Roll up for the Greatest Shoal on Earth

Roll up for the Greatest Shoal on Earth
Alex Hu for Unsplash

The sardine run, happening in KwaZulu-Natal right now, is a phenomenon. It’s a phenomenal year and a celebration for those who know how to prepare and relish the fish.

Right now is gorge time for those in-the-know in KZN. “I probably overdid it, eating 50 this past week,” says Marco Nico. “I started off doing them the Portuguese way. You rub the sardines with salt then grill them on a very hot braai. Serve them with boiled potatoes and roasted red peppers.

“I then did a whole lot the Indian way. The Indians have the richest fish culture in KZN. The sardine was once known as the poor man’s fish but they mastered the art of preparing them, with curry masala. Dredge in a little flour. Fry. Indian biltong is what they call the tails. I did mine on the braai. Typically, Indian-style, the sardines are eaten with bread and a carrot, onion and chilli sambal.”

Here in Durban, we are slap in the middle of feasting time. For sharks, game fish, marine birds, dolphins, spectacle junkies, sardine run addicts (which would number many of us who have grown up with the phenomenon). And predatory human beings. Like Nico: forager, pickler, preserver, food alchemist, restaurateur many times over. And about to launch another. “A new concept. Feed a family of six for R150.”

Not with sardines.

“Half the shop will be chicken and chips, half (will be) fish and chips. We’re opening in Sparks Road, Overport, in three weeks.” All his contracts dried up with Covid-19, he explains, given that he is known to have said “never another” after his last.

“Complaining is for the privileged and that, I am not. And frankly, I don’t know where anyone read that life should be easy. It is in the adventure that you find meaning and purpose.

“I was at Scottburgh twice last week. All the netters are along the South Coast at the moment. They’re having record catches. I gutted and headed 1,200 sardines – that’s two crates – this past weekend. That made me happy. Put a smile on my face.”

Nico starts by processing them like anchovies, under salt. (Photo: Marco Nico)

“I process them like anchovies, under salt. Then I do a three-month lacto-fermentation, at which point they’ll be ready to fillet and pack under oil and sell.

“These will be like boquerones. There are also other styles. I am doing some under salt with rosemary and black pepper. Others with chilli and oregano. You can even pickle them like a herring, using a salted sugary brine.”

The liquid that comes from the lacto-fermentation he will sell as fish sauce. The bones after filleting, which are softish, he’ll fry up to make “a nice crunchy snack”.

As you’ll have guessed by now, Nico is one of those in-the-know. Specifically, how to prepare and eat sardines. Because there are many who don’t.

“Bait!” – used with disdain as a four-letter-word – is how an erstwhile food writer friend dismisses them. “I used to live with a fisherman,” she says, to justify. “I once ordered grilled sardines at a Portuguese restaurant yonks ago. I swear I reeked of sardines for a week afterwards. I’ve never eaten sardines again,” a current Durban food writer commented when I asked in the Facebook Locked Down Cookbook group for people’s cooking tips.

Yet: “We have some of the best sardines in the world. If more people knew, the price would be double. I’m glad they don’t.” That’s Nico again.

Minor sardine frenzy in a previous year in Durban. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

The “greatest shoal on earth” – as the annual (erratic in recent years, with research pointing to climate change) marine and human spectacle is known – is quite something to witness.

“You have to be there, on the beach, to understand the sardine experience and how beautiful it is,” Nico adds. “The camaraderie. Everyone together on the beach. The sharks. The game fish. The birds. Being part of it is one of the biggest highs of my life.”

“I grew up on the South Coast so sardines are, like, part of me.” I’m talking to celebrated KZN chef, Kayla-Ann Osborn.

“The two most exciting days of my year are Comrades day and ‘sardine’ day. This year they both happened on the same day.” Osborn is talking about the inaugural lockdown Comrades virtual event, which coincided with the day the first shoals arrived in Scottburgh. “It’s a frenzy when the sardines are running.”

There are many who don’t appreciate the merits of the lowly sardine, she concedes. “One thing I’ve done and it’s very popular, including with fellow chefs, is I make a white anchovy-style sardine. So basically you fillet the sardines and pin-bone them and place them in salt and vinegar overnight. Then you put them into olive oil with garlic and onions and parsley and thyme and whatever. You vac-pac them for three or four days. They soften and soak up all that oil and they are basically what the Spanish call their white sardines, which you eat all over Spain, on bread, with olive oil and lemon zest.

