Don’t let memories of school dinner pilchards put you off, Cornish sardines are one of England’s finest seafoods.

The sardine, or pilchard as it can be known in this country, is one of the humblest, yet to my mind finest, fish to be found around our shores. I am obsessed with its staggeringly delicious flavour. Simply grilled over charcoal, brushed with a little lemon juice and olive oil during cooking, and sprinkled with sea salt, it tastes sublime.

Served with garlic-rubbed grilled bread and a chunkily made rough tomato sauce redolent of garlic and rosemary, it captures the essence of cheap and sustainable seafood.

The problem with sardines is that they must be fresh; they need to be shining silver, with gleaming eyes, and ideally stiff as a board.

Ingredients

50ml olive oil
juice of 2 lemons, plus extra lemon wedges to serve
12 fat Cornish sardines, gutted, scaled and cleaned
1 small bunch of rosemary
4 thick slices of crusty bread
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
a handful of basil leaves, torn (optional)

For the tomato sauce:

100ml olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 red chilli
750g ripest cherry tomatoes
125ml dry white wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Start with the tomato sauce. Warm the oil in a heavy pan over a medium heat, add the garlic and leave to infuse on a low heat for 10 minutes. Prick the chilli several times with the tip of a knife to allow the flavour to escape. Add the tomatoes and chilli to the oil and cook over a low heat for 40 minutes. Add the wine and a sprinkling of salt and plenty of pepper. Turn the heat up slightly, then crush to a rough sauce using a potato masher and simmer for 5 minutes more.

Whilst the sauce is cooking, light your barbecue and wait until the flames have died down and the coals have gone grey, or preheat your grill to medium. Now for the sardines. Mix the oil and lemon juice together in a bowl. Place the sardines over the barbecue or under the grill. Brush with the oil and lemon mixture and sprinkle with salt. Cook for 4–5 minutes, then turn the fish and repeat until cooked through, brushing with the oil and lemon as you do so.

Just before you finish cooking, throw the rosemary on the coals to infuse the sardines with a final blast of flavour. Rub the bread with the garlic, brush with a little more oil and grill until crisp.

Serve the sardines on plates with the tomato sauce spooned over the toast, adding lemon wedges and torn basil leaves to finish if you wish.

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