There is no fish of any kind, anywhere, in any body of water, which bears the name “sardine” in its natural original element, either in the scientific or commercial sense of the word. “Sardine” is a generic term applied to various kinds of small fish, packed hermetically in cans/other containers, in water or various oils/sauces. Sardines are not born as sardines. Some are called brislings, pilchards, or silds. In short, sardines are little fish of any species. Sardine is analogous to the word “cub”…there are deer, lion and wolf cubs - except there are no sardines swimming. They become sardines after they are in the tin. The name sardine is derived from Sardinia, a Mediterranean island, where small fish were in abundance.
Sardine canneries were immortalized by John Steinbeck when he wrote about the canneries, flophouses and honky-tonks of Monterey, California, in his 1945 novel “Cannery Row”. But Cannery Row never had it on Maine, where the first U.S. sardine cannery opened in 1875 in Eastport, in the eastern corner of the state along the Canadian border. Canneries sprouted in no fewer than 33 coastal communities, employing more than 6,000 workers. In 1900, the number of Maine canneries peaked at 75 and production five years later hit 344 millions cans, more than four cans for every American at the time. Today there is only one sardine plant in Maine. However, sardines, in New England, are yet known as small herring.
In the earliest days, boys and girls were among the cutters using sharp knives to decapitate the fish with one slice and remove their entrails with another for $2 to $3 a day. So big was the industry that the annual value of packed sardines routinely exceeded Maine’s famous lobster until the late 1960s. But economics and consumer tastes changed, machinery became automated and the industry began a slow decline. According to National Marine Fisheries Service statistics, percapita sardine consumption in the United States now stands at 0.1 pound. That’s down from 0.2 pounds through most of the 1990s and 0.3 pounds through most of the ‘80s. Overall sardine sales are flat at roughly $70 million to $75 million a year, reaching 12.5 to 15.5 percent of U.S. households. The fish are no longer cut by hand. A machine does that. But employees still sort and pack the fish. They wear earplugs to shield against the noisy machinery, and there’s a fishy odor in the air.
There was a time in the early-mid 1900’s when sardine fishing dominated the West Coast from Monterey to BC. Fishermen are bringing into Astoria today, 35-50 tons of sardines, to pack/freeze. Fishermen unload, grade, sort, weigh, box and quick-freeze them, truck some to Portland, and export some. However, California accounts for most of the Pacific sardine harvest, followed by Oregon and then Washington state.
Sardines are a hard sell on young people, with the average consumer trying them for the first time between 40 and 50 years old. But sardines have market appeal because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce risk of heart disease. We look at the aging population as a real boon for canned seafood, and for canned sardines in particular.
Arrivals and departures of the sardine population are affected by water conditions; upswellings from the ocean bottom bring up rich nutrients on which the fish thrive. Layers of fossilized fish scales, reveal the absence and presence of sardine populations over time, as the rings in a tree stump record its age. The present boom should end by 2015.
In 1950, there were 46 sardine plants in Maine. Global competition, changing palates and production efficiencies have contributed to the fall of canneries, but hopes are high that baby boomers will take to sardines’ health benefits and pump up future sales. Most of the US supply is from domestic catches of Atlantic herring - 179.9 million pounds worth $14.1 million in 2004, and Pacific sardines, at 198.9 million pounds valued at $10.4 million, according to National Marine Fisheries Service date. Atlantic herring are caught along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia. Maine is by far the biggest producer, with Massachusetts second.
The need for tuna bait drives most of the demand for these bronze-cheeked, sleek silver bullets – much larger than their younger siblings, that end up in our small tins with chili / garlic / mustard / oil / tomato / water (sauce). Bait buyers pay as much as 40 cents a pound for the best fish, to look good to tuna. They are the most preferred on Japanese tuna boats.
US imports of sardines, mostly in canned form, totaled more than 4.8 million pounds worth $4.6 million through September 2005, reports NMFS. Just 38,122 pounds were imported as frozen product and 2,097 pounds as fresh. The top US suppliers this year were Ecuador at 1.1 million pounds, followed by Canada at 1 million, Thailand at 709,397, Morocco at 569,771, and Mexico with 475,270.
