Whenever I sit down to try a new type of sardines, the experience needs to matter. It’s not enough to pop open the can and just guzzle them down. I am not a cat. It’s important to set the mood, go through the appropriate preliminaries, observe all the correct appearances, and indulge only when the feeling is truly momentous. For these reasons and many others, I suspect that ritualistic sardine tasting is a tradition as old as polo and cribbage.
Whenever you perform a tasting ceremony, wear comfortable attire, and find a quiet and undisturbed space. Fill it with pisciverous intentions. Then, in the middle of the space place a broad, flat surface upon which to venerate your food. A kitchen table will nearly always do.
Step 1: The sardine election
Once you have created the proper atmosphere, it’s time to choose a worthy can. Today, after scanning the entire contents of the pantry, the spirit moved me to celebrate with Bela sardines. Bela sardines are produced in Portugal and the company touts its commitment to local, sustainable fisheries. Plus, it’s hard to turn away from their happy-go-lucky can design. Carefully, I removed the can from the tall, teetering pile, cradling it with both hands as it guided me, eyes closed, into the kitchen.
Step 2: The gathering of the condiments
No tasting should be performed without a variety of offerings to appease the palate. The possibilities are limitless, but there is also no limit to how simple they can be. And in many cases, simplest is best. You won’t want to overcomplicate your sardine ceremony, especially when you are first starting out. Today’s choices were three:
Fine Dijon mustard.
And fresh lemon juice.
These three were arranged and presented in white Ikea ramekins to avoid cross-contamination.
Usually I recommend yellow mustard to sardine beginners because its bold, familar taste goes well with the earthier flesh of common store-bought brands. But for special sardine occasions it is both appropriate and expected to bring out the more aggressive and sophisticated notes of hot Dijon.
Fresh-squeezed lemon juice is difficult to find in stores, but still easy to obtain. Simply remove a lemon from your pantry or refrigerator, cut it in half, and then, using a juicing apparatus or strainer, squeeze the juice out of one half to separate the juice from the lemon. Catch the juice in a small bowl or measuring cup. Repeat with the other half. One half of a lemon will typically provide about 2 tablespoons of juice for your ceremony.
Step 3: The service
Opening the Bela can, I found the sardines neatly arranged, fully intact, with skin and bones undisturbed. The olive oil gave them an attractive and mysterious shimmer. Out of the can wafted the familiar intense aroma of whole sardines, but what was in the can appeared to be a more delicate fish.
The sardines separated easily with the lightest touch of a fork. Each could be lifted with a minimum of strength, mostly in the fingers, and then deposited drip-free onto a plate. I placed the sardines in an orderly row, completely separated from one another to fully differentiate their presentation on the plate from their existence in the can. The sardines had now embarked upon a new phase of their beingness.
Step 4: Ritual observances
For my first taste I took a small bite of sardine on a fork and dipped it into the balsamic vinegar. The sardine itself was very clean tasting and mild. The vinegar went well with the taste of the fish, but I felt like there was still more to experience with this sardine.
For my second taste, I tried the Dijon. Not too much–we don’t immerse sardines in Dijon. Just a gentle touch will do. There should be no more than a dab of mustard on the bottom of the sardine. As usual, the pairing worked well, with the light flavor of the Dijon staying safely in the background of this fragile and understated fish. It was during this bite that I noticed the bones of the sardines were not really there. They were visible, but so small that they were not noticeable while eating.
Next I reached for the lemon juice and gave the next bite on my fork a quick soak. Here, the Bela sardines found a deeper fulfillment of their purpose. There was almost nothing between me and the flavor of the sardines themselves except a splash of refreshing lemon acid, and the meat did not disappoint. The texture showed itself to be soft and delicate without being mushy. The flavor was likewise subtle like a fresh-caught whitefish. The ritualistic spirit of the tasting began to take over with repetitive lemon dunks.
Moments later, only a few bites remained with which to re-experience the dijon and vinegar options. Each took on new qualities on its second trial. Dijon tastes more creamy after lemon. And the vinegar had been transformed into something entirely new, lending a much more forward sweetness to the fish and justifying several recitations of the holy syllable, “NOM” to conclude the ceremony. NOM NOM NOM!