World of Mouth: The Burial of the Sardine

The column that brings you festivals from around the world; this week why are are the Spanish people holding funerals for sardines?

Sardine 311 (photo credit: Johanna Bailey)
Sardine 311
(photo credit: Johanna Bailey)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
If you happen to be in Madrid on March 9th this year, you might see them. A group of men and women walking through the streets, the men clad in black capes and top hats, the women in black lace mantillas. The traditional Spanish mourning clothes, tears, and an abundance of Kleenex make it obvious that this is a sad occasion. Or is it? Because upon closer inspection you might see that the tears are just as likely to be of laughter and merriment than of grief.
But there's something else that will clue you in to the fact that this is no ordinary funeral- the size of the coffin which is no bigger than a shoe box. Did an illustrious cat die? Somebody's very special pet bunny? Finally, there's the song that the mourners are singing. Listen carefully and you'll hear the words, “Dear Sardine, don't abandon us, your faithful friends, we won't be consoled...”
A sardine? Yes indeed. Because if you happen upon this unusual sight, what you're seeing is the famous Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine), a funeral for a sardine that's been taking place in Madrid for over 200 years. Many believe that the strange ritual got started back in the 18th century during the time of Carlos III. Rumour has it that a large shipment of sardines arrived in Madrid and that the government decided (whether out of the goodness of their own hearts or just because they had no clue what to do with all that fish,) to distribute them to people. Sadly, it was soon discovered that the sardines had already gone bad so what was there to do but bury them? And so, fueled by a great deal of alcohol and good spirits, this is exactly what the people did.
Apparently the experience was a fun one, so much so, that the next year a group of people decided to do it again. The group soon became known as La Cofradia del Entierro de la Sardina or, The Merry Brotherhood of the Burial of the Sardine, and save for about 16 years during the Civil War and early days of Franco, they've been burying sardines every year since. Because the funeral takes place on Ash Wednesday, to most Madrileños, the ritual has come to symbolize the end of Carnival itself. A funeral not just for a fish, but for all the gaiety, good times and carnal delights that make up the Carnival season. The event has now spread to other regions throughout Spain including the Canary Islands, Catalunya, Murcia and the Costa del Sol. Marking the transition from hedonistic revelry to sobriety and restraint, the event has become an integral part of Spanish culture, perhaps most famously memorialized in Goya's 1814 painting, El Entierro de la Sardina.
A sardine is actually not just one specific fish. Rather, the word "sardine" is a general term used to refer to a number of silvery oily saltwater fish related to the herring. Sardines are excellent for your health, rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of vitamin D, calcium and protein. They’re low in contaminants such as mercury and can be fished sustainably. They’re also very tasty and found in abundance in the waters of the Mediterranean. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that sardines are an integral part of Spanish cuisine. Go into any tapas bar in the country and you’re likely to see fresh sardines on the menu. Flip through any Spanish cookbook and you’re sure to find at least one or two recipes for grilled, roasted, fried, stuffed, marinated, pickled or baked sardines.
In the US, sardines are usually found salted, smoked, or canned. Up until about 60 years ago, tinned sardines (which are actually herring) were a lunchtime staple for many, showing up in sandwiches and on crackers. There were once scores of sardine-packing plants spread up and down the East Coast but in April 2010, the very last one closed its doors for good (if ever a sardine funeral was called for...).
Nevertheless, a growing number of chefs in the United States are using fresh sardines in their dishes and many are finding that the fresh version of this little fish has very little to do in either appearance or flavor, with its canned counterpart. Considering their excellent flavor, health properties and sustainability, they’re sure to continue popping up on menus and appearing in specialty fish markets. If you’d like to attend a funeral for one though, you’ll have to head to Spain.
One of the most popular ways to eat sardines in Spain is to fry them. Check your local markets for fresh sardines and then try this delicious recipe for fried sardines from Bill Pitts of the food blog "Simple Spanish Food."
Sardinas Fritas (Esperanza's Fried Sardines)
I cannot emphasize enough:  start with good fresh sardines. (DO NOT try this with frozen sardines: like many "blue" fish, sardines just don't freeze well).
The eyes should be clear. The fish should be shiny and bright. For frying, sardines 7 inches or less are best. (Larger sardines are better for grilling over coals.) Small sardines are quite easy to scale.
Esperanza just puts them in a pail of water and rubs them between her fingers. The scales fall away.  Next she cleans the sardines--cuts the heads off and guts them. She sprinkles them with salt and dusts them with flour. Finally she simply fries them in about an inch of hot olive oil, until they're golden (about 2-3 minutes per side if the oil is hot).
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