Norway and Scotland can two types of fish (brislings/silds) as sardines. The Baltic countries, California, Poland, Portugal, and Spain pack pilchards, a relative of the herring that is smaller/fatter. Eastern Canada, and Maine can herrings…all are served as sardines. We import our Perla Pacifica sardines from Mexico and South America. These are sardines caught or raised in southern Asia, too.
Sardines are prized for their nutritionally rich meat, ours are caught in the cold, clear, mineral-rich waters of two Northern Seas. We believe Scotland best maintains/improves the industry which inspects every step of processing: from the fishing boat, to canning/cooking, and storage testing. North sea countries process the so-called cold-water fish, namely brislings/silds. Mediterranean countries pack the southern “warm water” small fish, called pilchards. Pilchards are a species akin to the herring, but fatter/smaller.
Of the two northern fish foods, the brisling is deemed the better tasting. They are caught throughout the year, but the most desirable are harvested in the summer, when they are tender, juicy, fat, and flavorful with no hard bones, and no scales. The sild sardine, though not as flavorful as the brisling, is a delightful product in itself. Silds tend to come in larger-sized fish, and those that do not fit into the can are usually processed into sild oil, in which sild sardines are packed. Cross-packed sardines are a pack in which the fish are placed across the shortest side of the tin (it’s width). The straight pack indicates longer fish that are packed lengthwise in the tin.
Sardines packed from the pilchards are larger fish, packed 4-6 in a tin, usually in olive oil. They are headless, boned and skinned, although the Europeans prefer the skin on, claiming the flavor is retained.
Our fish are held in the sea for at least three (3) days - in order to eliminate all undigested food in their system. This process is called “thronging”. For thoroughly efficient operations, it is essential to maintain continuous production, regardless of the fishing seasons. The fish, then, is either transported fresh to the factories within hours, or frozen in blocks and stored on pallets on- board freezer ships. Our fish are then rinsed in a quick brine bath, descaled, sorted by size, and threaded onto steel rods. These rods are placed in smoking frames over slow-burning oak fires for one hour - done initially to preserve, then to can. The frames pass over horizontal rotation knives (to cut off the heads), then the fish are paired, and laid side-by side in the cans.
Our sardines are hand-packed in aluminum tins, as no machine can protect the fish, and keep the skin from breaking. Tins are internally lacquered with US FDA approved finishes. Tins are sealed hermetically, steam-cooked at 112° F for at least an hour - to cook, and sterilize.
The varieties of sardines sold generally fall into 3 classifications:
- Sardines from the Mediterranean, Moroccan, Portuguese and Spanish waters.
- Brisling/sprats from the North/Baltic Seas
- Herrings/Mackerels from the Americas
In Scotland, we can use two kinds of fish when we pack sardines; Brisling and Sild.
The brisling (clupea sprattus) is a species of tiny fish found only in northern waters, and is considered by epicures to be the finest sardine available. Scottish fishermen restrict their catches when flavor and texture are at their prime - June through October. The sild, in the Norwegian language, means herring. Like brisling, the sild is caught in the Northern Seas when the fish has grown to about 3-1/2 inches. The main packing season for sild is in the autumn.
Why are two nearly identical products, such as brisling and sild, so differently priced? …the reason lies in the different catch/production methods required by the brisling. The brisling is caught in the summer, the fish meat normally has a higher fat content, and the skin is thinner than that of the sild…and more difficult to individually handle.
Brisling sardines used to be packed mainly in olive oil. However, changes in consumer habits now demand that they are available also in spring water, garlic, mustard, soy or oil, and tomato. Sild sardines were mainly packed in fish/soya oil, but tastes change and they are now available in many of the same sauces as brisling. There are three different ways of packing the ¼ Dingley (3.75 oz/106 grams) can. One (1) layer of sardines typically will have 6-1/2 fish in a can, two (2) layer cans contain 16-22 fish, and three (3) layer or cross-packed tins have 26-34 fish. Our Scottish sardines are not only unique because of their particular taste, but also because of their small size…where else can one find 30 sardines in a 3.75 oz tin?
