Skip to main content

A shorter history of the sardine tin; and a recipe.

When I was a child, about five or six years old, I used to go into the kitchen and open the lower door in the corner cupboard.

Behind this door, at floor level, were literally thousands of tins. They could have fed the family (of nine) for years, decades even. Is this an exaggeration? It didn’t seem to be at the time. There were mountains of them, all piled in without being stacked like with like. It looked like a supermarket after an earthquake. There were tins of Biddy's peas, PMU carrots, Big Sister chocolate pudding, SPC spaghetti and baked beans, Tom Piper sausages and vegetables, Keen's mustard powder, Berri tomato juice, Letona apricot juice, Bear Brand and Carnation condensed milk, Ardmona halved pears, IXL strawberry jam, Edgell mushrooms in sauce, kidney beans, tongue, ham, camp pie, tuna, sardines, salmon, cat food; and the odd packet of Kookaburra spaghetti, Mammy flour (free coin of the world in every pack) and O-So-Lite self-raising flour. They’re the ones I can recall in a couple of minutes.

Out of the mess, I used to take tins of sardines and remove their keys to play with. There were plenty more sardine tins in there, so I figured a few missing keys would not matter. I used to take them away and try to unlock locks with them. It never worked but it was fun trying.

(The sardine tins, of course, contained all the same thing: sardines packed in oil. These days they come in brine, springwater, tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, mustard sauce, mango chilli sauce, reduced salt brine, low-carb beer, whisky and soda ... just kidding on the last two, but surely it’s just a matter of time.)

*

Last time I looked, which was last week, the same cupboard door in my mother’s house concealed the same jumble of tinned food, in a household reduced to one: her. But she keeps buying more! The stockpile of tins will no doubt one sad day be read out in her Will.

*

Sardine tins have kept commercial artists busy for generations. Images of fish leaping out of cobalt oceans, mermaids with flaxen hair sitting on rocks in the sea with a sunset behind, old ships with tattered sails, mountains in the distance, villages on the mountains, red-roofed houses in the villages: all of these have graced sardine tins, sometimes all at once.

Santa Maria sardines are relatively restrained in the cover art department, but still present a striking presence on the shelf. Their sardines with chilli are particularly good: three fat silvery headless and tail-less fish in good quality oil infused with warm chilli. Delicious in soft bread with salted butter and scattered with capers, but I used them in this very simple late night pasta dish:

Spaghetti with sardines, red capsicum and toasted pine nuts.

Start cooking your spaghetti.

Meanwhile, bake a red capsicum with a clove of garlic and peel the skin off when done (place in paper bag to cool after baking; condensation apparently assists skin removal). Cut into thin strips; peel and chop garlic.

Toast a good handful of pine nuts.

Warm sardines, either by placing tin in boiling water, or by gently warming sardines in a pan.

When pasta is done, drain and place in serving bowls with capsicum strips, the chopped clove of garlic, and a sardine or two on top. Scatter toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley. The oil works as a binder aglio e olio-style.

*

A note about sardine tin keys

How did the key work? It was soldered to the tin at very tip and had a crimp so you could snap it off by bending the key away from the tin. Then you unpicked the loose end of the metal seal that ran around the tin, fed it into the eye of the key and unwound it, wrapping it around the key.

Sardine tin keys haven’t been around for years. Sometimes I wish we still had them, mainly when I pull the ring of a ring-pull tin and it snaps off at the base, leaving the tin impregnable except for a small hole where the ring-pull has snapped off, so the contents will perish. (This only happens when you are camping and away from a tin-opener.)

Comments

  1. We never ever had sardines, but anchovies were packed the same way. Slice a loaf of round, flat bread warm from the oven horizontally, dot with torn anchovies and a bit of the oil from the can, add parmesan cheese and close the whole thing up again. I still make it today.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not sure if I know about the keys you mention, but I've definitely been a victim of tin-rings that snap off, leaving me bereft of sardines. Sigh. I like the sound of your spaghetti!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi KH...glad to catch up with your blog....I've missed your succinct commentary.

    On the matter of sardines...Santa Maria is my favourite brand, but getting so difficult to find in the supermarkets here as they seem to be stocking more of their home brand stuff, and I'm not happy!

    Came across a few cans last week and bought the lot! That may be the last I'll see of them here in Bundy.....(I'll put them with all my other cans, as like your Mum I tend to hoard stuff away)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Real comfort food, Diane.

    Leaf, keys last sighted about ten years ago.

