“There’s nothing like pilchards for saving the soul.”

Chef Sanjay Kumar is one excited man. Talk to him about food and his dark Indian eyes light up: there is very little this man does not know about Cornwall and food and very little he won’t do to spread the good word about top ingredients and top producers. He is also, in a very humble way, a top quality chef. Used to cooking camel stuffed with sheep and chickens as former chef to the King of Saudi Arabia, he also trained under Raymond Blanc, was head chef of the Greenbank in Falmouth and is now working in St Austell. From catering at Eden’s Big Lunch and feeding the fishermen at Newlyn, to being chair of Slow Food Cornwall and much much more, it is little wonder that Radio 4’s The Food Programme wanted to follow him out to Genova’s Slow Fish event last month. The programme, entitled Sanjay And The Sardine, was broadcast today June 19 at 12:32 and will be repeated tomorrow, June 20 at 16:00. You can also listen again on BBC iPlayer.

Attending the biennial Slow Fish event in Genova (and chatting to Slow Food founder, the great Carlo Petrini, left) Sanjay was one 20 chefs from around the world to cook using Slow Fish Presidia (local products that benefit artisan producers) ingredients. Sanjay chose cured Cornish sardines with spicy polenta to celebrate the ancient fish trade route from Cornwall to Genova and the spicy aspect to represent his own Indian heritage. For him, sardines are: “a very neglected, handsome-looking fish, that is humble and rich in nutrition and should be part of life as it was centuries back.” Not only is the fish versatile and flavoursome, but Sanjay believes the sardine industry could be a model for the fishing industry today.

Nick Howell of The Pilchard Works, the force behind the re-branding of Cornish pilchards as Cornish sardines, describes the demise of the industry: “In 1861, 16,000 tonnes of sardines were caught and a great haul went out to Italy and other Catholic countries to eat on Fridays and during Lent … In the 1990s there were less than 10 tonnes landed, the stock was there but the demand wasn’t.” Step forward Sanjay Kumar, who in our Fish Fight times has spotted an opening for the highly sustainable, nutritious and tasty sardina pilchardus: “My little campaign to preserve sardines will be a fight forever.” If, as Sanjay discovered, salted sardines are selling in Emilia Romagna today, what went wrong in Cornwall?

Getting Maria Damanaki firmly on side, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Sanjay asked her how we could re-kindle the love of sardines and she replied that: “traceability and labeling are key”, adding that: “if we need a change, we need public support and the UK audience is more informed than any other European country.” History teaches us that the importance of the little blue fish cannot be underestimated: entire Cornish towns were once built on the pilchard/sardine industry, St Ives is a prime example and few people know that the Bodleian library was built on pilchard money. Just as sardines gaze optimistically into the stars from that Cornish classic, star gazey pie, so Sanjay is a chef for whom the sky’s the limit, finally bringing an optimistic and inspiring note to the future of the UK’s fishing industry.

Sicily’s most famous sardine pasta dish: Pasta con le sarde (translated from La Cucina Siciliana by Eufemia Pupella)

This is a quintessentially Sicilian dish, specifically from Palermo and absolutely delicious, totally easy to make, not to mention healthy. Key tastes are pine nuts, almonds, sardines and sultanas, a sweet/savoury fusion of Arab provenance. It’s a seasonal dish – best served March to September owing to availability of both fresh sardines and foraging for wild fennel (abundant down in Cornwall at the moment, keep an eye out for lacy aniseed fronds, much coveted in Sicily).

You will need:

  • 1kg bucatini pasta (fat hollow straws, easily substituted for spaghetti but don’t tell the Italians)
  • 1kg fresh sardines (heads and tails removed, gutted)
  • 500g wild fennel (or parsley if you can’t find any)
  • 5-6 anchovy fillets
  • 50g toasted almonds
  • 35g sultanas or raisins
  • 35g pine nuts
  • 1 medium onion
  • A pinch of saffron
  • White flour
  • Salt and pepper

Rinse fennel and boil in salted water. Drain but save the water for boiling the pasta. In a wide, deep-sided frying pan, sauté the chopped onion with the anchovies, crushing them with a fork until they dissolve. Add the sultanas, pine nuts and pinch of saffron, throw in chopped fennel, half the sardines and season with black pepper.

Cook over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally. Top up the fennel cooking water to boil the bucatini or spaghetti. When pasta is cooked, add a pinch of saffron to the water. Drain and mix the pasta with two parts of the sauce. Put into a baking tin or dish which has been oiled and sprinkled with breadcrumbs (not essential). Heat the remaining sauce, adding a little oil and the other half of the sardines. Cover the pasta with this sauce.

Scatter over chopped, toasted almonds. Bake in a hot oven for about 10 minutes. Serve with a Sicilian wine, followed by tiramisu and a glug of limoncello. Buonissimo.

 

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