I know. It’s hard to get people excited about tinned sardines. I’ve eaten them casually for most of my life and never gave them all that much thought. But with sustainability issues and delicious spreads that you can make with the flavorful fish – and the fact that they make an almost instant lunch – I’ve found myself making sure that I always have a stock of them in my pantry.
In France, there are several very good brands of sardines that are available, from the Connétable brand (found in supermarkets), to fancier brands – and tins – like Conserverie la belle-iloise, who recently opened a shop in Paris. But the best — le top du top of French sardines, are from Rödel & Fils Frères, who claims to be the first sardine conserverie in France.
I’d heard about them through the grapevine (or whatever the seafood equivalent of that is), and didn’t give them much more than a passing thought. Partially because I couldn’t find them at my local grocer. (They are only sold in limited shops.) But last summer, when we were in the Loire, we had lunch at a wine bar and in addition to wooden boards of charcuterie and cheese, they brought us out a tin of Rödel sardines.
When I tasted the first one, I forgot about all the other sardines I’d had in my life. We polished the tin of preserved fish off with good bread and butter, and some wine. But afterward, I couldn’t get enough, and vowed to go on a sardine quest when I got back to Paris.
There is a reluctance on the part of some people to eat tinned foods. However Harold McGee explains how canning foods often make them better. And if you’ve ever been to Spain and tasted the array of everything from canned fish to tinned vegetables that they preserve, it’s hard to argue with the idea of being patient enough to wait a few years before opening a can, and diving in.
The top of the tin of these Rödel sardines also advises that. These glistening beauties were caught in 2013, hand-cleaned, then dried and oiled for a few hours before being packed with olive oil. Although they note on the lid that they are trés bonne right now, the sardines will become softer and more confit (preserved) as they sit in the oil. And they advise you can wait up to ten years before eating them. (I didn’t check the expiration date but couldn’t wait that long. Obviously.)
Although my trip from last summer is now a distant memory, I was at La Grande Épicerie recently, and suddenly remembered that they were one of the few places in Paris that carries Rödel sardines. So sleuthed out the aisle where they were tucked away. (Hint: It’s adjacent to the fresh seafood stand.) They’re not cheap – they run €5-6 per tin, and are available whole, or if you’re more chic than I am, sans peau et sans arêtes, without skin or bones.
I picked up a few tins of the sardines simply packed in olive oil. But you can get Rödel sardines preserved in peanut oil, flavored with green peppercorns or lemon, with Chica-Pica (with peppers), and for those who want to have a more upscale sardine experience, they pack sardines with morsels of truffles.
I tend to resist adding anything to these sardines, save for a scattering of flat leaf parsley or perhaps some chives. A squeeze of lemon juice, I suppose, could be used, but I go for as plain as possible.
A fine lunch can be made with just a good loaf of dark or grainy bread, a generous swipe of salted butter, and perhaps a bottle of Chablis or a bracingly dry white wine. Although hard cider would be welcome if you have access to it, cold beer is good, too.
When I was doing my little holiday gift guide for this year, I tried like heck to find a mail order source for Rödel sardines, but couldn’t. (But I did stumble on a lot of bulletin boards discussing the merits of French sardines, and many were on a similar quest to find them.) My advice is to find what’s good where you are, bypassing the ordinary basic sardines on the supermarket shelf, and giving a premium brand a try. That’s what I did. And now I’m not going back. Except to the store, to get more.
Related Links and Notes
– Who knew there were such things as sardine forks?
– If you want to make sardine rillettes, you can find recipes on Simply Recipes and in My Paris Kitchen.
– It’s best to check out specialty shops and grocers where you live to find good sardines, although there are vendors online including Amazon. To find them, check out How to Find Foods Mentioned on the Site.
– In Paris, places to find Rödel and other good sardines are Folks and Sparrows (Portuguese sardines), Breizh Café Épicerie, the Conserverie of la belle-iloise (7, rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, 6th), Comme à Lisbonne (Portuguese sardines), G. Detou, Da Rosa (José Peña sardines – warning: site opens with music), La Grande Épicerie (which carries Rödel sardines), and Lafayette Gourmet.