Schools of up to 10 million pilchards range along our western coast line, from northern BC to California and Peru, but have you ever eaten one? Here's a look at the wide world of sprats, kippers, roll mops and boquerones, all of the small silvery salty fish in the sea, and some ideas for cooking them at home.
Cinda Chavich photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
There are schools of small forage fish migrating around our oceans, a sustainable source of inexpensive and delicious seafood enjoyed by people around the world.
I’ve eaten smoky grilled sardines on a sunny patio in Portugal, and peeled back the lid on expensive tins of sardine conservas from Spain. I’ve seen fishermen selling their catch of silvery sarde in Sicily, and watched as tiny salted anchovies were artfully arranged in jars by hand on Italy’s Amalfi coast. In Germany the herring come salted and lightly pickled (or ‘soused’), with bacon and onions, and in the UK, kippered for breakfast.
But here, where I live on the west coast of Canada, these little fish can be elusive. Sustainable seafood advocates want us to eat more of these prolific vegetarians, fishmongers want to sell them, and locovore chefs are keen to serve them.
Yet delving into the topic of Pacific pilchards — sardines, anchovies and herring — is proving to be quite the kettle of fish.
Schools of up to 10 million pilchards range along our coast, from northern BC to California and Peru, but populations fluctuate wildly. Most of what’s caught is being ground up to feed to farmed fish and livestock or sold for bait.
And the small, oily fish feed an entire ocean ecosystem, an important food source for salmon, whales, birds and bears.
So getting one of those little fishes, fresh from the local waters and into the pan, can be challenging indeed.
My first order of business is to define a “sardine” or “anchovy”. And the second is figuring out where and when, or if, these forage fish are landed in BC.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Almost any small fish in the Clupeidae family, from herrings to sprat and sardines, turn up in “sardine” cans. It’s a similar story for anchovies, with more than 140 species in the Engaulis family, whether it’s the European, Japanese, South African or Californian anchovies, or the Peruvian anchoveta.
According to the UN’s FAO, more than 20 species can be labeled “sardines” when canned. In the UK, sardines are classified as “young pilchards.” FishBase, the global finfish database developed by UBC fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, lists 30 different species that are commonly dubbed sardines around the world, and a similar number for anchovies
Once they land on your plate, how these small fish are described really depends on where you’re eating them. Though unique species, sardine, anchovy, herring and their silvery relatives may be dubbed sprats, smelts, white bait, capelin, or brisling, and served up as bocquerones, kippers, white anchovies, ceviche, roll mops or iwashi, whether raw, grilled, fried, marinated, smoked or fermented.
The proof is in my own pantry. There’s a rectangular can of Bar Harbour smoked sardines in maple syrup (labeled Product of Canada, naturally), a round Riga Gold can of smoky sprats from Latvia, and a tin of Open Seas Portuguese Sardines in Tomato Sauce.
The ubiquitous Brunswick sardines, caught and packed in New Brunswick in the last sardine factory in North America, are technically juvenile herring, according to their website. Brunswick is the largest sardine processor in the world and has been canning these small fish for more than 150 years, with the capacity to process 150-250 tons of sardines a day.
All of these “oily fishes” are loaded with healthy Omega-3s and take well to smoking and canning.
These days I’m partial to smoky little Riga Gold sprats, perfectly arranged by hand in elegant round tins.
That’s how you’ll find your Italian anchovies packed, too. I visited Delfino Battista, an artisan anchovy producer in Cetara, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where a handful women sat around tables, expertly deboning the tiny salted fish, then artfully arranging each fillet, standing upright like rusty soldiers, in tiny jars. The silvery fish are also salted and packed whole, some pressed in wooden barrels to release amber colatura, a fermented fish sauce that traces its roots to the ancient Roman tradition of garum production.
This kind of artisan processing is also common for sardines, clams, mussels, razor clams and squid in Spain, and we can buy expensive tins of these conservas at gourmet shops and tapas bars, but few made-in-Canada choices.
At Scout Canning in Toronto, Chef Charlotte Langley has a line of premium canned Canadian seafood, using locally-sourced fish for her “seacuterie”, from Ontario Trout with Dill to maritime lobster and PEI mussels in a smoked paprika and fennel tomato sauce.
