Sardines: Among the Healthiest Foods You Can Eat
Here in Portugal we like to say we have the best fish in the whole world. Well, I can’t really say 100 % sure that this is true, since I haven’t been to the whole world, but I like to think it is… After all, there must be some reason why we are one of the countries in the world that eats more fish, we just love it… really fresh, caught in our shores, grilled or boiled or fried, but especially grilled… it is something we cannot do without. And one of our top choices is something that most people haven’t tried. It’s a cheap fish. It’s not that big. There is plenty of it. Most people don’t know it, but it’s also a fish that has plenty of Omega 3, which makes it great for our health and our heart. So, what am I talking about? Sardines, of course.
The name Sardine probably comes from the Island of Sardinia, since it is said that surrounding the island, centuries ago, there were always large schools of Sardines. Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role in the popularity of sardines, since he was the one that ordered canning sardines as a food of choice to feed his subjects in the various parts of the Empire. You see, sardines are very tasty, but they are also extremely perishable and canning them was the way to preserve them. This is why, until our days, canned sardines are so popular and you basically can find them all around the world – in some places more than others, in some ages more than others. For instance, did you know canned sardines were extremely popular in the 1950’s in the United States?
But, in fact, nothing beats fresh sardines.
Sardines are small, saltwater, oily-rich, soft-boned, silvery fishes. There are various types of species of sardines, you can find them all over the globe and you can easily find them in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and Mediterranean Sea and, of course, Portugal is one of the leading countries when it comes to sardines. It is said that our sardines (much like the rest of our fishes) tastes different, that our sardines are more succulent, because of the confluence of the tropical climate to the south of our waters with the cold, northern clime, that because of these influences our sea life is more diverse and rich and because our fishing is, in most cases, very traditional we have been able to maintain that diversity and our tasty fish.
But no matter where the sardines come from, do you know how good they are to your heart, your cholesterol, your bones, your cells, to your health in general?
Sardines are one of the most complete foods there are. Sardines contain Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, vitamins D and B12 and also phosphorus and protein that provide us with amino acids, on top of that sardines also contain niacin, vitamin B2 and vitamin B6. We’ve all heard about Omega-3 and we all know it protects our heart, lowers triglycerides and our cholesterol levels. But did you know that B12 also plays a major part in our heart’s health? And that sardines are the second best source of this vitamin, following just calf’s liver? Then you have vitamin D, which is great to increase the absorption of calcium, therefore increasing our bone health. Phosphorus also helps strengthening the bone matrix. So, all in all sardines are basically one of the healthiest foods in the world.
Sustainability of Sardines
Not only sardines are extremely healthy, but they are also a green option. Portuguese sardines have the Blue Label awarded by the Marine Stewardship Council, which means fishing of sardines in Portugal takes into account the sustainability of the sea resources. The sardines fishing process is also certified and because traditionally sardines are caught by purseseine fleet vessels, allowing to preserve the other species and maintain the necessary environmental balance, the process is considered environmental friendly. Therefore, sardines are not only good for your health, but for the environment.
Sardine catches happens all over Portuguese Coastline, but one of the most sought sardines all over the country comes from the Algarve.
The rule says that the smaller a sardine the better it is, it may sound strange, but it’s quite true, just think about it: the scales and the bones are softer in a smaller sardine, which makes it easier and tastier to eat, especially for those who eat basically the whole thing, not bothering to take most bones out, which is the rule here in Portugal with fresh sardines.
Sardines in the Algarve
Another important detail is that bigger sardines have more fat, which can be a little too much, especially if you are thinking of eating more than one. So, the Algarve region has the smallest sardines in Portugal and the best. Proof of that is the catch of sardines all over the Algarve, the restaurants that serve basically just sardine and the sardine festivals everywhere.
There is one particular city, Portimão in the Algarve, that is known all over the country on account of sardines, it is said in Portimão is where you eat the best fresh grilled sardines. And because the time to eat fresh sardines goes from May to October, when the fish fatten for spawning, and Algarve has such great weather and such beautiful beaches and in the summer time you just want to relax and enjoy, that sardines are the ultimate Summer Food around here. What better choice but to end your long day at the beach in one of the many seafront restaurants serving the greatest fresh grilled sardines ever. And Portimão has plenty of those.