    White Dove, some IGA independents stock them especially in areas with large southern European populations.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Are you sure we didn't grow up in the same household KH?

    I remember the little keys on the tins of sardines. They were a real bugger when they snapped off half way through opening the can.
    I love sardines. In oil. No other way
    Lesley

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well, there were quite a lot of children, Melbourne Girl! Dad used to run through all their names before he got to the right one. I don't recall a Lesley ... !

    We are probably a similar era, if I may be so bold.

    ReplyDelete
  7. We are of similar vintage KH...you may be as bold as you like.
    I do remember lots of cans of stuff in the cupboards, in fact an old house I bought many years ago had a lot of canned stuff stored in the bedroom. The elderly lady had been through the depression and it had never left her
    Sardines in some boiled rice. Lovely....or tinned tuna, in oil of course. It's my go-to meal when nothing else takes my fancy

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The fish that time forgot.

Smoked cod is still available in the fish section of the deli at the supermarket. You just don’t notice it any more. It’s the only fish that has been stocked continuously since the 1950s. I never see anyone buy it. People take numbers and line up for banana prawns and Tasmanian Atlantic salmon and ling and oysters and scallops and that rendered substance they call crab stick, but never the cod . Further, I’ve never seen smoked cod served outside my own kitchen. It is the world’s only food never to have been served in a restaurant . Nor have I ever encountered smoked cod at a dinner party. Plenty of other smoke; smoked salmon, smoked ricotta, smoked beef, smoked gruyère, smoked eel, and in the old days, smoke itself in a couple of varieties; but smoked cod, no. Most tellingly, my mother, who in 1968, when she had seven children at home aged from brand new to seventeen and used to buy several kilograms of the stuff she called 'Cape Cod' weekly, has not served smoked cod at her

The new house.

We picked up the keys last week. I had noticed there are no wire screens on the windows and no evidence of any having ever been there. Inside, the window furnishings are 1950s cream venetian blinds, side drapes of gold satin and filmy lace between. All in good order, just a little dusty. I raised the venetians with some difficulty, they appeared not to have been lifted for a long time. Behind them, the double-hung sash windows are original shellacked cedar, twelve throughout the house. Many of the sashes were stuck. I wrestled them for most of the day. Just one failed to respond. The rest eventually squeaked along their vertical tracks. Every counterweight cord was clean and in perfect condition. Regular use should grey the cords because of the oil or metal stain from pulleys. Amazingly, these windows appear not to have been opened for decades.

Sunshine in a tin: Orange Cake.

Late last week, we drove around the big circle from midday to six o'clock. Midday is Melbourne, six o'clock is the house at the beach and Port Phillip Bay is the clockface. (Ships sail in and out of the bay through a very small and extremely dangerous gap between six thirty-six and six thirty-nine.) The days have been cold and overcast. On Friday, the fog over Arthur's Seat refused to move but hung there as if it were loosely tied down, like a wet tarpaulin on a HQ ute. Later, the sun's rays tried a few exploratory pokes through the mist and then gave up. Saturday was brighter. Out early to the market where we bought a few things, bunch of carrots, bag of potatoes, an old book. It's a farmers' market but they have junk as well if you're bored by vegetables. Then an early lunch outside the Blairgowrie café in pale sunshine amidst the usual Saturday tangle of people and prams and newspapers and dogs. In the afternoon I mowed the lawn and pottered about and

Pug.

Nine-thirty on a glorious late-summer Friday morning, not a cloud in the sky. Twenty-five degrees, a nice fresh salty breeze, not much traffic about, a few shoppers here and there, a delivery van idling in the side street, children back at school, everything back to normal. A man was sitting at a table under a broad umbrella outside the Blairgowrie cafe. He was holding the morning broadsheet out in front of him and he was staring intently at the op-ed page with a deeply furrowed brow. The pug on his knee was also staring at the opinion page but the pug had a mad grin on its face. A waiter brought out a coffee. The man placed the dog gently on the ground with a look that said I'm really, really sorry but coffee is very, very hot and it could burn you if you knock it over. Then the man went on reading the editorials and the pug sat blinking in the sunshine on the end of its leash tied to the leg of the man's chair. The leash was one of those novelty ones you can buy from pet

Cheap vegetable peelers warming the globe: an exclusive Kitchen Hand insight report.

