A Plaintive Cry For Sardines

Sardines are super fish. My life’s work now is to convince the missus and the kids that this devotion is not another strange quirk of my behaviour: something like listening to the radio twenty-four hours a day, or wanting a gnome in a Hawthorn jumper in the garden, or hoarding that pile of old New York Times in the corner.

I’m still madly in love with sardines, but membership of the sardine fan club is building slowly. In fact, from my rudimentary analysis of such matters, there would be more members of the Brisbane Bears supporters’ club than those attached to this cheap, delicious, oily, loyal little fish.

Delicious? Sure is. Tasty, full of personality. There are those in the world who reckon all fish taste the same. Try a blind tasting of King George whiting versus sardines, and you’ll quickly toss that argument. Personality is not necessarily a certain winner in the taste department: cucumbers and duck livers have personality, but even I wouldn’t join their fan clubs. Sardines have something else. A true loyalty to the sea and its wonderful nuances. Loyalty? Sure. A connection to the sea and seaside and seaside smells and flavours and romance: of that lovely sea breeze blowing across a sandy beach, of seaweed and salt, of bare feet in shallows, and that delicious sense of something more in the water than just H₂O.

Oily? Sure is. Which adds another dimension to sardines, bringing flavour and the sea into all sorts of different eating opportunities. Raw? No worries. Baked? Absolutely. Fried? Sure can. Stuffed? You bet. Whole, bones and all? Without a doubt. Smothered with tomato sauce? Even that. Make it up yourself? Does the sun come up in the morning? From a can in dodgy vegetable oil? Only at midnight, on some very good home-made bread toasted, and re-doused in the best virgin olive oil and given new life with fresh herbs. You’ll probably need a beer as well. And cheap? A shovelful will cost you about as much as an afternoon in the autumn sun.

Just one thing. You must buy your sardines from a hot-shot fishmonger. Sardines are always sold with guts in and must be scrupulously fresh. As in today fresh. It’s pretty easy to see whether sardines are absolutely fresh: they truly glisten in their final bin, brilliantly silver, and with a minimum of blood shining through minimal broken flesh and bone. Learn to love and trust and respect your fishmonger. But don’t ask him to bone the sardines. Fishmongers are not slaves.

6 sardines per person

1 dessertspoon curry powder

a pile of plain flour


black pepper

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups breadcrumbs

a little oil

lemon slices


Get close to your sardines. Rip off their heads, and while you’re doing that rip out their guts as well. Run your fingers between flesh and backbone, and the little darlings are clean of all those fiddly bones. Leave the tailfins intact to keep the fish’s shape


The fish need to be butterflied and dried. The best way to do this is to press them between two sheets of absorbent paper. Do it once, do it twice.


You will need four plates, all in a row: three dinner plates, one platter. On one plate mix the curry powder with the flour, salt and black pepper, making sure they are well combined. On the next plate deposit the well-beaten egg, and on the next the breadcrumbs. Now it’s all go.


Dip the sardines, one by one, into the flour mix, then into the beaten egg, then the breadcrumbs, and leave them to repose on the platter.


When they are all done, put them into the fridge for a while to secure the crumbs. Then, when it’s time to go, heat a little, little oil in a heavy pan, or better still a non-stick pan, and continue until the oil is very hot. Ease the sardines into the pan, and cook for about 1 minute on one side, 30 seconds on the other, making sure there is plenty of space between each fish. Remove and put on some absorbent paper, and leave in a warm place until you are ready.


Serve with lemon slices, and eat with your fingers, as an appetiser.

NOTE: Sardines can also be a centrepoint in an antipasto plate, served either warm or at room temperature. Or as a main course, served with a simple salad of sliced tomato marinated in lots of virgin olive oil, lots of black pepper, and lots of basil. Just make sure there is a bowl of baba ghanouj on side to really take you into heaven.

WINE: Sardines tend to have a lot of natural oil in them, so they can be unkind to wine. Try a good beer – Cooper’s Ale or Cascade Pale Ale would be my picks.