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Small Wonders (sardines)


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Small wonders

Uncommon and often unloved, sardines sometimes have an image problem. If you look beyond their canned cousins, the fresh version is a revelation.

THERE was a rare display of fresh sardines the other day at the market - their bright silvery-blue skins standing out from their pearly-white filleted neighbours. Uncommon in Australia and undervalued, they are one of the finest small delicacies the ocean has to offer.

They remind me of the flavours of the Mediterranean; of coastal fishing villages in Greece, Spain and Sicily where they are a diet staple and have long been considered a delicacy. They are also cheap and abundant.

Sardines are members of the herring family. Their soft, oily flesh is flavoursome and rich, which suits grilling or frying. They don't last long, so only ever buy them when they are bright and glistening.

Along the southern coast of Turkey street vendors have sold me sardines grilled over embers and laid in soft white bread with fresh mint, parsley, sumac and a squeeze of lemon. In Spain it is common for them to be cooked in metal grills over coal and brushed with dried rosemary, thyme and fruity olive oil. I have also read traditional Greek recipes where they are fried whole in a flour batter and served with skordalia (minced potato and garlic) and lemon wedges.

This is all fine if you live in one of those far-flung countries, but local whole fresh sardines are hard to find. Mostly they come filleted all the way from Fremantle or South Australia.

This tiny, plentiful and seemingly ordinary fish is a common thread in cookery, which has wound its way through the history of many countries and cultures.

The Romans discovered that if you poured hot vinegar over fried fish and let it stand for a few days in a cool place it preserved the fish. Sardines are particularly suited to pickling and there are many recipes from all over Italy and Spain.

The Venetians have a dish called sardoni in saor - the sardines are first fried in a little flour, then laid out and covered with wilted onions, saffron and warmed vinegar. They are finished with pine nuts and currants, which is the Moorish influence. In Sicily they have a similar dish called a scapece, which uses fresh mint, and in Spain it is often bay leaves, onion and sherry vinegar.

When brothers Andrew and Matt McConnell opened Diningroom 211 in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, they introduced us to torta Cipriani - "Our tribute to Venice," says Andrew. Beautiful and delicate, it was a nod to the classic Venetian dish but influenced by their unique style. It has become a Melbourne classic - thanks to them.

Bucatini with sardines and fennel

In the style of Sicilian cooking - where the colourful Arabic influence shows - wild fennel would be used along with saffron, pine nuts and raisins.


6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 large or 2 small fennel bulbs and fronds, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

a pinch of dried chilli (optional)

2 pinches dried oregano

salt and pepper

8 sardine fillets, cut into small pieces

320g bucatini pasta

4 tbsp breadcrumbs, lightly toasted with a tablespoon of olive oil in a hot pan

3-4 tbsp grated parmesan


Bring a large pot of generously salted water to the boil.

In a large heavy-based pan, heat the oil and add the garlic, fennel and onion. Cook gently until completely soft and lightly golden.

Add the chilli and oregano and season with salt and pepper.

Push the contents to the side of the pan, raise the heat a little and add two extra tablespoons of olive oil and the sardines. Season with salt and cook for a few minutes until cooked through. Stir to combine, and set aside while you cook the pasta.

Drain the pasta once cooked, gently reheat the sardines and add the breadcrumbs and parmesan. Toss everything well and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Serves 4

Grilled sardines with chickpeas, mint and preserved lemon


1/2 cup chickpeas soaked overnight

salt and pepper

juice of 1 lemon

3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil

2 ripe tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup mint leaves, torn

half a preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped

1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

12 sardine fillets


Cook the chickpeas in plenty of water until just soft. Drain and rinse. When still warm, dress with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Add the tomatoes to the chickpeas, along with the mint, preserved lemon and toasted almonds.

Gently fry or grill the sardines with salt until only just-cooked. Place on individual plates and spoon over the salad and dressing. Serve.

Serves 4

Torta Cipriani

By Andrew and Matt McConnell. This is a great dinner party entree - especially because you can prepare the pastry and onions in the afternoon.


2 brown onions

1 tbsp butter, plus extra for brushing

2 tbsp olive oil

4 sheets filo pastry 15cm x 20cm

16 sardine fillets

1 tbsp raisins

1 1/2 tbsp pine nuts

2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped

40ml balsamic vinegar

80ml extra virgin olive oil


Preheat oven to 180C.

Slice the onions as thinly as possible. Melt the butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the onions and cook slowly until completely soft, but not coloured, and all the cooking liquid is reduced.

Take one sheet of filo pastry, brush with butter, fold in half, then in half again, brushing butter between each layer. Repeat with the other 3 sheets of pastry so that you have 4 rectangles. Lay them on a lightly oiled baking tray, then cover with a sheet of baking paper and then a heavy, flat tray - this will compress the pastry. Cook in the oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.

Let the pastry cool, then trim the sides carefully, as the pastry will be very fragile.

Lay each rectangle of pastry with an even covering of the cooked onions and place on individual plates.

With a little oil, pan-fry the sardines skin side down just to blister and caramelise the skin for about a minute - season with salt and take care not to overcook, about 3-5 minutes.

Place the tarts on serving plates, top with onions and lay the sardine fillets on top. Sprinkle with the raisins, pine nuts and chopped parsley.

Blend the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and drizzle over the tart.

Serves 4 as an entree

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