If the great jewel in the crown of cheap English food is the Cornish mackerel, then its Spanish equivalent has got to be the sardine. The difference the English and the Spanish is that Spaniards don’t despise this, or any food just because its cheap. The sardine is “celebrated” – cooked and eaten everywhere from the posh dinner party to the beach shack barbecue.
The simplest way with sardine is to roll them in coarse salt, stick a wooden skewer through half a dozen and grill them over charcoal. This is how its done at Spanish fiestas and street parties. The fish is cooked whole – gut in head on. The cooked flesh is chewed off the bone and the spine and head discarded.
Beach shacks and Chiringuito bars that spring up along the beaches during the tourist season usually gut and head their fish – they’re for foreigners after all.
You get an old clinker built rowing boat and fill it with sand, threadle an industrial quantity of sardines onto a yard long wooden skewer, stick it in the sand and roast your sardines over a smouldering hunk of olive wood.
Or you can head, gut and fillet them and deep fry them til they’re crisp.
Use the same common sense as you would when buying any fish.
Don’t buy on Monday because they don’t fish on Sunday so your fish is already two days old. Don’t eat fish in a restaurant on a Tuesday by the way in case you get palmed off with Mondays leftovers. This is really old fish! Wednesday, Thursday and Friday especially- great. Saturday you may be getting the dog ends of the stock as they clear the deck for Sunday and Monday. On the other hand, you may get some bargains.
Signs of fresh fish: Bright eyes, not sunken. Gills bright pink or red, not dark – and ask to see them. That’s what a Spanish housewife does! No smell. Go on – have a sniff! They should look slimy. And not flabby. Slightly stiff. Like these:
I bought forty of these for two euros. Forty.
How to fillet and fry Sardines
Lets assume you’ve bought the best sardines, big and bright, the fishmonger mortified if you imply that they weren’t flapping on the slab an hour before you turned up.
Go home with your catch. wash your hands. Wash your sardines. You don’t need to scale them.
Get a sharp, small, non serrated knife. First behead your fish. Then draw the head away, taking the trace of gut with it
You can do this very quickly. Once you have beheaded and gutted all your fish, take each one in turn and massage the spine away from the flesh of the fish. You can do this by turning the fish spine up on a slab, and running your thumb along the spine. Or you can open the gut cavity and slide your thumb and forefinger along the spine from the inside of the fish. Either way it’s slightly messy, but takes no time at all.
When you have loosened the spine, lift it free from the butterflied fillet thus:
Good. All thus will seem messy and fiddly when you start but you soon develop a technique. I did forty sardines in fifteen minutes.
The final stage is easy. Use a fish fryer, or if you don’t have one a wok with a good two inches of sunflower oil in it. Heat the oil until a little crust of bread sizzles as soon as it hits it.
Prepare some flour, seasoned with plenty of salt, a few screws of freshly milled black pepper and a good pinch of Provencal herbs. Spanish flour is milled to a fineness fit for purpose, so look for Harina Fritos y Rebozados, which is fish frying flour. Put it in a plastic supermarket bag. Drop all the fillets in and shake so that they are all lightly coated with the flour. Drop them into the oil about half a dozen at a time and don’t take them out til they are golden. Grey fillets taste the same but look horrible so no one wants to eat them. When done, drain them on kitchen paper. You can eat them hot or cold, with or without sweet or hot paprika sprinkled over. Plenty of Spanish fishmongers and supermarkets will sell you these already filleted, but its less satisfying than doing it yourself!