During my recent jaunt around the Victorian countryside, I found myself missing a vegetable peeler, one of the travel essentials I carry in a box in the boot of the car along with salt and pepper, tea and sugar, enamel cups and plates, basic cutlery and a corkscrew. I must have left the peeler in a camping ground or a hotel room. (Vegetable peelers are among mankind’s most lost items: I regularly find several each spring when I turn over the compost bin.) I called into a Coles supermarket in a medium-sized country town, I don’t know, Maryborough or somewhere, and bought a pack of three peelers. I had to buy three because they won't sell you one. The three peelers come affixed to a hanging cardboard display pack; metal-bladed and with red, white and yellow handles respectively. I took them back to where we were staying, untwisted the metal ties with difficulty, removed the first peeler – the red one - and started to scrape a carrot. The blade gave way, crumpling like the bumper

Anyway, they originated in Afghanistan. Or somewhere.

As part of my one-man global campaign to raise the public profile of the humble Brussels sprout, I present the recipe below. I’ve always loved Brussels sprouts. It’s the name I object to. They sound like diminutive Belgians instead of tasty green vegetables with an earthy but mild flavour and a texture that is kind of creamy-soft yet holds together beautifully. Brussels sprouts never go floppy and fall apart like some other vegetables I could name. You can depend on Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts with bacon and pine nuts on polenta. Boil, or over-boil, depending on your preference, your sprouts. Dice some very good bacon (as against bad bacon, of which there is plenty around) and sizzle it in a pan until it is almost crisp, at which point throw in some very finely chopped red onion and a handful of pine nuts. Take the pan off the flame after a minute or two or when the pine nuts are just starting to brown. Meanwhile, cook up a pot of polenta. Actually, start the polenta firs

Vespa or Honda? Astarra or VicSuper? Alessi orange juicer or me? I can't decide.

A buzzing noise, like a loud mosquito coming up the street, got closer and then stopped outside my house. The postman reached across the pelargonium hedge to the letterbox and then buzzed away again on his Australia Post Honda motor scooter. (A friend of mine has a Honda scooter; he loves it. He told me it runs on nothing and you don’t look like you’re pretending to be someone when you park it outside a Lygon Street café. You look like a postman going out for coffee instead , I said back to him. Better that than looking like a poseur, he said, and anyway, Vespas break down. We joke like this all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.) I fished the mail out of the letterbox and reminded myself to prune the pelargonium. The first envelope had the name Astarra on the front. The letter inside had a headline that read: Significant Event Notice . That means kiss goodbye to your superannuation in a language spawned by bureaucrat-enforced transparency laws. The rest of the letter was about

What if newspaper editors sacked their restaurant reviewers and employed truck drivers to write them instead?

There’d be less of this: ... the tiramisu is a studied but respectful deconstruction ... mains are artfully strewn ... the decent-enough $54 rib eye steak comes with a sauce (red wine) that I think we paid extra for. ... It's Texas meets Chiang Mai ... comes with mustard ice-cream ... the purist in me is screaming ... truffled butter with the house-baked rolls, an amuse bouche, a pre-dessert palate cleanser ... fish is a better bet if food miles are an issue ... Aztec-inspired dishes informed by his recent six-week field trip ... the menu doesn't follow the typical gradient of antipasti, zuppa, primi piatti, but respects its spirit by moving on to braised goat from the wood oven. And more of this: Bimbo’s is one of the old-timers among the eating places along the Hume Highway. It’s at Bargo, about 60 miles out of Sydney. The roadhouse is close to the highway but there’s a huge parking area alongside, and getting off the road is no problem. Day or night, you’ll always find a cou

A shorter history of the Sunday roast, with a recipe for a rainy Sunday night.

The Sunday roast was a childhood fixture. Let me qualify that. It was a fixture until I was about ten years of age, then it slowly disappeared, like the Latin Mass at about the same time. Perhaps there were too many children to feed. Maybe my mother went through a vegetarian phase, or just couldn’t be bothered doing it any more. I don’t remember. The era passed. While the tradition lasted, the roast was usually ovine. That is to say, sheep. But not lamb. This concept is completely foreign to modern sensibilities: Not lamb? What other kind of edible sheep is there? The same kind actually; just older. The roast we were served was often leg of two-tooth, two-tooth being a farmers’ reference (my grandmother was raised in southern NSW) to a sheep of more than 12 months, otherwise known as hogget; or sometimes leg of mutton, from a sheep older than two years. Lamb is generally considered more tender … but two-tooth, or mutton, cooked properly, had more flavour. And was larger. We were sti