But there’s nothing similar on the west coast. At St. Jean’s Cannery, a small-batch cannery on Vancouver Island, local salmon and tuna is packed by hand, but we’ve yet to see BC herring, sardines or shellfish elevated to the level of Europe’s expensive tinned fish.
SUSTAINABLE BUT STILL RARE
It’s even harder to find fresh Pacific sardines, anchovies or herring at your local fish counter. But it’s not for lack of trying.
Jonathan Crofts, owner of Codfathers Seafood Market in Kelowna, is a passionate fishmonger and advocate of serving sustainable, small fish. When available, he supplies sardines and anchovies to both consumers and top chefs.
“We have an amazing diversity of seafood in BC but we are targeting only a few species and wasting so much of the fish we could be eating,” says Crofts.
“We have world class sardines and anchovies but we’re selling them for pennies a pound as gas station bait and to feed farmed salmon. We should be putting them into the food chain and getting dollars, not pennies, for fishermen.”
Sophika Kostyniuk, manager of the Ocean Wise sustainable seafood certification program in Vancouver, agrees.
“They should be something that is valued, not ground down for fish meal,” she says. “If they are available and sustainable, we should be enjoying them.”
Smaller fish are generally considered sustainable as they are lower in the food chain, reproduce quickly and consume plants and plankton. But for a number of reasons, many unknown, populations of small pelagic fish wax and wane, so it’s hard to get a handle on the total global catch.
Certification bodies use government data and consider populations, harvesting methods and ecosystem impact when certifying a specific fishery. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has licensed both herring and sardine fisheries.
Still, harvesting these forage fish remains controversial. Conservationists have called for an end to the wasteful sac-roe fishery (killing herring just for roe), arguing these fish are more valuable if left to support both other species and the First Nations’ spawn-on-kelp fishery, which involves collecting herring eggs, not fish.
When sardines are plentiful, fishers find fewer anchovies, and the opposite is often true. Both species represent an “opportunistic fishery” that’s unpredictable and dependent on migration patterns and ocean temperatures.
Both Crofts and Kostyniuk agree that it’s better to stop fishing pilchards en masse to feed farmed salmon and livestock, and smarter to catch fewer fish, protect populations, and treat them as a premium protein to feed people. But these “schooling fish are easy to over exploit” adds Kostyniuk, noting the current Ocean Wise assessment for herring will be updated again in 2020.
Local fishermen would love to see the price, demand and food market for fresh sardines and herring improve, too.
“It would be wonderful if we had access to more small-fish fisheries in BC,” says Sonia Strobel of Skipper Otto, a community supported fishery in Vancouver representing several local fishing families. “We certainly should be eating farther down the ecosystem where abundance and ecosystem impacts support it.”
PILCHARDS ON THE PLATE
If we don’t have easy access to fresh sardines, anchovies and herring, it’s hard to get diners hooked on them. It’s a bit of a pilchard and roe conundrum.
BC chefs are big supporters of sustainable seafood and many are keen to serve smaller fish, but supplies are inconsistent. Even Frank Pabst, the executive chef at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café, who is famed for showcasing less popular seafood on his month-long Unsung Heroes menu each February, says sourcing sardines is difficult.
“In 2014 we had sardines and anchovies on the menu — there was even a sardine festival in Steveston,” says Pabst, who celebrated the fish in dishes like Sardines in a Blanket, the fillets stuffed with gremolata and wrapped in thin slices of crispy brioche, and Sardine Rillettes with preserved lemon and pickled ramps. Now herring is the only small fish he serves, offered fried with vinegar and mirin, or brined for nigiri, at the restaurant’s raw bar.
In Kelowna, Chef Mark Filatow of Waterfront Restaurant, is also a fan of sardines and anchovies. He serves them whenever his local fishmonger can secure a supply.
“We used to get sardines a couple of times a year and we’d process 70 pounds at a time,” says Filatow describing his simple preparation, curing the fried fillets with tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil.
“They’d keep for months this way, and we’d just brown them under the salamander to serve on arugula or grilled bread. It was a favourite snack of mine.”
