If you’re squeamish in the slightest about sardines—if a high omega 3 content, a healthy dose of vitamin D and a minuscule mercury level don’t persuade you— you could make this sardine pâté, which is milder by far, than eating them straight from the can.
Everyone, if you probe deeply enough, has a sardine story, and they’re not all pretty. Maybe yours is the time you opened a can for your father in law and the oil spurted down his new trousers. You packed a can in your luggage on a flight and it burst open and soiled your only pair of clean underwear. The pull clip came off and you had to smash the can open with a rock. But there are good tales too and here’s mine.
Some years back, when we were shackled to the restaurant trade, after slogging through another grueling holiday season — where you suspect you’re making money, because sales soar and your feet are killing you, the dining room’s packed, then January comes with a slump, bills sail through the door and you’re slapped with the shock of a giant tax bill for December; the water heater quit and dumped its load all over the basement floor — Ionah, to keep a handle on our thin line of sanity, found a couple of super cheap flights to Lisbon.
Across the pond we rode, hopped a city bus and found a pensión in the Bario Alto. Next morning while wandering the city in a work-worn, jet-lagged, white port daze, we stumbled across a fish shop. It was a fish shop that sold no fresh fish. At first, I thought it was an over-worked, paranoia induced, hallucination. But, it was real. Everything was canned: anchovies, mackerel, octopus, tuna, trout, sardines, squid in ink, mussels, cockles, clams, cod in piri piri sauce, cod liver in olive oil and pâté made from mackerel, trout and sardine. — but the speciality was the sardines, a boggling array, canned in exotic, colorful tins whose lids told sensual sea-faring tales in a 4×3 inch format.
Especially interesting was the carefully curated collection of vintage sardines, packed in extra virgin olive oil with the canning date stamped on the side of the tin. Like a bottle of wine reclining in a darkened cellar, these canned unctuous beauties settle in for the long haul and rightly fetch a collector’s price.
We saw some five-year olds, some a little worn, some showing a smattering of rust around the edges, ageing on the upper shelves. They were clearly not in a rush. They seemed content to rest in sleek, oil-soaked luxury and to plump up their flesh — au natural, and keep their skin supple, and their bones, never brittle, only soften with time.
It was there and then we intuited — what an intriguing idea for a shop back home in Denver. A seafood joint, without a fresh fish in it, no cooler, no water heater. Nothing to break down. Nothing to waste. A carefully curated collection. A cunning stunt, we thought, no less.
That night, as we dove into a plate of whole fresh sardines swimming in olive oil and garlic, we spoke excitedly about our plan. We slept on it, always a good idea, and the next day, we happened upon the museum of port, a beautifully dour place, a government bar, where we settled into a flight of ports. The place was poorly lit and soaked in cigar smoke and crumpled newspapers. it had the somber atmosphere of an airless taxidermist’s shop, or an unknown bureaucrat’s basement office, or a stuffed church on a hot day, something stuffy anyway. Windowless. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And it was there that we crushed our dream and abandoned the idea. We realized we’d be better off selling miniature Denver Bronco players packed as a team in unfiltered Platte river water in orange and blue cans. We could sell dated vintage ones featuring seasoned players from back in the day.
A couple of years later, we became sensible and turned over the shackles of our restaurant to another eager young fool. We opened the alluringly charming St Kilian’s Cheese Shop, and along with the cheeses, we were nothing, if not giddy with pride, to offer Denver’s best selection of seafood in a can in a cheese shop for miles around.
Unfathomably, from the start sales foundered, but we never faltered, we knew they, the fish, would only improve with age, and as a first resort we could take them home, which we did, frequently, and enjoyed them and turned the whole thing into a fat little filet of a tax deduction. Call it what you will. We called it R & D, which there was a little slot for in our monthly sales return sheet. Our accountant, bless his heart, never questioned it. Never thought it fishy. Went along for the ride.
2 or 3 large cloves of garlic, peeled
a small handful of cilantro leaves
a smaller handful of fresh oregano leaves
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/4 teaspoon sumac
2 oz butter, cold and cubed
1 1/2 tablespoons capers, preferably, large salt packed, (soaked in water for 10 minutes, rinsed and drained), or brined capers, drained and rinsed will work fine.
2 cans sardines packed in extra virgin olive oil, drained.
2 tablespoons of chives or spring onion, very finely chopped into rings.
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of lime juice
sea salt to taste.
Crush the garlic, cilantro and oregano in a mortar to a paste.
Add the Aleppo pepper, sumac and butter. Mash it to a paste.
Add the drained capers and crush lightly into chunky pieces.
Add the sardines — I drain them so I can serve the oil to Mr Fumo, the dog. If you have a pet it’s a nice treat. Change to a wooden spoon and break up the sardines, leaving some chunky bits.
Add the finely chopped chives or spring onion and fold in.
Add the olive oil and lime juice and stir it in.
Season with salt.
Pack into jars and refrigerate.
Substitute parsley and lemon for cilantro and lime. Ground fennel seed is nice instead of Aleppo pepper and sumac. For a touch of smoke add Spanish pimentón. For a creamier flavor fold in a little crème frâiche. For added strength add a couple of anchovies to the mix. Substitute mackerel for the sardines. If you don’t have a mortar, you can chop every thing up by hand and mash with a wooden spoon’s back, or you could use a food processor, but go easy — to me, it feels better with a somewhat chunky, hand-made consistency.