Sarde a beccafico
Whenever I see fresh sardines at the market, shimmering with their silver scales, I have to have them, regardless of what was going to be on the menu before I noticed them. Packed full of flavour, nutrients and cheap as chips, they are an essential ingredient in regional Italian home cooking from top to toe of the peninsula.
Pasta con le sarde is probably my all time favourite pasta dish, in any of its guises (though I’ve always loved the Sicilian one with toasted pine nuts, currants, fennel tops or dried fennel flowers and golden breadcrumbs), while sarde in soar, deep fried, vinegar-marinated sardines, are one of my must-have Venetian cicchetti – I could eat an entire platter of them in one sitting.
On this last particular outing to the market when the sardines were spotted, I knew what we had to make with them. It’s a dish that my late father in law loved and one of those dishes I have on a list of things I must make before I die (I do like a list. And pinboards too).
Sarde a beccafico is a well known Sicilian dish, particularly loved in Palermo. It’s essentially a poor dish, a fisherman’s dish, made from the most economic of ingredients, a cheap version of a sought-after dish meant for nobles. Beccafico (“fig-pecker”) refers to a songbird that was historically considered a great delicacy in many Mediterranean countries — the French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, said of the beccafico, “If it were the size of a pheasant, it would be worth an acre of land.”
Now, it is mostly a forgotten dish, with the practice of hunting these birds, thankfully, illegal in many countries. The sardines, stuffed, rolled and baked, are said to resemble the cooked, stuffed birds.
The stuffing is a traditional one, a balance of sweet and savoury, with plump raisins, nutty pine nuts and the kick of salted anchovies. It’s also a thrifty one, with breadcrumbs, humble and plentiful, featuring largely. A little like my favourite pasta con le sarde.
First thing’s first.
Prepare the scaled sardines in a clean bowl in the sink as running water will be handy. You can do this with your hands, no knife needed, though admittedly it’s best to clean sardines this way when they’re a few days old rather than freshest of fresh.
Heads are ripped off. Then, run your nail along the length of the sardine, opening the fish flat like a book. The spine can then easily be pulled out. Rinse. Place on paper towel to dry.
And that’s it. They’re ready for their transformation, to mimic a historic delicacy for nobles.
Sarde a beccafico
Some recipes also include capers, garlic, orange instead of the lemon, even grated pecorino cheese. It’s also traditional to use fresh bay leaves, carefully placed between each rolled sardine.
- 50 gr raisins or dried currants
- 800 gr of fresh sardines (whole)
- 100 gr breadcrumbs
- 3-4 salted anchovies, rinsed well
- 50 gr pine nuts
- chopped, fresh parsley
- juice and zest of 1 lemon
- olive oil
Begin by soaking the raisins or currants (raisins are plumper and usually sweeter, currants are much smaller and I think nicer in this dish) in lukewarm water and in the meantime, prepare your sardine fillets as described above, until you have them all clean and opened flat.
In a skillet, toast the breadcrumbs with a few glugs of olive oil until golden. Transfer them to a bowl and add the drained raisins, the anchovies, chopped finely, the pine nuts, the parsley and the lemon zest. Combine well.
Place a teaspoon of this mixture on the inside of each fillet then roll it up. Place side by side, tails sticking up, in a well-oiled baking tray. Scatter any remaining breadcrumb mixture over the top and sprinkle olive oil and lemon juice over the top then place in a hot oven (about 200-220ºC) for about 15-20 minutes or until cooked and golden brown. Let rest for a moment before serving this dish warm or at room temperature, rather than piping hot.