Greek Sardine Feasts
Sardines may be small in size, but they are hardly bereft of stature. All summer long, from the western coast of Greece to fishing towns along the Macedonian and Thracian coasts to Lesvos, an island in the northeastern Aegean, the slivery, silver-blue fish is celebrated in dozens of local food feasts. It’s no wonder why: The sardine is one of the Aegean’s most plentiful and least expensive fish, as well as its most delicious and nutritious. The ultimate Mediterranean Diet fish, it is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, phosphorous and folic acid.
Sardines have been a mainstay of Greek cuisine since ancient times. The fish has always been plentiful, and prized not only for its tasty flesh but for its viscera, which were salted and fermented into the ancient condiment, garum.
Abundance and tradition vault sardines’ popularity
Modern Greek cooking owes its love of the sardine mainly to the Greeks from Asia Minor, present-day Turkey, who came as refugees to Greece proper in 1922. Sardines were one of their favorite meze. Many of these Asia Minor Greeks settled in Macedonia and Thrace, whose coastline is laced with coves and shallow bays, exactly the kind of water in which sardines thrive. The natural bounty of the fish in northern Greece, coupled with the traditions of the Asia Minor Greeks, have made the northern coastal areas home to some of the best sardine recipes in the country.
One area of Greece stands out for the wealth and flavor of its sardines: Lesvos.
The Bay of Kalloni and its famous sardines
The Bay of Kalloni, at the island’s center, is home to the renowned Kalloni sardine. The small plump fish owes its complex flavor to the wealth of plankton, its favorite food, in the shallow waters. Aficionados descend at dawn to meet the 50 or so sardine boats that come in with the day’s freshest catch. Two-day-old specimens are snubbed as inferior among sardine lovers; anything fished beyond the perimeter of the bay itself is considered by locals to be worse than second-rate.
Kalloni residents have built a thriving industry around salting and canning their prized sardines. The salted fish is considered a gourmet treat, available even at high-end food emporiums such as the Hellenic Gourmet shop at Athens Venizelos Airport. The salt comes from the Bay of Kalloni, which boasts one of the seven major seaside salt works in Greece.
A whole culture has evolved around sardines and when and how to best savor them. The tiniest, called papalines, are in season from late May through the end of July. These are salted lightly and enjoyed the day they are caught. Greeks jokingly call this their sushi. August and September sardines, which are the fattiest, are salted for a maximum two days then canned to eat later on, in winter.
Salted sardines are the meze par excellence when eaten with Lesvos’ other local specialty: ouzo. But Greek cooks everywhere rely on preserved sardines to add pungency and vibrancy to dozens of dishes. The fish find their place next to staid ingredients, such as potatoes (in potato salads) and beans. Mashed beans, called fava in Greek, are often served with sardines. In Lesvos, the specialty fava is made with green split peas and lots of local olive oil, and topped with Kalloni’s preserved catch. In Crete, fava made with dried broad beans is almost always served with a side of salted sardines. In the Peloponnese, winter bean soups are accompanied by tinned sardines.
Fresh sardines are delicious grilled, especially Thessaloniki-style: butterflied and topped with raw red onion rings, olive oil and parsley. Sardeles riganates, baked sardines with olive oil, tomato, garlic and oregano, is another great northern Greek dish. Asia Minor Greeks bake their sardines with leeks, or wrap them, as the ancients did, with a variety of seasonal leaves, such as sorrel or vine leaves then roast or grill them.
Fresh Sardines Grilled in Paper With Melted Butter and Lemon
I first sampled this dish at a seaside taverna in Kythera, an island that lies between the Peloponnese and Crete. Locals call it Tsirigiotiki sarthela, after the island’s nickname, Tsirigo. They say the dish is so good, it sings, which is a rather loose translation of the Greek word “tsirizo,” to hum. It’s a lovely recipe to serve for small meze gatherings because the packets are individual portions.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
- Cut away and discard the heads and viscera from the sardines. Wash very well and drain in a colander. Place the sardines in a large bowl and toss with the salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. In the meantime, light the barbecue or grill.
- Divide the sardines into six equal portions. For each sardine packet, place two pieces of parchment paper together, one on top of the other. Place each batch of sardines on one set of parchment. Fold in the sides at both ends, then bring up the horizontal sides of the paper. Roll together to close, like a small parcel. You can tie the parcels with kitchen string to secure.
- Place the parcels over the barbecue, about 4 inches from the heat source. Grill for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat, open, and dot with equal amounts of butter. Serve immediately.
You can also prepare this dish in the oven. If you have a pizza stone, bake the packets directly on the stone. If not, bake them on a rack in the lower half of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 375 F.
Fresh Baked Sardines With Lemon, Garlic and Parsley
From the “Northern Greek Wine-Roads Cookbook,” Diane Kochilas, 2008 (Thessaloniki).
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Oil an ovenproof glass baking dish large enough to fit all the sardines in one layer.
- Strew half the onions in one layer on the bottom of the baking dish. Place the sardines on top in a very snug layer. Sprinkle with garlic, salt and lemon juice. Place the lemon slices on top of the fish as evenly as possible. Strew with remaining onions. Drizzle with the olive oil.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the sardines are soft and the top layer of onions have darkened nicely and become crunchy. Remove, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photos from top:
Sardines with lemon, onions and parsley. Credit: Vassilis Stenos
Canned sardines: Credit: Vassilis Stenos
Sardines grilled in paper. Credit: Melanie Acevedo