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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.)


  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.

  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!

  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)

  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.

  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

  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.

  7. We are of similar vintage 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

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