Cooking small fish: an ‘undercelebrated, underappreciated luxury’

·4 min read

Sardines, and small fish generally, can be polarising. Fresh but bony, or perhaps cheap, grey and tinned. But there’s a case for them beyond being way-down-the-food-chain, prolific breeders, with short life cycles: an environmental advantage we’re becoming more mindful of.

It’s also a question of taste.

“We get fresh sardines out of our local waters, Lakes Entrance and all that,” says Melbourne based chef-restaurateur Guy Grossi. They are tricky to incorporate into fixed menus, with supply sometimes sporadic, but they sit perfectly as specials.

By warming it up simply on a plate ... you get something that’s like nothing else

Josh Niland

At Grill, Grossi’s Bourke Street sibling to the almost century-old Florentino, the preparation is simple: marinated with olive oil, chilli, a grating of lemon rind. Flashed over an asado grill, the finishing touch is a salad of the moment; “fresh, beautiful persimmons” as Grossi and I speak.

He hails elegant possibilities in the white linen environs of Florentino, saying “last week we filleted the sardines, made a little fish mousse, sliced stale bread really thin, wrapped them up and then just pan fried them. Kind of like crumbing but not.”

Grossi’s preference is more in line with sardines’ la cucina povera backstory, invoking memories of his father, also a chef, who would just gut, clean, flour and fry them whole. “Then, just a squeeze lemon.”

In his forthcoming book, Take One Fish, feted fish chef Josh Niland declares his love for the sardine. He tells me with animation of the amazing texture of fresh sardines.

“Wonderful silver and blue skin, and then underneath you get a thick white layer of fat with the red lateral muscle running straight down the fillet. By warming it up simply on a plate with a tiny bit of salt on top of it and allowing the fat to almost melt out of the skin and over the flesh – that’s when you get something that’s like nothing else.”

Dry fish handling, a cornerstone of Niland’s work at Saint Peter and Fish Butchery in Sydney’s Paddington plays its part; soaking them in water or wrapping them in plastic a sure-fire way to create volatile, unappetising fishy aromas. While Niland is known for ageing fish, in the way you would terrestrial proteins, he says sardines require “immediacy” – “we get it on the plate as quickly as we can”.

A sardine is just a sardine, right? Not quite. Consultant and co-author of the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook, John Susman says: “In WA the product off Fremantle is [generally] the sardinella, the same as you find in western Europe,”

In the east, parts of South Australia and Albany, the frogmouth pilchard, “less fatty but still tasty”, mostly passes as a sardine. So why don’t we see frogmouth pilchards on menus? “I think that speaks for itself,” is Susman’s reply, with an eyeroll, I imagine.

As to tins, which have recently, eccentrically gained a reputation as “hot girl food”, Niland says the opportunity within goes beyond just the fillet. “It’s all the juices and the brine. If you crack open a really [good] tin of anchovies or sardines sitting in some oil, you’d be painting that on the outside of asparagus or a grilled piece of lettuce.”

Sardines in pasta
Josh Niland recommends eating fresh sardines as a raw product, by stirring the fillets through pasta. Photograph: Bon Appetit/Alamy

While premium tinned fish is revered in Portugal and Spain, we’re a long way from that devotion here, although Australian products are on the rise. Aldo Mendolia of Fremantle’s Mendolia Seafoods places their tinned product well above the sub $2 tins you’ll find in our major supermarkets, but at $6-8 they’re certainly not hitting the highs of premium imports at $20 and upward. Very much in reach of consumers who want an Australian caught product.

Related: Braised and infused: 10 flavoursome stovetop recipes for grey Australian winter weekends

So what advice for home cooks? Niland says this “undercelebrated, underappreciated luxury” suits an “undercarriage” of carbohydrate – on toast or a tart.

When buying fresh he suggests asking your fishmonger to take the fillets off, wrap them in paper and take them home. Stir them through pasta, put them on toast and just eat them as a raw product.

“Don’t feel you have to put lemon and acid all over them,” says Niland. “By not doing what’s normal you end up experiencing something so differently and it will literally change your mind in one moment.”

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