All of a sardine things are looking up

All of a sardine things are looking up
(Photo: danatentis on Pixabay)

Fish paste, smish paste. It’s time to bring back sardines on toast.

At the risk of having Jeremy Maggs stick blunt needles in my effigy, I see the demise of commercial fish paste as an opportunity for revival. 

Read all the recipes that now proliferate for making your own fish paste, thanks to the disappearance (for most people) of both Peck’s Anchovette and Redro, and they all have a common theme: small, slimy fish, and tomato sauce. But instead of having me hurtling to the kitchen to mix it all up according to one or other of those recipes, my mind went somewhere else altogether.

One year ago almost to the day, I bought a can of middlecut pilchards with which to make Tin Fish Curry, that venerable lunch of the colonial Natal canefields. But my eye strayed to the adjacent shelves of pilchards, salmon, tuna and other canned fish and there, on the upper shelves, were row upon row of tinned sardines. In a breath, my mind took me back 50 years…

I’m somewhere in the Sixties, in the kitchen, and on the table in front of me is a sealed miniature treasure trove. It is brightly labelled and a slim metal key is affixed to one end. It’s the canned food equivalent of a low slung red sports car. Low and flat, shiny and full of attitude, with that dinky little metal key inviting you inside. You take the round end of the key and slip it onto a little bit of metal designed for purpose, you twist and twist and twist, and the beauty of that curl of metal as it folds away like a trapdoor onto a thousand gleaming jewels has you catching your breath while your nostrils flare in anticipation.

Next to you is hot toast, on a plate, and you’re smearing it with butter. Then you dip into the tiny silver boat, fish them out one by one, and lay the sleek little sardines out on the toast edge to edge, pressing them down a little with the flat of the knife, so that the toast and the fish become one. There’s a silken red ooziness from the tomato paste that comes with the sardines, for that is your chosen style: sardines in tomato sauce. You lift your toasty delight to your mouth, crunch and swoon. That’s better than fish paste ever was, then and now.

As with anything in life today, some things have changed. Those little metal keys have largely disappeared, replaced by a press and pull little ring tab rather like the way you open a Coke. It doesn’t have the same romance and flair about it at all; it has none of the intrigue and wonder of the almost indecent unfolding of the vintage sardine cans to reveal the naked fish within, oiled and preening and whispering come-get-me.

And, as with crisps that now come in chakalaka, chilli biltong, peri peri chicken and quite possibly braaied skilpadjie flavours, the styles of tinned sardines have gone off at a tangent too: sardines in hot chilli sauce, soy sauce, with piri-piri, et al. Still dominant though are my old favourite, sardines with tomato, as well as simple sardines in vegetable oil, brine or water. We can work with any of those, if we don’t mind adding tomato purée and perhaps a few other things. Garlic, for one.

Recipes for homemade fish paste now abound, in an almost eulogising way, the way we suddenly remember all sorts of amazing things about somebody we know who has just died. Most of them have the same core ingredients: sardines and/or pilchards, anchovies, vegetable oil, and salt. “Blitz and smear on toast” usually follows by way of a method.

Some recipes add a bit of sugar, soy sauce, and fish sauce. One British recipe is short and to the point: “2 tins sardines. 1 tin anchovies. 2 Tbsp tomato paste”. In TGIFood recently, cookbook author Georgia East shared with us her recipe which calls for a 120g tin of sardines in olive oil or vegetable oil; 8 to 10 brown anchovy fillets plus 5-10ml of their oil, and a 50g sachet of tomato paste.

But hang on, isn’t there an even easier way, and one that is more compelling, undoubtedly more delicious? There’s your “fish paste” equivalent in one can: sardines in tomato sauce. The taste of childhood, for some of us.

Craving a fish paste fix? Mourning its demise? What we need is a mind switch, because everything that ever went into a jar of fish paste is right under our noses; all we need to do is adapt and find new ways to enjoy them. We can eat sardine and tomato pasta. That’s a thing. It’s Sicilian. Pasta con le sarde has sardines with saffron, raisins, fennel seeds, garlic, onion, tomato purée, white wine, lemon juice and olive oil. The largest exporter of sardines in the world is in fact Morocco, where a popular dish is sardine balls in a spicy tomato sauce. But it’s doubtful that any nation in the world loves a sardine more than the Portuguese, who like them simply grilled. In Greece they’re grilled with garlic and lemon. Countries from Canada and the US to Norway, France and Australia have had sardine canning industries for a very long time but many have been in decline, although Wikipedia observes that in the USA there has been a resurgence of canned sardines during the Covid pandemic, with boutique manufacturers popping up.

Which brings me back to my point: that the time is right for us to stop walking past those sardine-packed shelves at the supermarket and popping a few in the trolley. If we don’t, they might go the way of Peck’s and Redro. 

And now, for the million rand prize, Jeremy Maggs, are you still in mourning for fish paste, or are you suddenly and inexplicably craving hot toast covered in tomatoey sardines, hot and crunchy and dripping butter? I don’t think you’ll need to phone a friend for this one. 

Sardines on toast, mashed up

Okay, I’ll have a go, not for homemade fish paste as such but for a breakfast bite that could give you the same delight as your old fish paste on toast habit ever did. I’m reluctant to call it fish paste, because I have not intended to try to replicate that product. But this, I think, has the kind of oomph that a fish paste fan would enjoy on their toast. You’re welcome. 

1 x 106 g can of sardines in tomato sauce (for some reason they seem to come in 106 g cans), minus any tiny bones

1 Tbsp tomato paste (for extra tomato voomah)

Squeeze of lemon juice

¼ tsp chilli powder

1 tsp red wine vinegar

4 or 5 capers

½ tsp mustard powder

1 Tbsp olive oil

Coarse sea salt

A hint of white pepper

Mix it all together in a food processor or with a handheld blender. Smear on toast. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

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