🎵Oh for the life of a sardine
That is the life for me
Cavorting and spawning every morning
Under the deep blue sea.
To have no fear for storm or gale
Oh to chase the tail of a whale
Oh for the life of a sardine,
That is the life for me.

From the song Charlie Chaplin wrote for his film Limelight (1952)

When it comes to transmogrification, I’m afraid there’s not many cavorting and spawning opportunities once you’re in a can, and there’s clearly far more intriguing fauna to swap places with if that’s what rocks your boat, but the sardine became the unexpected co-star of Chaplin’s song nevertheless. Now its canned cousin has become an unexpected star of chic restaurants.

It was Peter Durand, a shopkeeper in Hoxton Square, London, who was the first to be granted a patent for food canning in the UK. He went on to become extremely wealthy, supplying the Royal Navy with preserved foods such as meat, vegetables and fruit. But it was a Frenchman, Pierre-Joseph Colin, from Nantes, on the Loire estuary, who was the first to put a sardine in a can. And those cans went on to successfully fuel the entire French army during the Napoleonic Wars, up until Waterloo that is. Could even have been something of a gastronomic victory – corned beef over tinned sardines – although hints of such an illuminating theory never surfaced in my history lessons.

Canned sardines sit at the crossroads of wildly healthy, historically affordable, sustainably gathered and persistently shelf-stable, but when they were served once a week on absorbent toast and passed off as school dinners, that roster outlined but four of the many reasons I began life loathing them.

Much later, on my journey through college, I was to encounter my peer group’s customary survival rations from that distant era; Spam, Baked Beans, Corned Beef, Spaghetti Hoops, Pilchards or Cream of Tomato Soup. The common denominator being Mr Durand’s revolutionary containers rather than any redeeming features of their gastronomic contents. On reflection, such produce probably introduced the early concept of ‘Fast Food’ – although with fewer detrimental side effects of what would follow under that tag line.

College life was busy enough avoiding lectures, deadlines and unforeseen hangovers to have spent time creating Cordon Blue cookery on a shared Baby Belling. So joylessly un-zipping a can of beans on my evening return from the dubious delights of a scuzzy student union bar, provided a pragmatic moment in an otherwise hectic collegiate day.

Coincidently some of those store-cupboard basics lurked in my nan’s Walthamstow scullery too, neatly stacked alongside the bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. A scullery that  could never be confused with a shrine to seasonal produce or fine wines. Visiting her was preceded by endless family plans to provide a credible exit before the inevitable lunch of pilchard sandwiches made an appearance. Such schemes rarely triumphed and lunch became a dire obligation, the culinary memories of her tinned pilchards still haunt. Although she defied the myth that Grandmas are the best cooks, she did manage to reach a venerable age on an almost exclusive diet of canned pilchards and sweet sherry.

As a result, and for many years thereafter, the misconception that all and anything in a can could not match its fresh unmediated equivalent, persisted without question.

I was clearly lagging way behind the cultural schtick that has recently conferred gastronomic authority on canned fish in the UK.

Sicilian calamari, Cantabrian tuna, Portuguese cuttlefish, Cornish line caught mackerel, hand reared oysters or rope grown Mussels, are today to be found with cool retro-packaging and certified catch and vintage ratings on every can.

My first encounter with the cultural revision that had, up until then, passed me by, was a family trip that included a couple of night’s stay-over in Paris. A colleague, and long-standing Francophile had recommended we dine at Brasserie Lipp, the classic French brasserie on the boulevard Saint-Germain. A Rive Gauche institution dating back to 1880 which has hosted a role call of literary bohemians; Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Verlaine, Jean Paul Sartre, Marcel Proust etc. More recently it has attracted the conspicuous post war suspects, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Wells, Kate Moss, Yves Saint-Laurent, Brad Pitt and Emmanuel Macron, to name-drop but a few. We went partly to gaze, but recognised not a soul.

The familiar role call extended to the menu; Ouefs en Gelée, Soupe de Poisson, Paté de Campagne, Poulet Rôti, Foie Gras, Choucroute, Tripes à la mode de Caen and Escargots. The à la carte reads like the introductory module to a language course; “Lesson one. Eating in France – let’s go to a restaurant.”. Think of an archetypal French menu and Brasserie Lipp served it. Remarkably, they serve it still.

Safe to say, Lipp is as much French performance as it is French restaurant. A collective act of nostalgia for waiters and customers alike. One dish on the Hors d’oeuvre menu that did not fit the nostalgic rubric however was Sardines Millésimées.

