This last week we’ve watched several episodes of the current BBC series Great British Food Revival, and it’s been GREAT fun as well as very informative and mouthwatering watching all the different chefs’ fresh takes on forgotten or out-of-fashion ingredients. The (half) episode on sardines was one of the most interesting so far in that it celebrated this wonderful little fish that is plentiful off Britain’s shores but whose image was marred for many of my generation by it being presented most frequently in tinned form, as pilchards. I was lucky to rediscover it in its fresh form at some point in the mid-1990s but I have to admit that I’d more or less forgotten it again since.
We decided fairly spontaneously that we really NEEDED to get hold of some proper sardines and cook one of the recipes from the programme this weekend. All the Mediterranean-inspired recipes suggested by Giorgio Locatelli sounded great, but we decided that we’d have a go at the sardine beccafico, just because it struck us as more different and unusual than the other recipes included.
First catch your sardines: well, we’re lucky that we have some shops with really good fish counters here (which really doesn’t go without saying in Southern Germany!), but as (bad) luck would have it, we weren’t able to get hold of any fresh sardines. A 500g container of whole frozen sardines would have to do, so into the fridge it went to defrost. The recipe called for 4 medium-sized sardines (and the ones in the picture acompanying the recipe are certainly very sizeable), but instead we had about ten rather itty-bitty ones, which made filleting them a bit fiddly, but we managed it in the end.
I became rather less enthusiastic once it came to assembling the stuffing. The ingredients suddenly struck me as a pretty odd mixture, and after blending my olives, capers, almonds and lemon juice I was left with a rather grey, slimy sludge that tasted quite odd. And the next batch, including raisins, pine nuts, anchovies, parsley, orange juice and some smuggled-in garlic turned out a very unfetching beige and tasted really very strange indeed. All this was mixed with a load of breadcrumbs and I had the distinct feeling that my concoction could best be used to stick some bricks together.
But I soldiered on and stuffed my sardine fillets as instructed, and actually assembling the dish was a lot less fiddly and messy than I’d expected. The fish rolls went into the oven for all of about 8 minutes total, and meanwhile we prepared a green salad and some crusty bread to accompany them.
The end result was – not forgetting all the misgivings and challenges that had crept in during the preparation – actually pretty tasty, and quite different from anything else I’ve cooked. For me, oily fish HAS to be served with something acidic, and from that point of view the strong citrusy taste of the filling was an excellent foil. Overall, though, the citrus taste was probably too dominant (for our tastes at least) in that you couldn’t really detect the normally quite punchy taste of a lot of the other ingredients olives, anchovies, capers etc.). Admittedly, we did use fairly mild, not overly salted olives and anchovies, but even so…
We’ve decided that we’ll definitely use this recipe again, but we want to try it with some different elements next time:
- some more substantial kind of fish fillets, maybe herrings or mackerel
- more garlic and maybe some finely chopped shallots in the stuffing, to make it more savoury – the increased cooking time needed by more substantial fish would mean that this could also have a chance to cook through better
- a bit less citrus: juice and zest of a both a lemon AND an orange was slightly overpowering overall, though we are slightly conflicted as to which of these to leave out
- this same (modified) stuffing, maybe with a little parmesan or feta added, would also make a great crust for baked white fish
- depending on the choice of fish, a punchier choice of herb such as thyme might work really well
By the way, I did take a picture of the finished dish, but as it wasn’t a patch on the one you can see on the BBC website I decided not to include it. You can view my latest Flickr uploads via the right-hand sidebar, though ;).