Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Who loves sardines?

(Grilled sardines)

Between May and July every year a huge natural spectacle takes place off the coast of South Africa. The show starts at the Agulhas Bank, there where the warm water stream of the Indian ocean meets the cold waters of the Atlantic. The show travels north, along the east coast of South Africa taking millions of sardines with it on a voyage as far as Mozambique. The migration of so many silver-toned fish will not go unnoticed, as hundreds of dolphins, seals, sharks and even birds see an opportunity for a right royal feast, and make their own show chasing this enormous cloud of fish that can be seven kilometres long, one and a half kilometres wide and thirty metres deep. So, only half the sardines will reach their destination. There are years when they do not run, but when the start is spotted, hundreds of spectators hurry to the coast to enjoy the spectacle, which includes the dolphins leaping and the fins of the sharks cutting through the surface of the water. However, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the spectacle is the behaviour of seagulls and cormorants, taking part in this epic food festival by dive-bombing the water and reaching down as far as twenty metres. Take a look!

Skala Kallonis has no such sardine run but all over Greece it is known for its sardines. I am happy there is no run because we might also see sharks in pursuit of the shoals, which would mean I would no longer feel safe in the waters around this island. It is claimed that there are sharks in the Aegean, but they stay far away from the shore, and anyway are said not to be of the dangerous kind.

Dolphins can be seen regularly off the island. But as you can see in the sardine video clip they are no friends of the sardine. Just before World War I in the fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast of France fishermen declared war on dolphins, because even before they could haul their cotton nets in these mighty predators would eat the catch and destroy the nets. So they killed the dolphins with machine guns! After the war, when nets were made of nylon the problem went away: dolphins no longer came after the catch because they couldn’t rip into plastic netting and steal sardines.

In Greece however, dolphins are also mythical creatures and I feel sure that even in bad times no Greek fisherman would venture close to them and let alone kill one which means very bad luck. Even if a dolphin gets caught in a net by accident it still means bad times ahead.

Last week I noticed a lot of splashing in the sea and I thought: it must be dolphins, but when I looked through binoculars I saw huge silver fish jumping straight out of the water: tuna fish! These fishes seemed to be on a run because I could see small fishes jumping out of the water to get away from them. I assume they were not lucky enough to escape because the tuna were so wildly excited they kept on jumping out of the sea and pirouetting on their tails.

Skala Kallonis does have an annual two day sardine festival which this year took place last weekend. Unlike in South Africa, I doubt that millions of sardines disappeared into the stomachs of visitors. Maybe as many as ten thousand, which is how many whales — which also join the South African sardine run – take in one bite! The eating of sardines at the Skala Kallonis festival is not accompanied by an elegant water ballet, but instead there is music, traditional dances, and of course lots of ouzo as hundreds of people amuse themselves.

During the summer months fresh sardines from the gulf of Kalloni are plentiful. They are served grilled, baked or salted (sardelles pastes) but in other times of the year you have to make do with the tinned variety. But mind you: the famous tinned sardines from Kalloni are preserved in salt, so you best treat them as you would anchovies in cans.

In the local restaurants there are not a great many different sardine dishes on offer. Although I could eat grilled sardines every night — although my ouzo prefers an accompaniment of sardelles pastes — and even these small fishes are always healthy and tasty, after a while even they would get boring. However, seeing so many sardine recipes are on the internet maybe you could keep your sardine appetite going for ever: grilled in vine leaves (or served with fried vine leaves), in a salad with chick peas, avocado and sardines, a mousse of sardines, a sardine pie with a mustard sauce, sardines with pesto, a sardine curry, marinated sardines, stuffed sardines, and so on.

I intend to try out all these recipes in time but as we are still enduring a humid heat wave that seems endless, I will make do with my own recipe for a snack with drinks. It’s easy and quick to prepare, especially if you have sardines left over: it’s a sardine cream served on slices of cucumber.

For 1 cucumber in slices: mix a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt with two tablespoons of mayonnaise and a small spoonful of mustard. Crush about ten sardines (grilled or in oil from a tin) and mix together with the mayonnaise. Add some capers or pickles and cut in tiny pieces. Add some fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper and that’s it!

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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