With all of the glorious fresh seafood around me here in Normandy, I tend to forget about tinned sardines. I had occasion, recently, to do some research on their production and I needed to taste what I was writing about, so I gathered several different brands, and set to.
What I re-learned was that when sardines are good, they’re scrumptious. And as with all things culinary, the French really do them right. Whether they be grilled then bathed in extra-virgin olive oil before being tinned, or combined with a bit of gentle pepper, or layered with sliced lemon, or just simply put in the tin, they’re delicious.
The French take great pride in their sardines, and they have since the first of these little fish were canned in Nantes, around 1810. The fish were brought fresh from cold Breton waters, fried, and packed in tins that made their way around the hexagon. Fast-forward to today, and they are still handled as carefully as they were two centuries ago.
The French treat tinned sardines a bit the way they treat a fine wine, buying and storing them in their cellars for up to ten years. When they emerge from their tins after a decade, they are mouth-meltingly tender, subtly flavorful.
There are many brands of tinned sardines produced in France, most of them in Brittany. Of them, there are three brands to look for – La Quiberonnaise, Gonidec (their sardines are sold under the label les Mouettes d’Arvor), and La Belle Illoise. The sardines in these cans have not been previously frozen, and are perfect to eat right away, or to tuck away in the cellar. The cans are dated, and Gonidec even puts the name of the boat that fished for their sardines on the tin.
I prefer my sardines plain, in extra-virgin olive oil. Until recently, my favorite way to eat them was crushed on a cracker, with a drizzle of freshly squeezed lemon juice. But I stumbled across a recipe from Joel Robuchon which has made me change my mind.
Buy the best sardines you can, then follow this recipe which I guarantee will become part of your appetizer repertoire! If you cannot find the brands of sardines mentioned here, buy the best quality you find.
TOASTS DE SARDINES
Two 4 ounce (125g) tins sardines in extra-virgin olive oil,
central bone removed
10 tablespoons (150g) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons cream crème fraîche
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, sliced thin, toasted
Flat leaf parsley leaves or other herb, for garnish
1. Place the sardines in a medium-sized bowl and crush them, using a fork. Fold in the remaining ingredients except the pepper so that they are thoroughly combined, but not too smooth. Season to taste.
2. Spread the sardine mixture on the toasts, garnish each with an herb leaf, and serve.
Up to 20 servings