rap? Glinski thinks not. "I'm a fan – in olive oil, tomato sauce, however. They're delicious on toast." Time, perhaps, to put the toaster on.
Six ways with sardines
"The best sardines I've ever had were in Portugal," Hart says. "They were cooked over charcoal and served very simply." Indeed, if there's one universal way to cook sardines, it's that: either grilled or barbecued and served with a little olive oil, lemon juice and pepper. Because of the fish's high oil content, the lemon is needed to cut through it – well, that or something similar. "In fact, sardines go very nicely with stewed gooseberry," Gingell says.
Sardines on toast is a British classic – and with good reason. "Sardines have a lot of little bones, which can be off-putting for people," Gingell says. "The presence of the bread helps them go down." Think plain, buttered, brown toast – or, if you want something a little more exotic, try sardine bruschetta. "Grate some garlic on to the toast with a lug of olive oil and top with some over-ripe tomatoes and grilled sardines."
Raw sardines might not sound like the most appealing prospect – but once Hart is through with them, they will be. He recommends allowing a couple of hours to let your fillets marinate in lemon juice in the fridge. Then use them like anchovies, scattered over salad or a hunk of crusty bread.
With their small, chewable bones, sardines are a perfect addition to a fritto misto. In fact, deep-fried sardines are popular traditional snack in India. Keep the batter light and use either fillets or whole, small, sardines.
In a pâté
Mackerel pate is one of the most straightforward starters out there – why not do the same with sardine pâté? "Sardine pâté is a great idea," says Silla Bjerrum, founder of Feng Sushi. "You can either smoke or grill the fish at home, and then turn them into pâté as you would mackerel."
You don't get much more traditional that Stargazy pie – especially not if the sardines come from Cornwall. The chef and Independent columnist Mark Hix won the Great British Menu with a rabbit and crayfish version – but for the traditional meal, you've got to have sardines.