Here, for the princely sum of 6.50 € (it’s now 12.90 €) was a can of sardines, inverted with a Gallic flourish by the maître’ d’ onto my waiting plate. After manifest pride in his presentation, which displayed a passing similarity to a game of Jenga, our maître’d’ graciously backed away. Imagine that in the Ace Café on the North Circular Road.

But mind you these were not your run-of-the-mill sardines, these were Brittany’s finest, from Connétable Label Rouge. And Sardines Millésimées. Collection 2010 all came with their very own embossed vintage. But in case you were wondering, as I certainly did, there were no accompaniments in sight. Even bread was regarded as superfluous. This was a purist’s heaven. I entered as a lowly apostate.

The whisper came that all their cans are turned monthly (like Champagne it seems) to aid both mingling (not cavorting) in olive oil and the slow dissolving of all tiny bones. I am assured that after a couple of years of rotation, the skeleton completely disappears. I am also told that there are certain sardine spécialistes, who claim to be able to discern different vintages – a worthy national acceptance of Terroir beneath the Atlantic. Across in Spain, where tinned sardines are taken very seriously in Tapas bars, experts recommend canned sardinillas, juvenile fish, especially canned for passionate devotees of the wider, under-aged, herring family.

As the scales fell from my eyes (sorry), I began to support the notion that store cupboard ingredients, often installed in case of a nuclear war or other social upsets – like visiting my nan – might be put to more contemporary daily service. To this end and buoyed by Brasserie Lipp’s shameless confidence, I tried the famous Reuben fish sandwich from Katz Deli in New York with the help of chef Mitch Tonks’ new fish canning company in Cornwall. It’s disarmingly good and beats a Sunday afternoon can of quaggy pilchards in ketchup any day.

Mix crème fraiche, English mustard and a dash of Worcestershire sauce, spread it on rye bread, buttered on the outside, lay the slightly crushed sardines on top, add black pepper, red onion, sliced dill pickle, capers and Gruyère cheese. Top with another slice of rye, buttered on the outside and gently fry in a slick of olive oil until crisp.

Squaring the circle, I am now mildly smug about my collection of cans of sustainable mackerel (my woke tuna replacement) and vintage sardines, and when I need a lunchtime break from this computer I often reach for a slice of crisp toast, a topping of two crushed sardines and a glass of crackling dry Manzanilla sherry. So when I’m eventually carted off to assisted living, I already know what my survival stash will consist of.

Just proves that a can of fish never falls too far from the tree.

The main recipe today illustrates the pragmatic Italian habit of replacing any recipe featuring fresh sardines with a can of our plump little silver darlings.

Anna del Conte writes of this recipe in her book On Pasta (2015) that ‘this is one of the greatest combinations of pasta and fish’.

Pasta with sardine. Pasta con le Sarde.

Serves 4

A pinch of saffron (optional)
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes

1 red onion, finely chopped
75 g feathery fennel leaf tops

1 tsp ground fennel seeds
4 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 anchovy fillets
2 x 120g tins of sardines in
extra virgin olive oil (not brine)
3 tbsp water
400g linguine or spaghetti
50 g pine nuts toasted

50g Golden sultanas

2 tbsp chopped parsley
Olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and black pepper

In a small bowl, cover the sultanas with boiling water and set aside

In a large shallow pan, cook the red onion, saffron, chilli flakes and fennel seeds in the olive oil over a medium heat for 10 minutes without colouring the onion. Add the garlic, then cook gently for another 5 minutes. Tip in the anchovy fillets and then remove the pan from the heat. Stir well until the anchovies have “melted” into the onion mixture.

Drain the tinned sardines and cut each of them into thirds. Add the sardines to the pan with the 3 tbsp water. Put back on the heat for a few minutes, stirring to combine, until heated through.

Cook the pasta, as per the instructions on the packet, in lots of boiling salted water. Drain and return to the pan along with the warm sardine sauce. Drain the sultanas and add them to the pasta along with the nuts and parsley. Mix well and season.

To serve, drizzle with good olive oil.

Wine thoughts

I’m happy with the nation’s new sweetheart – Picpoul de Pinet. A style not dissimilar to the Loire valley’s snappy Muscadet, but built from the Picpoul grape, grown in southern France on the Languedoc coast. Emanating from the same area, with the accent on crisp, tensile whites, you might try Vermentino, Roussanne or Grenache Blanc. Depending on the time of day, I would always opt for a Fino or Manzanilla. God’s chosen wines.