November 18th, 2019 12:00 PM
Sardines in Paris, photo David Hammond
Canned sardines have always seemed a little down-market: traditionally, they've been cheap and not nearly as popular as other canned fish, like tuna, and they seem almost to be a kind of desperation food. As impoverished graduate students, Carolyn and I used to buy King Oscar sardines at the Hyde Park Co-op for something like twenty-five cents a can (they're now a little over ten times as expensive, but still comparatively cheap).
Today, canned sardines are poised to reach new levels of popularity, following the growing fame of conservas, preserved and tinned fish and seafood, imported from Spain or Portugal. Chicago's Porto (1600 W. Chicago) is a restaurant scheduled to open any day now, and it will prominently feature conservas, out of the tin and presented with finely crafted sauces. During a recent restaurant preview, I was talking with Daniel Alejandro Alonso, one of the owners of the Bonhomme Hospitality Group, which owns and operates Porto, Beatnik, Celeste and other hip Chicago joints. Alonso told me that conservas use "only the best fish; during processing, the finest seafood is separated out and those select items are what are used to make conservas"
At Alonso's restaurants, they offer some excellent conservas of seafood like mussels, octopus, tuna and, of course, sardines.
Last week in Paris, we were out for our final meal of the trip, and I ordered sardines for my starter. They came in the can, bathed in olive oil, accompanied by a basket of crusty French bread to sop up the fish-infused oil, and a salad, with a glass of wine on the side, a classic combination. These were very fine sardines, small and delicate and, as noted, with some amazement, by tablemate and cookbook author, Elizabeth Karmel, "These sardines are not hairy!"
The "hair" Karmel was referring to are the small bones sometimes included with grocery store sardines; these bones are entirely edible, but these French sardines lacked such "hair" and so were even more delicate than expected. They were so soft that they could be spread on bread.
Before I left Paris, I bought several cans of sardines at the Left Bank's Le Grand Epicerie for Christmas gifts (in the unlikely event any of my daughters are reading this, you'll be getting sardines for Christmas!).
Even "hairy" store-bought sardines in the U.S. are pretty tasty, and though they've gone up in price, they're still cheap eats. Whole Foods in River Forest, and parent company Amazon, have a very good selection, including the Matiz brand of Spanish sardines, which go for a little over five dollars per can. On the cheaper end, there's Chicken of the Sea brand sardines, for about a buck a can at Pete's Fresh Market.
Hairy or hairless, the little fish are appropriately enjoyed on National Sardines Day, November 24.