Pabst says sardines, anchovies and herring have never been considered “a fine dining fish” but they are delicious when properly cooked. Like Pabst, Filatow’s Germanic background meant sardines and herring were on the menu at home, and deserve respect in the kitchen.
“I don’t get them often but I have a standing order for sardines with Jon (of Codfathers),” says Filatow. “It’s tough when chefs can’t get them but I think there’s a market — find your fish monger and put them to the task.”
Chef Robert Clark, co-owner of The Fish Counter in Vancouver and one of the founders of the Ocean Wise program, served grilled anchovies to a group of politicians at an event hosted by small-scale BC fisherman last year.
“This is taking a very sustainable and healthy seafood, that usually goes for bait, and we’re eating it today at an elegant affair,” said Clark. “I’m thrilled with that but we need to start fishing sardines and anchovies with human food consumption in mind.”
Maybe, like sablefish and spot prawns before them, these little fish just need a makeover and some clever marketing.
COOKING THE CATCH
Few of us are familiar with cooking fresh sardines, herring and anchovies, but we can look to other cultures for inspiration. Whether it’s raw herring and onions in the Netherlands, sardine curries in India, or anchovies in Italian Pasta Puttanesca, small fish are a treat.
Grilled sardines with garlic and lemon is one of Portugal’s legendary dishes, and they celebrate the sardinha in summer festivals around the country. A classic English breakfast routinely includes kippers (salt-cured and smoked herring) and Cornish Stargazy pie literally has whole baked pilchards peeking out from under the pastry.
Canadians have mainly seen these small fish in cans. But when consumers demand more fresh sardines and herring, more fishermen will land them, says Strobel. When more fishermen land them, more chefs will serve them, and more of us will have the chance to enjoy them.
Meanwhile, if you do get your hands on some fresh sardines, plan to cook them on the grill. Simply butterfly and lift out the backbone, season with salt and pepper, then barbecue until crisp, just 1-2 minutes, and enjoy with a squeeze of lemon juice.
You can also try these recipes from some top BC chefs who know their way around the world of sustainable seafood.
A HERRING CATCH FOR CHARITY
Every year in November, there’s a one-day herring sale organized by Finest At Sea to benefit the BC Children’s Hospital and help kids with cancer. Local fishermen volunteer to deliver thousands of pounds of herring, and chefs and consumers line up to buy buckets of them in Vancouver and Victoria, with 100% of the proceeds going to the charity.
CHEF ROB CLARK, The Fish Counter, Vancouver
GRILLED ANCHOVIES ON TOAST WITH FENNEL AND RED ONION SLAW
Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, serves the under-utilized but delicious BC anchovy, both pickled and broiled atop garlicky toasts with red onion and fennel salad. He says the challenge to chefs and consumers is to try local anchovies and sardines, quality local fish that’s prized around the world but not appreciated at home. Clark uses anchovies in this recipe, but you can substitute other small local fish like herring or sardines. The hardest (that is, most time consuming) part of this recipe is filleting the small fish but you can find great YouTube videos online to follow.
Fresh (or frozen and thawed) Pacific anchovies
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp dried oregano
minced zest and juice of two lemons
1 cup olive oil
Fennel and Red Onion Slaw:
1 bulb fennel
1 small red onion
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp olive oil
Garlic cloves, halved
To prepare the anchovies, cut off the head and tail, cut the belly open with scissors, pull out the entrails and rinse under cold running water. Place the fish, flesh side down, on your work surface and press with your hand to flatten, pushing the entire backbone flat. Turn the fish over and pull the backbone out, from the tail end. Cut into two fillets and trim the edges along the belly to remove pin bones and create small, tidy fillets. Place the fillets in a shallow glass dish and sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate 30 minutes and drain any excess liquid (this step firms the flesh).
Whisk together the marinade ingredients and pour over the fish. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.
To make the slaw, trim fennel bulb, halve lengthwise and cut into very thin slivers. Halve the onion and thinly slice. Combine in a bowl with salt and sugar and set aside 10 minutes. Drain, then mix with lemon juice and olive oil.
Drain the excess marinade from the anchovies. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet, skin side up. Preheat the broiler on high heat. Place the top oven rack about 4-6 inches below the broiler and broil the anchovies for 3-5 minutes, until just browned and crisp, and cooked through.
