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?
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!
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.
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.
Sardines are an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. A 3.5 oz (100 grams) serving of sardines contains:
Sardines are also a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have various health benefits, including:
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!
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.
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: