Sardines and anchovies are two foods that, at least in America, share a strange combination of fascination, scorn, passion and obscurity. Since you can go years without seeing an anchovy article or a sardine TV show thought I’d spend a little time explaining a bit about them.
Anchovies first. The Mediterranean is the traditional—and generally, still the best—source of anchovies. There is no single “anchovy fish” to be found, but rather a series of aquatic relatives—anywhere from sixteen to upwards of one hundred—that make them recognizable to us as members of the same fishy family. Like any other “crop” the haul is subject to the vagaries of weather. At most a small boat might bring in fifteen tons. Other nights, with high winds, they come in with nothing. A fisherman’s yield can vary from year to year by a factor of ten. All of which contributes to the high cost of anchovies which are often two or three times as expensive as sardines.
The curing process is comparable to that of aged hams in that it’s basically the anchovy’s own juices that make it happen, with bacterial fermentation playing a bit of a supporting role. For most of human history this salt packing was the way that anchovies were sold. It’s only in the 19th century—with the advent of modern canning—that the industry introduced the idea of filleting and packing in olive oil. Still, even if they are sold in oil like most of ours, they were first cured in salt.
Not so with sardines. Certainly for centuries previous, people were catching, cleaning and salting sardines as others did anchovies. There are still salted sardines to be found. Chuck Prine, a 40 year sardine veteran, gives indirect credit to Napoleon for tinned sardines: “His troops were dying of starvation. He was offering rewards for anyone who could come up with a way to conserve food. A guy named Nicholas Appert took a fried fish, and, if you will put it in glass with olive oil, and sealed it. It lasted 35 or 40 days. That became the first canned sardine.”
Mediterranean sardine producers in Portugal, Spain, and France work with what are known as pilchards. These are fat, very flavorful fish, usually only three, four, or at most five to a can. While France pioneered sardine curing, many consider Portugal to be the best source today.