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Pasta con le sarde

"I have never experienced this dish in its native country. Paolo Moelli (Il Ghiottone Errante, 1935) describes it as 'discordant but exhilarating'." Elizabeth David

First of all apologies for my absence for a few days - busy, busy, busy elsewhere. But I'm back.

Back with Pasta con le sarde, inspired by the latest 'perfect' dish from Felicity Cloake - pictured here - Pasta con le sarde.

Sarde are sardines, and this particular dish is what one writer described as the national dish of Sicily, although I suspect that that is a bit of an exaggeration. Very definitely Sicilian though because it's got that distinctly Sardinian sweet and sour thing which comes from the Arab influence on the food of the island. Mind you there are other more fanciful origin stories:

"the ninth-century Byzantine commander Euphemius of Messina who, feeling peckish after landing near Marsala, tasked his cooks with making dinner from what they could find to eat there. “The hillside provided them with wild fennel, raisins and pine nuts, the sea with fish … a pleasing legend,” Rachel Roddy

Nobody else mentioned this story so I'm guessing it is indeed a legend. And, also traditionally it is from Palermo. Everyone seems to be agreed on that.

They also agree that the real fundamentals of the dish are sardines, wild fennel, raisins (or sultanas or currants), pine nuts with saffron, anchovies and breadcrumbs also pretty omnipresent. And pasta of course - which should be bucatini, but which lots of writers seem to think is difficult to find. Is it really? Don't the supermarkets sell it - or a hollow spaghetti anyway? Yes they do - I just checked. Because that's what it sort of is.

The other ingredient that virtually all of them seemed to think was impossible to find was wild fennel. Yes wild fennel - that weed that grows here and there along the roads of Melbourne, and maybe in your garden too. It apparently has a stronger flavour than the overpriced genteel fennel you will find in the shops. And the dish doesn't just use the leaves/fronds which are practically nonexistent on the bulbs of fennel in the shops, although they are important, but the stalks as well - and there are definitely none of them on the bulb fennel. You boil them in water and then use the water to cook your pasta. For although everyone seemed to think the pasta should be bucatini, I don't think I ever saw the dish described as Bucatina con le sarde. It was always Pasta con le sarde. So use whatever you like.

Going back to Elizabeth David and her quote at the top of the page, which comes from her book, Italian Food - that's all she says about this dish. There is no recipe. Which is very tantalising. Why mention it at all then one wonders? And she says the sardines are salted too. Which nobody else does, because almost everyone also has the anchovies.

Why did I choose to write about this, after all it's just another pasta dish? Well, yes that's true, but it's a slightly different kind of pasta dish and although I'm sure we all eat a lot of pasta of one kind or another, I have been trying to present some simpler ones, and some different ones every now and then. Plus those that are so classic that you can't ignore them.

It seems to me, having now perused a few recipes that the main difference you will find is whether the pasta is baked or not. The recipes I found in The Silver Spoon and my Italy the Beautiful cookbooks both baked the dish in the oven after having cooked the pasta and the fish sauce separately. The whole is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked. Pictures below - alas no recipe online:

Felicity Cloake, however seemed to think that this made it all a bit stodgy, and she also thought that this was a regional variation. Breadcrumbs though - lots of others used them as a substitute for cheese, which, as we now know, the Italians never use with fish.

Now I have to say that of the recipes I found, although they varied a bit - some added tomatoes to the mix, some added wine -fundamentally they were all very similar. Various things were tried as substitutes for wild fennel - chopped fennel bulb plus ground fennel seeds, somebody even suggested dill, but here in Australia I really don't think it's a problem finding wild fennel - well at this time of the year it's hard, but certainly not in the warmer months. It's a weed. I remember once grabbing some from a roadside in France to flavour the fish we were cooking for dinner that night - and very good it was too. One of my friends was extremely impressed. Just make sure you wash it well of all the dust and fumes from the passing cars. Or grow some in your garden.

So what did I find? Here are a few: David Prior/delicious.; Georgio Locatelli; SBS/Phoebe Wood/Teresa Isabel Castro from Feast Magazine; Jamie Oliver; The Spruce Eats and finally, Serious Eats.

Sardines. If you have a fishmonger near you, you will be able to get some fresh. Occasionally you see them in the supermarkets too. But if all else fails - yes you can turn to canned sardines, although there is a variety of opinion on this as an option:

"I try this with sardines in olive oil, and the slightly salty, deliciously oily fish collapses so obligingly into the sauce that I almost prefer it, so they’re a great option if you can’t get hold of fresh fish." Felicity Cloake

"Some shortcut Pasta con le sarde recipes call for canned sardines, which are no doubt easier to find, and, I suppose, could work in a pinch. But you lose a lot by going that route, and I say that as someone who adores canned sardines. The problem with them in this dish is that they've already been cooked hard in the can, rendering the flesh dry and dense. Toss it in a skillet and cook it into a sauce, and you only compound the problem. That, or they'll eventually just fall apart, depriving you of the slick chunks of tender sardine the best versions of this dish offer." Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats

I think I'm with Felicity Cloake on this one. 'Dry and dense'! I have never eaten a dry canned sardine. They are always soft and oily and salty too, so I think the main danger would be that they might collapse too much which would make the whole dish maybe look a bit unappetising?

"I've eaten this in so many restaurants - some of the tastiest ones looked quite grey and miserable because the sardines had cooked down so much. The best thing to do is hold back some of the fillets and lay them on top of the dish for the last few minutes of cooking. This will give you a beautiful depth of flavour as well as lovely flakes of sardine. The finished dish has subtle sweetness from the onions and nice heat from the chilli which will really get your tastebuds going. I've also eaten some lovely versions with chopped tomatoes added to them - you should definitely try this." Jamie Oliver

Using canned sardines might be cheaper, but then again maybe not. Certainly not if you follow the strictures to use only the best. That could set you back lots of dollars for one small can. If you are poor Anthony Bourdain offers the ultimate solution:

"There is another version of the dish that is typical of the other aspect of Sicilian cooking, which is all about making do with what you have. Pasta con le sarde a mare means “pasta with sardines that are in the sea.” In other words, they had the pine nuts and the raisins and the breadcrumbs and all the other ingredients to make the dish — but they didn’t have any sardines, so they made it anyway just without the fish!" Anthony Bourdain

As I said before not many people have tampered with this recipe much - I think Jamie added chillies - well he would, but other than that nothing very outrageous. There are lots of pasta dishes that use sardines, but not with the sweet and salty hits of the dried fruit and the anchovies.

But then there is Nigella who couldn't resist meddling. Actually, I'm not at all sure that you could even say it was the same thing, but she does say it is based on Pasta con le sarde, even though she calls it Pasta with mackerel, marsala and pine nuts:

"This is a real hybrid of a recipe: I'm afraid it might even, in Anna Del Conte's disapproving parlance, be called "Britalian". But I defend it, because I strongly believe that its honest evolution needs no apology. The inspiration lies in the fabulous pasta con le sarde, the traditional Sicilian pasta with sardines, capers and currants or sultanas and wild fennel. I wanted to make a faster version that came from our larder rather than the Mediterranean. The English larder stalwart, smoked mackerel, begged to be tried and in this instance fortune truly did favour the brave." Nigella Lawson

Capers, vinegar, dill, marsala and, of course, the smoked mackerel - not very authentic at all. Really the only thing it has in common is the dried fruit and the pine nuts. So quite a long way from authenticity. Which, of course, is not to say that it isn't absolutely delicious. And if the original inspired such tempting experimentation, then why not?

So next time you are thinking pasta, have a go.


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