But Portimão, like other cities in Portugal, such as Setúbal, Matosinhos, Vila de Santo António, has a history that stretches beyond fishing and grilling sardines. During the 20th Century Portimão was stage to a social and economical revolution through the development and growth of the canned sardine industry, it was not just about canning sardines, it was about turning them into new and tasty delicacies, such as pates and others and then it was about shipping the finished product to other countries. And I am not talking about canning sardines in some flavourless oily concoction, I’m talking about adding salt, olive, tomatoes, garlic and so many other combinations, each with a different taste, each delicious. It was a time for prosperity, unfortunately, much like so many other things, the industry began declining and now few factories exist to tell the tale. Although the ones that exist today continue to produce the tastier canned sardines and sardine pates in the world.
Nonetheless, the city did not lose its taste for sardines and still remembers those bright days of hustle and bustle of the big canned sardine factories.
Sardine Canning Factory
During the sardines season, more specifically in June is also the time for Feast Days for some Saints, such as Saint John, Saint Peter and Saint Anthony. You might be familiar with Saint John’s Eve that takes place from the 23rd to the 24th of July.
These Feast Days, particularly Saint John’s are deeply related with the pagan celebration of the solstice and are a time for the people to enjoy.
In Portugal the Feasts of the Saints are extremely important. Everywhere people get together to sing and play and dance and, of course, eat sardines, because in each of these Feasts there are always lots of sardines, grilled sardines that people eat right off a slice of bread, letting the juices of the grilled sardine soak the bread, which tastes much better afterwards. So, you don't actually need a plate or a knife or a fork to eat sardines, you just need a slice of bread and the sardine on top and off you go.
Personally, I prefer the plate and the knife and the fork and a table, also, for that matter, but apparently I'm one of the few. Nonetheless I definetelly advise you to try the traditional way, after all you might like it.
This way to eat sardines may sound strange, if you think about it: it implies eating the whole thing, the bones, the head, everything. But let me remind you that sardines are supposed to be small and the smaller the sardine, the softer the bone, which by nature is already softer in sardines than other fish.
Anyway, it's up to you to decide if you should eat the whole thing, if you want to leave out the head and the main bone and if you want a plate or not...
No matter how you chose to eat it, it is delicious, it's a gastronomic experience and above all is a healthy choice.
If you add to that the excitement of the feasts, all the dancing and colour and the life, you get a well spent evening.
So, the popular feasts go hand in hand with sardines, which makes them a sort of sardine festival. But apart from these feasts there are actual sardine festivals that happen here and there, some bigger, some smaller. Obviously, the city of Portimão could not turn away on such event, so in Portimão you also find a Sardine Festival, after all where are you suppose to find better sardines than in Portimão?
Picking and Grilling Sardines the Portuguese Way
So, now that we've covered the most important things about sardines you need to know how to pick them and grill them.
We've learned that sardines are better when fresh, but if you want to eat sardines in March or April you will definitely have to settle for some freezed sardines. That is also alright, but you won't be able to savour all the juices that are so typical in fresh sardines, yes, those that soak the bread...
If you are buying fresh sardines look out if the colour of the fish is bright and if the eyes look shiny and if the flesh looks firm. Go right ahead and with your fingers touch the flesh, if your fingers leave marks on the fish, don't buy it, because it's not fresh.
Grilling Your Sardines
Once you have your sardines it's quite easy to grill them. You don't have to gut them or take the scales, you just need to season them with some coarse sea salt (personally I prefer a lot of salt) and leave them for a while to get a salty taste.
Then you just need to grill them. Be aware that sardines are much tastier if you charcoal grill them. What you need to do is put some charcoal in your barbecue and light the fire and then leave it until the flames go out, only when the charcoal is hot, but not ablaze should you start grilling the sardines. Leave them for five minutes before flipping them.
You can serve the sardines with boiled potatoes and a nice cucumber and tomato salad, adding grilled green pepper also, if you like, since it's very tasty. And don't forget the slices of bread...
Grilled Portuguese Sardines
What do you think about sardines?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Joana e Bruno