A juicy, tender fish, crying out for the simplicity of a barbecue or grill
“Juicy, tender, with that fresh taste of the sea. That’s what you get from eating fresh sardines,” says Matt Goddard, head chef at Elliot’s. “If they are cooked well on the barbecue, the nice crispy skin adds some bite to the texture as well as a hint of smoke, and you can eat practically the whole thing. It’s a wonderful fish.”
The mention of the barbecue is a telling one—while there are some fish that will have you emptying the spice cupboard in search of flavourings, Matt hopes that sardines will not be one of them. “It can be tempting to overcomplicate things, and I see a lot of sardine recipes where they are pulled apart, stuffed with different ingredients and cooked in complex ways,” he continues. “To my mind most of these methods take away from the essence of this wonderful fish. That’s why for me the barbecue or the grill are the way to go. Both are quick—only a couple of minutes per side—and they give you that lovely light charring on the skin. We get ours from Sussex Fish and they arrive in such wonderful condition you just want to show them off at their best.”
Gentle flavour of birch
In the restaurant, Matt cooks the fish whole, with heads and tails left on, usually grilled over charcoal with some silver birch thrown on for the smoky flavour. “Birch is less common than oak, but it has a gentler flavour, which works really well with the more delicate fish flavours,” the head chef explains.
His accompaniments tend to be as simple as the cooking method. “Tomatoes go beautifully with sardines. Try blistering a few tomatoes in a hot pan and finishing them in the oven, or simply roasting them and serving them on the side. One nice accompaniment is a tomato salad with garlic and basil, dressed with olive oil and lemon. I have scattered chopped smoky anchovies from Brindisa through the salad and it makes a really nice dish.”
If you’re looking for something slightly more leftfield, Matt says that gooseberries go surprisingly well with sardines. He suggests making a simple white gooseberry pickle: chop up some gooseberries and a shallot, add a couple of splashes of cider vinegar, sprinkle over some sugar and fresh dill, give it all a mix and set aside for an hour or so, then serve with the grilled sardines and olive oil.
The perfect time
If the idea of trying sardines appeals, then Paul from Sussex Fish says that now is the perfect time. “As a rule, sardines start turning up in our waters from about late July and can go right through to the end of September, so they are bang in season at the moment,” he explains. “They are a very popular fish, especially if some hot weather hits.”
Paul, an accomplished chef as well as an expert fisherman, has a suggestion of his own. “An Italian friend who is a great cook recently introduced me to a sardine pasta recipe, which sounds a bit unusual but is amazing,” he explains. “You cook some sardine fillets in a pan with tomatoes, garlic, parsley and onions. Mix it around a bit, but not too much—you want the sardines to partially break up but not disintegrate. Have some spaghetti cooking at the same time and when the pasta is ready, combine the two. It is such a simple dish but it really works.”