To make the toast, brush bread lightly with olive oil, arrange on a baking sheet and broil under the preheated broiler for 1-2 minutes, until golden brown. Rub each toast with raw garlic.
To assemble, top each toast with a little fennel slaw and an anchovy fillet.
CHEF FRANK PABST, Blue Water Café, Vancouver
JAPANESE HERRING TARTARE
Chef Frank Pabst shared this simple recipe for raw herring (a.k.a. sardines) in The Ocean Wise Cookbook 2, edited by Jane Mundy. You can replace the shiso with Thai basil and/or cilantro, and use a combination of orange and lemon juice in place of the yuzu, a fragrant Japanese citrus fruit. This preparation works well with fresh Albacore tuna, too.
4 shiso leaves, thinly sliced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 cup watercresss leaves
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. yuzu juice
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 Tbsp. sea salt
4 cups ice water
5 4-ounce very fresh herring fillets, skin removed
shredded daikon, for garnish
Toss the salad ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
Combine the ponzu ingredients in a bowl.
Stir the salt into the ice water until dissolved, add the herring fillets and set aside for five minutes. Rinse in fresh water, drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Slice fillets into thin slivers and add to the bowl with the ponzu sauce.
Gently fold the fish and sauce into the salad.
Divide between four small bowls and serve, garnished with shredded daikon. Serves 4.
CHEF MARK FILATOW, Waterfront Restaurant, Kelowna
Chef Mark Filatow uses this method to preserve fresh sardines and herring. Submerged, confit-style in olive oil, the cured fish keeps for months in the refrigerator.
1kg sardines, scaled, bones removed and head off
1 cup rice flour
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
1 medium fresh tomato, sliced thin
4 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
1 ¼ cup red wine vinegar
¾ cup olive oil
Have your fish monger clean and debone the sardines. Otherwise, remove the head and lay flesh-side down on your work surface, press to flatten backbone, and then pull out the backbone from the tail end. Lay the sardines down, skin side up, flat in a glass container. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt.
Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight (at least 12 hours), then remove the fish from the container and pat dry with paper towel.
Combine the ground fennel seed with the rice flour, and dredge the sardines in the mixture to coat.
Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium-sized skillet on medium heat. Sear the sardines, skin side down and then flip. Cook 30 seconds on each side side.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the vinegar with the bay leaves, garlic and peppercorns.
Transfer the sardines, as they are cooked, to a non-reactive container that will fit them all. Layer them, skin side up with the fresh tomatoes. Repeat until all the sardines are done.
Pour the hot vinegar over the sardines. Cover with the remaining olive oil. Add more oil if the sardines are not completely covered in a layer of oil.
Place covered in the refrigerator for at least a week.
Pull the sardines out as you need them.
They are great cold with bitter greens in a salad. Use the vinegar and oil from the container to dress the greens.
Also, great, broiled for 1 minute and served on crusty bread. Or just as is with hunks of bread.
Pair with Chilled Pilsner or a Snappy Dry White Wine.
ROAST SARDINES AND LEEK VINAIGRETTE
In her seminal book on the subject, Tin Fish Gourmet, Barbara-Jo McIntosh digs deep into the art of cooking canned anchovies and sardines, from anchovy-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto and anchovy éclairs, to sardine and potato pancakes, or this simple roast of canned sardines and leeks.
2 leeks, white and pale green part, sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 3.75-oz tin sardines, packed in mustard
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
zest of 1 lemon
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 400˚F.
Slice leeks and place in a bowl of cold water to wash and remove any dirt.
In an oven-proof frying pan, heat the butter and oil over medium high heat. Lift leeks from water and into the pan. Stir and sauté for 3-5 minutes with a good grinding of pepper. Place pan in the oven and roast the leeks for 10 minutes. Add the whole sardines to the pan and toss gently with the leeks, being careful not to break up the sardines. Return the pan to the oven and roast for 3 minutes longer, to heat the sardines through. Remove from oven and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve over toasted bread or mashed potatoes to absorb all of the tasty juices. Makes 1-2 servings as a small plate.
This feature originally appeared in Edible Vancouver magazine