Sardines, both fresh and canned, are taken seriously in Spain. Today I'll focus on the canned sardines, or sardinas. While canned sardines are comfort food in Spain, enjoyed mainly at home, they don't have anything like the lowly status they suffer from in the United States. I think it was the Spanish writer Julio Camba who once said sardines would be considered luxury food if they only cost more. At least part of the reason for this attitude is that Spanish sardines are so good.
The best sardines are from Galicia, in the northwestern part of the country. They're packed in virgin olive oil. The texture is firm, never mushy, and the sardines have a brilliant silvery skin.
The taste is clean, never strong or fishy. Even better are sardinillas, or little sardines, also from Galicia. Esperanza, my mother-in-law, gave me this advice: always look for sardinillas with a count on the can. That way you know you're getting the smallest (and usually the best) sardines possible. Look to the bottom left hand corner of this box of sardinillas:
The "16/20 piezas" guarantees you that there will be at least sixteen little sardines in the can.
And my absolute favorite are sardinillas picantes, with a hot pepper, or guindilla. Unfortunately these spicy sardinillas are still difficult to find in the U.S.
In Spain it would be nothing unusual to serve a dish of sardinillas alongside toasted nuts, olives, roasted peppers, pickles, and other simple appetizers just before the comida, or main meal.
They also make a great simple Spanish meal. Serve them with a salad, good bread, and an albarino, or maybe a Portuguese vinho verde. Both are perfect wines for sardines.
There are other reasons to eat sardines. They are extremely good for you, with their omega 3's and calcium. They're low in mercury.
Sardines are also a relatively sustainable fish, much more so than the farmed raised salmon so often found in our fish markets. In his New York Times article "A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish," Mark Bittman writes, "Myself, I’d rather eat wild cod once a month and sardines once a week than farm-raised salmon, ever."