Super Sardines from Spain

If you check with some of the most serious sardine lovers in the US ten years from now, and ask them to name the go-to spot to find their favorite forms of these delicious little fish, I forecast that eight out of ten are going tell you they do their sardine shopping at Zingerman’s.  Yes, Zingerman’s, in landlocked Ann Arbor, will have become one of the centers of the specialty sardine trade.  And while our sardine reputation is destined to spread, we’ve already got an amazing, world-class sardine selection today.  The sardine selection at the Deli is already deeper, and more delicious that it’s ever been.  All sixteen different varieties are worth trying.  As you already know, if we don’t like ‘em we won’t stock ‘em! But, the glass-jarred beauties from the Ortiz family of the Basque Country in Spain are at the top of my personal list right.

Conservas Ortiz

While I understand that sardines may not seem a particularly scintillating subject to those who aren’t as in love with them as I am, I assure you that putting a jar of these in front of a sardine lover will probably get you more attention than you would with a beautiful, dry-aged steak cut from Cornman Farms’ pasture-raised beef (at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse) or a bar of the incredible Vietnamese chocolate that just arrived at the Zingerman’s Deli.  The Ortiz sardines are truly that beautiful.  Silvery, and glistening through the glass in the golden-green olive oil in which they’re packed, I can guarantee that every sardine lover will be anxious to open the jar and eat.

These particular sardines from northern Spain are one of those really amazing offerings that are sure to attract the attention of every little fish lover that tries them.  Prepared and packed by the Ortiz family on Spain’s Cantabrian coast, I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’re as good as they are. Ortiz has been Spain’s premier producer of tinned tuna, anchovies, and other small fish for over a century and is currently being run by the fifth generation of the family.  Their products are recognized as some of the best anywhere.  Ortiz is the BMW of the tinned fish world; classy, stylish, smooth riding, and very high quality.  They’re definitely the can of choice for connoisseurs.

For some reason, these special sardines fell out of Ortiz’s production for many decades.  Last year, the family resumed sardine packing and I’m very happy they did. The sardines are produced according to an old French recipe that dates to 1824, the earliest years of preserving fish in jars or tins.  As with their tuna and anchovies, the Ortiz folks are very finicky about the fish they select. They use only true pilchards, the most prized of the many species of small fish canned around the world as “sardines.”  As they cook and pack only fresh sardines, production is seasonal and they have only about three months to pack sardines for the year.

The freshly landed fish are taken from the dock directly to the processing plant in the village.  They are then cleaned, fried in extra virgin olive oil, and left to stand for a few hours in order to drain the naturally occurring water they still contain.  This makes the sardines mellower and more delicate in texture than others on the market.  By contrast, most middle-of-the-pack commercial canneries use frozen fish.  This changes the texture and flavor significantly. They cook the fish with steam once in the tins, and then add the oil, tomato or other sauces. All the water that was inside the sardines remains in the tin, reducing the quality and eating enjoyment.  The Ortiz family prepares their sardines a l’ancienne, a process that leaves the fish tender from cooking with skin and bones still on. The result is a traditional soft, delicate, but meaty texture.  Finally, they’re hand-packed with extra virgin olive oil in glass jars.

What do you do with such amazing sardines?  You eat them!  I put them on salads.  I eat them on pasta with either a fennel-scented tomato sauce or, equally excellent, a few spoonfuls of olive or caper paste and some grated breadcrumbs over the top.  They’re fantastic on the traditional insalata pantesca, the traditional salad of the caper-growing Sicilian island of Pantelleria.  The salad is very simple:

cooked potatoes
cherry tomatoes
a bit of slivered red onion
a handful of black olives
and plenty of capers

Toss with a bit of your favorite wine vinegar (I love the Txakoli vinegar from the Basque Country, not far from the Ortiz factories), and then add:

a touch of sea salt
a little crushed dried oregano
and plenty of extra virgin olive oil

Let stand for about half an hour to allow the flavors to come to together, lay the sardines over top and serve.

The Ortiz sardines are also delicious laid atop a bed of the spicy harissa we get in from the Mahjoub family in Tunisia.  Just pour a bit of good extra virgin olive oil into the bottom of a salad bowl, and add a generous amount of the harissa.  The vermillion color of the harissa will look beautiful against the light green-gold background of the oil.L  ay the sardines over top, sprinkle on a touch of sea salt and a grind of good black pepper, and enjoy with a nice piece of warm Paesano bread in hand.

Before I move on I should mention something about maturing.  No, not me—the sardines.  It’s not common knowledge outside of sardine circles but aficionados actually age these little fish.  As they age in the jar (or tin), the olive oil penetrates ever more effectively into the flesh of the fish and the flavor gets fuller, the texture a bit more tender.  Connoisseurs will keep a case of sardines each year to mature in their cellars.  If you ask the owners of any sardine cannery what sardines they’re eating at home, they’ll tell you something like “We’re eating the 2006 sardines now, and we have a few left from 2005.”  The point is obvious: when you have your pick of the pack, the aged sardines are the way to go.

While we don’t have any aged offerings from Ortiz yet, we do have a couple of great ones from our French friends, the Gonidec family in Brittany.  We’ve got a limited number of their “Les Mouettes d’Arvor” sardines from 2010 and 2009, which are a bit more full in flavor.  My idea of a good time would be to open one of each and kick off the most serious sardine-tasting party in town!

Sardines at Zingerman's Deli