People say we are obsessed with sardines. We don't care what people say. Come the warmer weather it's sardine time. It's really rather simple; for a few months the priority becomes eating the best sardines, comparing the catch across the summer months, eating them at street parties, at restaurants, at home, on the beach... you name it. The source of our ingredients is paramount so there is constant discussion about the best sardine fishing ports. Is it Peniche, Matosinhos, Sesimbra…?
In this post we try to set out the doos and donts, the things to look out for, the techniques... in short, the comprehensive guide for sardine eating in Portugal. By the way, if you are in Portugal eating sardines and you happen to mention you tried sardines elsewhere in the world, we look at you with great suspicion; it's not the same. If you want to find out why, keep reading...
1. The Event
Sardine eating gets a special word in the Portuguese language. The word Sardine (sardinha) plus the postfix “ada", meaning turning something into an event, gives us Sardinhada. Sardinhada is not just having sardines for lunch or dinner; it's a special sardine eating event. This can take various forms... an extended meal in the sun or indeed a whole day during which you get a sardine whenever you feel you need one. If you've been to a sardinhada, common symptoms are an intense smell of grilled sardines on your clothes and hair, the odd little fish bone stuck between your teeth and the feeling you will never do this again... till next morning when you begin to crave sardines all over again...
2. The Time
Sardines mush be fresh. When we say fresh we mean there should not be more than 24h between sea and plate. Sardines must be in season and here comes the easy to remember month rule. Only eat sardines in months with no r... conveniently this works both in Portuguese and English. Rule of thumb is that sardines are available from May to August. As with any rule, there is an exception. In this case two exceptions as May is often too early (although by then we are desperate and will certainly eat a few) and we all know the really good sardines come in September or October. Once you get the months right you need to move on to the three S rule: size, shape and salt. Sardines are best relatively small (the small petingas are a wonder in themselves simply fried). Size is particularly important because you're after the best "flesh to other stuff ratio". Grilled sardines are cooked whole so you enjoy removing the delicious flesh from bones and guts (see technique below). The shape of a sardine will be known to anyone visiting Portugal as it has become a bit of a national icon. One way of identifying fresh sardines is by their slightly bent shape. Finally, salting is crucial. Sardines are cooked with good quality course sea salt which is added to the fish a few hours before grilling.
3. The Space
Where you eat sardines is important from two perspectives. Geographically, the closer to the sea you are the higher the chances of complying to the freshness rule (see above). Modern transport and refrigeration techniques clearly challenge this but we still stand by this 6 century old rule (yes, the Portuguese have obsessed about sardine fishing since the 14th century). In terms of the site for sardine eating, a number of considerations... Sardines, in their traditional form, are not a fine dining experience so you want to be in a place where you can relax, feel at one with the fish and follow the local vibe. Sardine eating is ultimately a local thing (don't go to a tourist filled restaurant to eat sardines). The amazing smell of chargrilled sardines is a unique demarcation of identity and place.
4. How to do it and remain cool
Sardine eating is an art and as such, variety and subjectivity abounds. Just as well because how you eat is between you and the sardine although admittedly you are in a power position here...
Cutlery or no cutlery? Well, that's not the key issue. Let's work through the layers. A perfectly grilled sardine will have three easy to distinguish layers. The skin, wonderfully toasted and caramelised, producing a truly unique and magical mix of sweet, smokey and salty sensation. The flesh, moist, flakey, white. Finally the bone and guts which you leave to the cat. By the way, cats also know when sardine season is on so they'll be doing the rounds...
The way you enjoy a sardine is up to you as long as you are aware of these layers. Some people peel the skin off with knife and fork, get the flesh on one side, turn the fish around and do the same. Others like to simply hold the sardine on a piece of corn bread (broa) and eat away (much like the cat). The later method has an advantage not to be underestimated; the sauces from the sardine on the broa make a unique combination. Remember you can use the same piece of broa with multiple sardines... the sky is the limit.
Where to eat the best sardines in Portugal? Not a chance you get an answer from us as we would get into too much trouble with all our favourite suppliers and restaurants. Here's a hint though, our brother blog http://www.saltofportugal.com has, as usual, excellent advice.
Assada - literally means roasted but it really stands for grilled
Escamuda - with lots of scales, usually taken as a good size
Moída - ground. Used when the flesh of a sardine is not moist and flaky but with an almost puréed texture
Na Brasa - on the ambers, referring to the right temperature at which you can cook sardines over charcoal.
Sardinha - sardine
Broa - Portuguese corn bread
Petingas - very small sardines (eaten fried rather than grilled)
Pimentos - grilled peppers with skin removed, cut and seasoned with sea salt and olive oil