Our sardines contain valuable amounts of Iron, Magnesium, Niacin, Riboflavin, and Vitamin A, and are very rich in providing Vitamin B12, and serve as an anti-cholesterol food. A landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that eating only one ounce of fish every day may cut your chances of a fatal heart attack by 80%! Eating fish cuts a women’s risk of suffering the most common type of stroke by 33%, and the more fish consumed, the better. Women who eat the most fish have fewer premature births, and fewer smaller-sized babies than those who do not. People who eat seafood are less likely to develop arthritis, bronchial asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and migraine headaches.
Our Perla Pacifica label sardines are a Pacific sardine – sardinops sagax and a different family from the European sardine. They spawn off the Baja in California/Mexico, and then swim up the Pacific coast. They live fast, and breed fast – they are like the rabbits of the ocean forest. They feed mostly on plankton, and skim near the surface of the ocean. Because they are low on the food chain, they become food for other fish. If we eat them, that’s great ecologically, as sardines turn plankton into omega-3 and are a rich meat. They rank with salmon/tuna as a fatty fish high in omega-3, which plays a role in preventing heart disease. They do not get old, or large enough to store much mercury, or other toxins in their fatty tissues, as bigger predatory fish, as the tuna, can. If you crunch and eat the bones, especially with canned sardines, you get a goodly dose of calcium. They are delicious and cheap, at a time, when so few fish are affordable.
Sardines are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids (also called w-3 or n-3 fats) , protein, calcium, CoQ10, and B10 – offering higher nutrients than salmon or tuna. Omega-3 fatty acids are part of the nutrition group know as essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, and are credited with preventing the buildup of blood clots that cause ischemic strokes, which make up 83% of strokes. Omega-3 fats are credited with increasing elasticity in muscles and lowering blood pressure. They also help prevent cancer, act as mood stabilizers, and even enhance brain activity.
Sardines are linked to lower levels of heart disease due to their “good” cholesterol-lowering fat, according to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health, in their revised version of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee revamps the guidelines every 5 years.
Sardines are a nutritious source of calcium – 375mgs of calcium per can, as well as a healthy balance of phosphorus for good calcium absorption, plus 100% of the RDA for vitamin D. Fish are the richest natural source of iodine, a mineral needed for proper thyroid function.
Sardines are also a reliable source of selenium, which is believed to play a role in preventing heart disease, and possibly cancer. Increased seafood consumption by children pays off in several different ways, from lowering their intake of fatty foods to enhancing their immune systems. More American children than ever are overweight, causing them to suffer an array of adult health problems, such as calcium deficiency and osteoporosis. The low-fat nature of most fish makes them low in calories with fattier protein foods.
Omega-3s change the eicosanoids that foster immunity, and help the body resist infection. Researchers at Oxford University have discovered that children with dyslexia and other learning problems benefit from eating fish oils. Sardines provide 50% fluoride, important for protection against cavities and osteoporosis. The sodium content of northern sardines is less than 120 milligrams.
Sardines are ubiquitous. They are sold in C-stores, gourmet, health and mass-market stores. They traverse a range of price points and consumption paths from Maine sardines at $.50 to ones from Mexico / Morocco at $1, or Scotland at $3.49. Our Perla Pacifica sardine products are kosher (selected items), packed without unnecessary additives/preservatives, in natural ingredients, packed at the peak of freshness, quickly canned and are easily prepared, and cans/cartons/labels are recyclable.
We have a gourmet convenience food, which can stave off heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and even depression – think sardines! Enjoy!
Sardines are bony, but grill one fresh, and you can shake it by its tail, and the flesh will fall away from the bone. If this sounds oceans away from the sardine most picnickers know, cooked until the bones are soft, tinned and eaten on crackers, it is.
Fresh, whole sardines should be bright and shiny. The meat of fresh herring is off-white and soft; sardines range from light to dark brown, with small bones visible.
Fresh sardines range from delicately flavored small fish to larger fish with a fuller, “oilier” flavor. Otherwise, flavor and texture depend on how the fish has been prepared – pickled, smoked, or salted.
Fresh sardines can be cooked by nearly and method but poaching or steaming, fresh products is a rarity in the United States. Most of the herring eaten here is canned, pickled, or smoked. Because of their high oil content, sardines are good for smoking, and the fish’s soft meat firms up if pickled in brine. While sardines are bony fish, the fine bones are soft and perfectly safe to eat once cooked, and they are a good source of calcium.