Whether you love them or hate them, there's no denying that sardines are a pillar of maritime cuisine. These silvery little fish have been a staple of diets for centuries and are still popular today. So, where do sardines come from? How did they become so popular? And how can you cook them at home?
The Origins of Sardines
Sardines are a group of small, oily fish that belong to the herring family called Clupeidae. Contrary to popular belief and somewhat confusingly, sardines do not represent a single species. Instead, "sardines" is a catch-all term used to describe a variety of small, oily fish, including true sardines, herring, sprats (in Norway), and pilchards (in France, Spain, and Portugal)!
A commonly canned or tinned fish, sardines were named for the Italian island of Sardinia, where they were once abundant. While the name "sardine" was first coined in the 15th century, these fish have been enjoyed since ancient times. Sardinia was an important trade route between Italy and Greece, and both countries consumed these fish as a staple part of the Mediterranean diet. Nowadays, sardines are caught mainly in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Japan, California, and Oregon—arrivederci, Italy!
How Did Sardines Become So Popular?
Sardines have been a vital protein, especially when others were scarce due to the advent of canning. Sardines were first canned in Portugal and are deeply intertwined with their culture. In June, the Portuguese celebrate St. Anthony's Day, where freshly grilled sardines are always sold on the streets. In the early 19th century, sardines became popular as they fed French military units that couldn't rely on fresh foods.
North America received tinned sardines from France for a long time until the Franco-Prussian War stalled imports. Commercial canneries popped up on the East Coast starting in 1875 with the Eagle Preserved Fish Company in Eastport, New York. Then, the Atlantic herring was labeled as sardines, making this term ambiguous. Sardine factories spread across North America, including Maine, employing men and women alike and becoming a core of Maine's economy. Women made up most of the packers and worked swiftly to tin these fish. Fun Fact: This gave rise to the term "herring chokers."
Taking notes from the French, the American government bought large quantities of sardines to supply soldiers during the Cold War, boosting the sardine industry and popularity. This tinned fish, full of flavor and nutrients, was shelf stable, lightweight, and incredibly convenient—just about the most suitable food to transport at the time. The last sardine factory in Maine closed in 2010, but if you're in the area, you can visit the Maine Coast Sardine History Museum to get your history fix.
On the West Coast, there was Cannery Row, a staple of tourist destinations along California's Central Coast to this day. During the 1930s and 40s, Monterey became the "Sardine Capital of the World," where their sardine factories provided pivotal sustenance during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck famously published Cannery Row in 1945 and solidified this monumental period and place in fishing history.
Today, sardines are still an important part of the diet in many coastal communities around the world. This is because they are relatively easy and inexpensive to catch and offer a wealth of nutritional benefits. In addition to being a good source of protein, sardines are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for cognitive health and development.
Nutritional Benefits of Sardines
Sardines are an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. A 3.5 oz (100 grams) serving of sardines contains:
- Protein (21 grams)
- Calcium (24% daily value)
- Phosphorus (52% daily value)
- Selenium (58% daily value)
- Vitamin B12 (375% daily value)
- Vitamin D (32% daily value)
- Iron (18% daily value)
- Zinc (15% daily value)
Sardines are also a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have various health benefits, including:
- Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lessen inflammation
Numerous organizations recommend a minimum of 250-500 mg EPA and DHA (both types of omega-3 fatty acids) per adult per day, and a 3.5 oz serving of sardines provides 1,500 mg!
Sardines in Monterey Bay Today
At H&H, we provide the Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax caerulea), which belongs to the herring family and is also known as the California sardine or California pilchard. These fish are small and school in large groups that act as a critical food source, or "forage fish," for myriad marine life, including sea lions, Chinook/King salmon, brown pelicans and whales.
Sardine stocks are naturally volatile, occurring in high numbers for several years before plummeting due to several oceanographic pressures and climate variations. However, fishing pressure has exacerbated these highs and lows. For this reason, the U.S. sardine fishery closed from 1967 to 1986, allowing the stock time to rebound. In the 1990s, California sardine landings (aka the number of fish harvested and brought to shore) blossomed as the fishery recovered. Unfortunately, overfishing pressure caused stocks to dip again by 2012, and in 2015 the sardine stock was so heavily exploited that the U.S. fishery closed as a protection measure.
While our sardine fishery is closed at large, smaller commercial boats are allowed a catch quota of 1 ton a day. If the average weight of a Pacific sardine is 150 grams, this amounts to just over 6,000 sardines a day per small vessel. Lucky us! We don't take these fish for granted and consider them a special treat when they make it to our shop.
How to Enjoy Sardines
There are many delicious ways to enjoy sardines beyond tins. Try buying them fresh and cooking them yourself. Here are a few ideas for how to prepare them and/or what to serve them with:
- Grill with a drizzle of lemon and your favorite herb
- Add them to a salad or pasta for a boost of protein!
- Use them as a replacement for anchovies in Caesar salad or puttanesca sauce.
- Pan-fry sardines with a bit of olive oil, then broil for 5 minutes until the skin is browned
- Make a spread by mashing grilled sardines with olive oil, lemon juice, and spices like garlic and paprika. Serve with crackers, toasted bread, or raw vegetables.
- If you're feeling crazy, roast the sardines with garlic, herbs, and maybe even a breadcrumb and butter crust!
You can buy sardines without heads, skin, or bones (usually tinned). But sardines' heads, skin, and bones are completely soft and edible.