Once considered the fish of the poor, tinned sardines weren't invented until the first part of the 19th century. We dive into the back story of this delicacy
Fishing, preserving and consuming sardines has come a long way since Roman times. The sardine tinning industry has evolved from storing fish in barrels of salt to the eye-catching tins of delicious sardines we have today.
However, the tinned sardine industry's beginnings were marred by rudimentary tastes and fierce competition.
Back in the 19th century, the fishers of southern Brittany, France wanted something more than the simple method of dried, salted, and pressed sardines of ancient Mediterranean tradition.
To preserve sardines for their own consumption, they cooked the fish in plenty of local butter or olive oil from the south of France. They then packed the fish in clay jars, called oules, and sealed them with more butter or oil.
The birth of food preservation
Nicolas Appert first started experimenting with champagne bottles as sealed food containers
What was missing at the time were effective methods of food preservation. French scientist Nicolas Appert changed that in the early 19th century. The scientist showed that food in bottles, jars, and tins could be hermetically sealed and sterilised at high temperatures.
Thanks to his discovery of sterilising methods for preserving food, the tinned food era began.
Appert teamed up with the established sardine producer Joseph Colin in Brittany. It was the perfect opportunity to start a sardine tinning business.
On discovering that oil preserved the fish better, the pair abandoned the butter method and concentrated on spreading their tinned fish throughout France.
"Thanks to the discovery of sterilising methods for preserving food, the tinned food era began"
By 1836, Colin's establishment alone was capable of producing around 30,000 tins of sardines a year.
Understandably, Colin's successful methods stirred up immediate competition—other producers copied the new savoir-faire technique, creating intense rivalry among other sardine producers.
The market for tinned sardines blossomed with the French enjoying a monopoly for over 50 years, up until around 1880, when fierce competition came from neighbouring Spain and Portugal.
The industry today
Sardines are a migratory species that are frequently fished in the Atlantic ocean
With manufacturers striving to outdo each other and conquer new markets, consumers have considerable choice of flavour: tomato, sweet pickle, grilled peppers, pastis, etc. For gourmets, olive oil is the best option but there are other vegetable oils to choose from.
Sardines are migratory, and fishing takes place approximately from May to October. Fishing outside these dates will result in lower fat content.
In France, the processing of tinned sardines still follows Joseph Colin's pioneering methods.
St Gilles Croix de Vie on the Atlantic coast is home to La Perle des Dieux, a tinning sardines establishment that began in 1887. Providing good quality sardines is key for this family business, conscious that sardines are one of the most perishable fish, and their delicacy depends on absolute freshness.
"Flavours of vintage sardines may vary from one year to the next"
Once the fishermen empty their catch, the fresh sardines are raced to the factory less than three kilometres from the port. There, the fish are sorted, checked for size then soaked in large tubs of brine for a short time.
They are then dried, cut, prepared, and packed into tins by hand. Covered with carefully selected olive oil, the sardines will mature.
Les Perles des Dieux say that flavours of their vintage sardines may vary from one year to the next. Variations in weather conditions, the temperature of the water, the sea currents, and even the taste of the olive oil are factors that determine the taste notes.
The producer recommends waiting three to four years before tasting.
Are sardines the same as pilchards?
Both sardines and pilchards are marine fishes of the cludeidae family but are named differently, depending on the region. The Cornish pilchard in the UK, for example, is in fact a sardine, but larger and older than the average sardine.
The UK Sea Fish Authority classifies sardines as young pilchards. The Cornwall Seafood Guide reports that pilchards have been renamed Cornish sardines in recent years, but they are the same fish; small, tasty, and high in omega-three oils.
The finest sardines, however, are not more than two years old and measure no more than six inches.
The future of tinned sardines
Collapsing food chains in the ocean means that wild sardines are getting smaller
The French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER) conducted studies in 2021, which revealed that sardines are getting smaller and smaller due to declining availability of their food source—microscopic plankton that they consume in enormous quantities.
These results are serious, the scientists say, because it reflects the state of the environment.
"Sardines are getting smaller and smaller due to declining availability of their food source"
The sardine industry is the leading fishery product in French waters, with different brands and different flavours.
Like wine, sardines improve with time. Fresh fish squeezed in oil or sauce will taste better after four or five years, especially if the tins get turned over every couple of months.
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