On the evening of March 31, 2016, 13 participants, including three self-confessed "sardine junkies" but also one total newcomer, and three representatives of Berlin's top gastronomy, gathered at Maître Philippe & Filles to learn more about the sardine.
Under the motto "The fabulous world of the sardine", "les filles", the two sisters Anaïs and Noémie Causse, had invited them to approach this topic in an enjoyable way. At the beginning, of course, it was all about the vintage sardine, which is not just literally on everyone's lips at the moment.
But the focus was not exclusively on this special luxury variety - the "normal" sardine and its many different variants were also put on the table and plate: in a country comparison, the special features of the Breton sardine in comparison to its sisters from Spain and Portugal were discussed , followed by the numerous different types of preserving. The fish specialties were classically accompanied by a fresh white wine and rosé - at the end the group tried how the sardines harmonized with red wine.
The vintage sardine is not only characterized by its price and its pretty tin. In fact, it is much more about what is hidden in and behind it. It can be explained in simplified terms using the following cornerstones:
The freshness principle: The sardines caught off the coast of Brittany are not shock-frozen and then thawed again if necessary, but only stored in ice-cold water until they are processed further a few hours after being caught.
Side effect: since no frozen sardines are used in stock, there is only a limited amount of fish per vintage. That explains the rarity of the vintage sardine and makes it so precious.
Processing by hand: The sardines are processed by hand – only a few steps, such as sterilization, are performed by the machines.
When the sardines are cleaned manually by the skilled workers, no intestines are damaged, so the product is very clean and does not have a bitter aftertaste.
- More taste: First of all, the sardines are caught when they are about 2 years old, when they are 11 to 12 centimeters long and have the fat content that makes the product nice and juicy and aromatic. In addition to the high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil of the first pressing, two additional steps of the so-called "à l'ancienne" production method - washing with salt water and subsequent deep-frying - ensure that the sardines get a very fine, crispy layer, which contributes to the taste experience. The thin layer of fat remains under this delicious crispy skin, which ensures that the sardine is juicy and therefore aromatic.
In the seminar, we tasted the 2011, 2013 and 2015 vintages and found that the two older vintages are characterized by a more mellow texture and are much milder in taste. The "fishy" has disappeared and the much-vaunted combination of fish and fruity olive oil ensures a juicy-sweet taste experience that is very popular with all participants. The younger 2015 vintage was felt to be comparatively "fishy" and somewhat drier in texture. However, everyone can agree that they would like to buy more from everyone and indeed: there is nothing left in the cans.
The vintage sardine is a phenomenon limited to France. But what about elsewhere, in Spain or Portugal? A lot of fish and sardines are eaten there too, but often more as part of the tapas culture. To make the comparison clear, let's dish up small Spanish sardinillas. The fish are caught much earlier when they are much leaner. This is noticeable in the texture and taste, but is still well received. The Portuguese sardines, which are perceived as very rustic, are a completely different number. This sentiment coincides with the experience we had at an internal tasting a few years ago. For us, this sardine feels like sitting in a small bar on the harbor and eating the fish that has just been caught: rustic, down-to-earth and a bit coarser. As always a matter of taste.
An elementary difference that definitely contributes to the fact that the Breton sardine is far ahead in the comparison of countries: the finest, cold-pressed olive oil of the first pressing goes into the French cans, which is intended to be eaten as well. The Spaniards and Portuguese fill up the cans with much paler olive oil, which is only used as a preservative and is discarded before consumption and replaced with fresh, good quality olive oil. The color differences alone range from rich sunny yellow with greenish reflections (Brittany) to a pale yellow (Spain and Portugal) and again we notice: the eye eats too!
And then it got down to business, so to speak: because there aren't just sardines in oil! Ever heard of sardines in butter? This is the traditional old way of preserving from Brittany, which dates back to the time before olive oil began its triumphal march around the world. These sardines are briefly heated in the pan so that the butter melts and the flavors can develop beautifully. A divine combination, which is also very well received by the seminar participants and elicits pleasant noises of recognition from them.
The somewhat drier sardines in water and lemon (which, to make matters worse, is also low in salt), and the easy preparation of the sardines in white wine with cloves are less appealing. So you can see again how important fat is as a flavor carrier. The dried and not deep-fried sardines from the jar by Jean de Luz taste good to the participants, but a highlight besides the butter sardine is probably the sardine in rapeseed oil with orange. Everyone is positively surprised by this unusual sounding combination and again not a crumb is left.
Up to this point we had been on more classic terrain – apart from the aforementioned rapeseed oil and orange combination. Now we want to test a few of the more unusual varieties and also try whether the sardine goes well with red wine. We also serve sardines with tapenade (black olive paste), à la Luzienne (with tomato, Bayonne ham and Piment d'Espelette), with wasabi, with raisins and cumin, smoked sardines and the spicy chica-pica sardines from the old traditional brand Rödel . It quickly becomes clear that the red wine (which should not be too strong and rather free of tannins) goes very well with all combinations. But the seminar participants are even more curious: what about beer, they want to know! And indeed: we can all imagine the exotic combination of raisins and cumin to go well with a flowery Indian Pale Ale. To be continued ... maybe that can be the starting point for an upcoming seminar!
Conclusion of the evening: Participants and hosts are happy, full and satisfied. Both sides learned a lot again and discovered a few new favourites. The sardines that probably impressed the most are: sardines in keg butter, à la Luzienne, with raisins and cumin and sardines in rapeseed oil with orange. Who would have thought?
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