Canned Sardines – A Family Affair

Sardines (the canned variety) are a bit like Marmite – you either like them or you don’t. My father and his mother were fans and my mother and her mother weren’t. Tea with Granny ‘Kenzie (a meal that took place in the early evening), often involved sardines on toast, mashed up with butter and put under the gas grill. My mother’s mother, Granny Hughes, didn’t like the oily, fishy smell – her house smelt of bleach, Vim cleaning powder, and furniture polish – but the strong sardine odour clearly didn’t bother Granny ‘Kenzie. I suspect the fact that sardines were, and still are, so cheap, was another reason Granny ‘Kenzie liked them.

With five children to feed and her husband on the dole, life had been a real struggle for her during the 1930s and ‘40s. By the time I was born, Granny ‘Kenzie was widowed, but still living in the same tiny council house in Birmingham in which she’d brought the family up. The toilet was outside, a little brick shed behind the scullery, which later became a bathroom. I have memories of helping her tear up newspaper into squares which she threaded onto string to be used as toilet paper, and – pre-bathroom – having a bath in a zinc tub in front of the sitting room fire, filled with hot water boiled up in the kettle.

“Once a week, we children were served pilchards in tomato sauce  with a salad of tomatoes, lettuce leaves and of course, thick slices of cucumber on the side. It took me ages to realise that a pilchard is just a large sardine, but I much preferred the smaller version preserved in oil and smashed onto hot buttered toast. – Judi “

I didn’t understand it at the time (children are wonderfully accepting of most things), but later I realised the extent of the poverty my father’s family had experienced. Despite that, with four bright and brainy daughters, and of course, my brainy father, the house was filled with conversation, arguments, and laughter – and much story telling, for Granny ‘Kenzie was also a great teller of tales.

As small children, my sister and I would climb into her feather double bed in the early mornings and, with her magical words, that bed became a raft floating down the Orinoco River through the forests of Venezuela, or a sleigh being hauled by huskies across the frozen wastes of the North Pole. I remember her sitting up in bed, her long grey hair in its night-time plaits, whipping the imaginary Husky dogs that were pulling our sleigh and shouting, “Mush, mush”, while Kate and I kept watch for marauding polar bears.

That talent for telling stories passed onto my father – along with the love of sardines on toast. Curiously, I also love sardines on toast – and telling stories. I’m beginning to wonder if the two are connected?

Snug as a sardine
Snug as a sardine

Sardines, after all, are brilliant brain food. They are one of the best sources in the world for the essential omega 3 fatty acids which have a crucial role in protecting and improving the health of the brain. Plus they are full of vitamins (B12, D, B3), rich in protein and minerals – and they’re still cheap! Maybe Granny ‘Kenzie was onto something…

For years I either ate sardines on toast (like my father), or, under pressure of time, simply opened a can and ate them with bread and butter. But here in France, I discovered sardines that are canned with an entire red chilli. There’s something about the chilli spice that helps cut the oily fishiness that some people find difficult to stomach. I became addicted, and can honestly say that not a week goes by without me opening a can, or two.

I am also a great fan of pasta puttanesca – also made with chillies, but with anchovies, rather than sardines. My taste buds started making connections and after a few experiments, I developed this recipe – a marriage of chilli spice, sardines, tomatoes, capers, and spinach – with my current favourite pasta, trofie.

My son Tom arrived to stay last week and I cooked the dish for him. He loved it and said I should post it on here. He too, is an absolute sardine addict and can eat three tins in one sitting. He’s also a lyricist, musician, and writer, so it looks like a love of sardines and story telling is clearly a family tradition!

An almost 'store cupboard' recipe – apart from the fresh spinach
An almost ‘store cupboard’ recipe – apart from the fresh spinach
Spicy Sardines with Spinach and Pasta

Preparation time, 10 minutes, cooking time 15 minutes, serves 4


2 tins of Connetable Sardines au Piment (these really are worth tracking down for this dish)
400 gm of fresh spinach
2 smallish onions (I used one and a half medium size)
3 cloves of garlic
400 gm tin/jar of chopped tomatoes
500 gm trofie pasta
3 tsps drained and rinsed chopped capers
Dried chilli flakes (this is advisory – depending on the size of the chillies in the sardine cans)
olive oil
salt (for the pasta water)

To mix with the cooked pasta:

25 gm butter
balsamic vinegar
more olive oil
black pepper

To Serve

Parmesan cheese
good bottle of red wine – I found an organic red from the Corbières which worked perfectly. You need something robust or ‘corsé’ as they say here, in France.


Wash the spinach and remove any tough stalky bits. I used baby spinach leaves so not so much of a problem. If you use full-grown spinach, you will also need to chop the leaves before adding.

Put on a large pan of salted water to boil with a generous splash of olive oil.

Open the sardine cans, drain off and keep back the oil, then slice open each sardine to remove the bony spine and any really scaly scales, before flaking them into rough chunks. Remove the chilli from each tin, slice off the stalk end and squeeze out the seeds before chopping finely

“Immediately after, do make sure to wash your hands really well. I once failed to do this and then rubbed my eyes with disastrous consequences!”

Chop the onions finely, peel and crush the three cloves of garlic.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook for around 12-13 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, fry the onions and garlic in a good pool of olive oil until they’re golden and translucent.  Then add the chopped tomatoes, the sardines, the chopped capers and chillies, the drained oil from the cans, and a sprinkling of dried chilly flakes (if required). Leave to simmer with a lid on for around 5-6 minutes, giving the occasional stir.

Lastly, add the drained spinach leaves and cover with the lid so they wilt down over 2-3 minutes. Stir and season then turn the heat off.

By now, the pasta should be ready, so drain before returning to the pan, along with a tablespoon of olive oil, some small chunks of butter, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Stir all this over a low heat then put in a large bowl, ready for serving.

Ready to serve
Ready to serve

If I’m on my own, I quite often add the pasta direct to the frying pan and mix it all up in there, ready for serving (and reheating later – when it often tastes even better).


2 thoughts on “Canned Sardines – A Family Affair

  1. Fiona – what and incredible beautiful and tender story. Thanks for sharing it and for your recipe. I always keep tins of sardines in the cupboard (anchovies, too) – they are often the basis for quick and truly flavorful meals.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.