“They are delicious. My mouth is watering,” she laughs – juicily.

“I also love them simply grilled on the braai, plain, with olive oil and lemon juice. Delicious too.”

The young chef, who during lockdown has been baking sublime (no exaggeration!) malted sourdough and potato and rosemary loaves in her mom’s kitchen in Scottburgh and doing bread deliveries, tells me a story that gives an idea of the scale of this year’s “run”.

Shoals are typically around 15km long, 4km wide and 40m deep. There is lots of drone footage on social media, if you Google. “When I was little we lived in Port Edward. I think it was Millennium year, 2000, my dad did some welding for one of the underwater camera guys recording the sardine run. That was the year it became ‘the greatest shoal on earth’ – the biggest sardine run ever. They took my dad out diving and gave us a video before it was released of ‘the greatest shoal’.

“This year is similar. They’ve netted every day for the past week here in Scottburgh. During that earlier sardine run, I remember swathes of fish washing onto the rocks. Hectic shark activity in the water. It got to the point where people were no longer eating or buying the sardines. This year so far, from all I’ve seen on the beaches, is the closest it’s got to that.”

Bangladesh Market ‘pickle aunty’ Farida Gafoor knows her sardines. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Farida Gafoor, known to many as Chatsworth’s Bangladesh Market “pickle aunty”, is one of the traders who is back in action and running her stall during Level 3 lockdown. Her range of 30 pickles – think mango, sweet and sour lime, mixed vegetable, just for starters – are for many an essential commodity.

“I have enjoyed sardine meals twice already so far this season,” she says of the shimmering mass of silvery fish that by the time they get to KZN have been swimming for more than 30 days from their spawning ground off the Cape coast.

Gafoor learned to love them as a child. “It was a big deal. In sardine season we would go as a family to the beach. We went with our baskets. Great excitement. We’d pick up the sardines from the shoreline. Fill our baskets. Bring the fish home. Immediately get busy cleaning them.

Spicy sardines on the braai with curry masala. (Photo: Marco Nico)

“How did we cook them? As I still do it now. You remove the head, cut open the stomach, clean and wash. Then in a dish you mix chilli powder, turmeric powder, a few drops of lemon juice, salt to taste and a bit of oil to make a paste. Apply this to the sardines and refrigerate for half an hour. Then either grill or fry until crispy.”

Janine Serrurier doesn’t mind that her sardines are not crispy. So long as they do the trick, which they have been since 2000. Which is when she developed hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

You’ve heard of an apple a day? For Serrurier – who I’ve met while on my Sunday morning lockdown walks with a friend to Glenwood Bakery for exercise, aioli, butter and bread and who I include here for a health-focused perspective – it’s a sardine a day.

“Back then I met a food scientist whose wife had the same thing as me. He was researching foods and their effect on the condition and found eating sardines first thing in the morning – he called the sardine a little nutritional powerhouse – was one of the best foods to balance blood sugars.

“Long and short, I took his advice and continue to do so to this day.” Early on, she would open a tin and eat them all. Now, a single sardine suffices. “And yes, I’ve always gone for the convenience of the tin. Although travelling in Portugal I ate a lot of delicious fresh ones.”

Seine netter sardine action. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“The sardines are a once-a-year craze. We must have them,” Durban’s Shakilla Haribans tells me.

I met and chatted to Haribans during a previous sardine run when a trove of fish made it, via the Durban Seine Netters, onto Addington Beach. “We listen each morning for the news and when we hear they’re netting, we come and check. I usually buy three dozen at a time and try to get to the shoals several times. I take them home, cut off the heads and clean out the insides and then marinate them in masala powder, salt and garlic for about four hours. Then I deep-fry them in cooking oil. Sometimes I bake them. You squeeze lemon over them. They are the best thing.”

“I was born in Durban. Grew up in Durban. Every sardine season, it was a family tradition, we (she and her three siblings) would wake up early, put our gowns over our pyjamas and jump in the car. All the aunties, all the cousins, would come too. The whole extended family.” Suwaibah Alladin, an accountant who does henna and beauty work as a hobby, is talking to me from her Mount Edgecombe townhouse.

“Back then, when one person spotted the sardines – this was long before social media and cellphones – the message went around and we’d all head to that beach.”

