By far one of my favourite Venetian cicchetti is sarde in saor – fried fresh sardine fillets marinated in softly cooked white onions, usually with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts, all preferably prepared the day before serving. Found in the bacari nestled along Venice’s narrow laneways, where one stops for an ombra (a tiny rounded glass of local wine) and a bite to eat, this cicchetto is just as suitable as an antipasto at the table.
The sharpness of the vinegar wakens the tastebuds, while the sweetness of the odd raisin here or there and the creamy nuttiness of the pine nuts balances the sourness. It is the ultimate sweet and sour, or agrodolce, dish.
Before the time of modern refrigeration, saor (the technique of marinating fried food in vinegar and other ingredients) was a favourite method of conservation not only for Venetian fishermen, but even across the whole Venetian countryside. Although sardines are the most popular fish “in saor”, you can even find chicken or vegetables like pumpkin or eggplant, cut into thick slices and fried before undergoing the same treatment. Your chosen food “in saor” could be served with grilled polenta as an antipasto or lunch and would keep well over the course of a week.
Recipes for sarde in saor date back to 1300s, in the “Libro per cuoco” by the so-called Anonimo Veneziano (the “anonymous Venetian”). The traditional recipe calls for sliced white onions cooked in oil and vinegar topping fried sardines, all kept in a terracotta dish. It was a dish generally eaten well after the day it was made and even now, it’s always recommended to wait 24 hours before serving. Eventually, raisins were added for a bit of much-needed sweetness that balances the mouth-puckering vinegar, and a final (modern) touch – pine nuts. Sometimes you’ll find recipes for it with or without the added spices such as cinnamon (that favourite Venetian spice); sometimes there’s the addition of fresh bay leaves or pink peppercorns and sometimes – for those that truly love the sweet part of sweet and sour – even with candied citrus fruit. A friend of mine makes it with slices of lemon but without the raisins or pine nuts.
Sarde in Saor
- 12 fresh sardines, cleaned, heads and backbone removed and butterflied
- Flour for dusting
- Vegetable, seed or olive oil for frying
- Some white wine
- a handful of raisins
- 1 white onion
- 250 ml of white wine vinegar
- 1 clove, ground or crushed
- 1 tsp coriander seeds, ground or crushed
- freshly ground black pepper
- a handful of pine nuts
Dust the sardine fillets in flour and deep fry in plenty of oil until golden and crisp. Season with salt and set aside on some paper towel to drain until needed.
Soak the raisins in some white wine to soften them. Meanwhile, slice the white onion finely and saute gently in some olive oil until they are transparent, then add the vinegar, pepper and spices. Let it cook for a few minutes then remove from heat.
In a small terrine or deep dish, place a layer of sardines, top them with some of the onions, some of the raisins (drained) and pine nuts, and continue layering until the sardines are used up, then top with a layer of onions, raisins, pine nuts and finish with the vinegar sauce poured over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate at least 24 hours before serving.
Serve as part of an antipasto. These are best eaten at room temperature, removing from the fridge a couple of hours beforehand.