What are they?
Sardines are delicious, nutritious little fishes that are high in omega-3. Brilliant with an ice-cold beer or a glass of wine, they are becoming more popular fresh or canned. They are known to scientists as Sardinops sagax but are called pilchards, bloaters, blue bait and mulies depending on where in the nation you are. The fish have silver bellies and blue stripes on top. Under their fine skin is a dark pink flesh and a cage of very fine bones. Sardine flesh is dense and oily, with a umami-rich fish flavour.
Why do we love them?
Richly flavoured and inexpensive, sardines are at their firmest and fattest at the end of winter, perfect for healthy eating. They have been dubbed "the superfish superfood" because of their high density of omega-3. They are also one of our most sustainable seafoods, their fisheries getting the thumbs up from both the Marine Stewardship Council and the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
Who uses them?
Jenni Cregan is co-owner of Woy Woy Fishermen's Wharf, where sardines are sold fresh retail, preserved in tins and jars and cooked in their kitchen. She refers to sardines as the prince of oily fish and serves them headed, gutted, flattened, rolled in seasoned flour, cooked on the flat grill and served with a sauce of oil, lemon, dill and fried capers. She also crumbs them and serves them with lemony aioli. Chef Mark Briggs loves the little fish so much he named his East Gippsland restaurant after them. At Sardine Eatery and Bar in Paynesville, he marinates the fillets in oil and garlic, seasons them with salt and white pepper, warms them in a hot oven for 30 seconds until the protein sets, and serves them with sour onion and smoked garlic aioli and pine oil, which he makes by blending pine needles with olive oil in a Thermomix.
How do you use them?
A tin of high-quality sardines in the pantry is a hit of omega-3 and an instant snack on standby. Try canned sardines smashed on toast with a little salt and lemon or turn them into a quick meal by tossing them with chopped tomatoes, shallots and herbs and piling them atop grilled sourdough. When buying fresh sardines at fishmongers and markets, look for fillets with a lovely glossy sheen. Make a supper of pasta and fennel with sardines topped with fried breadcrumbs. Souse fresh fillets in vinegar, herbs and spices to make sardines escabeche, a perfect foil for a glass of pinot gris. Dust the fillets in seasoned flour, fry gently in olive oil, sprinkle with flaked salt and drizzle with a little salsa verde. Or simply grill over coals, add a squeeze of lemon, and serve with fino sherry or a cold beer.
Where do you get them?
When it comes to canned sardines, look for imported brands such as Cuca, La Gondola, Real Conservera, Nuri, Jose Gourmet and Ortiz in food stores, and Sole Mare in supermarkets. Prepacked fresh sardine fillets by Pro Seafoods from Port Lincoln are available at fishmongers and seafood markets or buy sardines fresh from your local fishery (including Port Phillip sardines in Melbourne). They freeze particularly well when packed in atmosphere-modified packs.