Until this year, this week in fact, “Our kids (they are 8, 5 and 3) had never experienced a run. We decided to take them yesterday.

The excitement of the net pulled in. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“Now, of course, there is shoal-spotting, so you get in your car and know where to go. My husband does a lot of fishing. The boys are getting into it. We set off early and drove to where we knew they were netting at Illovo Beach.

“With Covid there weren’t as many people as there would normally have been, given the abundance of sardines this year. People were good about wearing their masks and keeping their distance.

“The drones are a new thing. Fishermen with rods on the shore use them to fly the baited hooks out to beyond the shoals to where the big fish are. The drones drop the bait. Some of the fishermen focus on catching sharks. Catch-and-release. It’s about the excitement of bringing the shark to shore, landing it. Then they remove the hook and release it. Everyone claps when it swims away.

“We took an empty crate to fill. We wanted to freeze some to use for bait. Cook some when we got home. Two weeks ago crates were selling for R1,000. Now they’re selling for R200. Supply and demand. So many sardines.”

The kids, she said, had a ball. “They were so excited when they saw the netters. The boats. The huge loads of fish. The shark activity.

“For every Indian household it is a tradition. You must have your fresh fried sardines. My method? Rinse. Cut off the head, which we don’t eat. Slice down the middle and clean. We then marinate the fish for a couple of hours in fresh crushed ginger and garlic and chilli powder. I always have masala at home. I add dhania and jeera powder, a bit of salt and fresh lemon juice.

“Then I deep fry in sunflower oil. This way gets it extra crispy. The meat flakes off the bones and we eat the tail.

“I used an extension cable and deep fried out on the lawn. If you do it inside, you’re left with the cooking smells for a few days. Traditionally we serve with dhal and rice. We gave some to our neighbour. She said they don’t eat sardines but she tried and loved them.”

I recall a cooking teacher in Alameda, California, who was 90-plus when I wrote about her, who said: “If ever anyone tells me they don’t like something, I know it’s because they haven’t tried it cooked right.”

Indulging in the spoils of the sardine run. (Photo: Marco Nico)

To get some international thoughts on our sardines, I message my friend, author-historian-researcher Tim Holden, who lives in the UK and recently facebooked a picture of a giant turbot he was cooking. Rumour has it he spent more time spearfishing than going to lectures when we were at university and I think of him as the fishiest person I know.

Since those days he’s eaten and cooked fish far and wide. And was able to give a unique underwater perspective. Of diving with sards. Several times. Off Hibberdene and Sezela in the ’70s. Once meeting “hundreds of sharks below the shoal, too bloated to have any interest in me. But they gave me a horrible surprise as I arrived amongst them”.

If you’re in the water as a shoal approaches, he says, the surface of the sea begins to flutter when they’re about 10m away. “The fish are so packed together, the water vibrates.

“As they reach you the dense mass splits either side of you and dives below you. But they’re only a metre below and if you dive down through a tunnel of sardine life, you’ll see that some fish in the shoal are sinking, starved of oxygen.

“Get beneath them and you may well find those gorged sharks swimming bloatedly. The shoal may suddenly part and a big fish will cruise through. You may see a trail of downward bubbles from a bird at the end of its predatory dive. It’s all action.”

The sardine, he says, is humble and impossibly numerous. “Various subspecies are found in each of the world’s oceans.

Sards on the braai with curry masala. (Photo: Marco Nico)

“I love sardines, the cadence of the word, the memory of their scent. When I think of the word I recall those fresh same-day grilled fish with the smack of salt and lemon.

“A rare treat is to eat them when caught on the same day, grilled until so crispy so that you can eat them without worrying about their bones. Overdone is better than underdone. Their delicate flesh is oily enough to remain moist through at least one level of misjudgement. And don’t worry about removing the stomach if the sardine is truly fresh. Just add coarse sea salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and they are delicious and the healthiest seafood you can eat.”

“In both Spain and Portugal they grill sardines with the gut in,” says Nico. “Here, everyone removes it. Not cleaning it out can impart a bitter taste. Almost like a bile. It’s so easy to take it out. You just take a pair of scissors and cut from bum to gill and it falls out. Yes, you can do it the classic European way. But I think removing it is worth the effort.”

You see, there is preference. And a lot is about being in-the-know. DM/TGIFood

Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website


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