Sardines come from Sardinia, at least the name does. They can be any small oily fish, and a young pilchard may be so described. At one time in history the young pilchard was apparently very prolific in the seas around this Mediterranean island, which is how the sardine got its name. ‘Sardines’ are exclusively tinned fish nowadays; named ‘pilchards’ they may be sold tinned or fresh, but a tinned pilchard is a slightly larger fish than a tinned sardine. Sprats are only available as fresh fish. Sardines are a name not a species, and are a British food; they have been around for a long time. The novelist Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882) refers to sardines; the angular sardine tins were then called boxes, and ‘fish in boxes’ were served at one of the tea parties he describes. Tins for the preservation of meat were developed for the Royal Navy by the innovative engineer Bryan Donkin in the early 1800s. The tinning of fish soon followed, and sardines were the perfect size and flavour for this.
You used to have to remove a key from the tin and wind back the lid to gain entry to the fish inside, and if the key had been lost (as sometimes happened) you had a problem; but now you just have to pull back a ring instead. The technology has improved a little, but the taste of the fish remains the same as it has always been. Tomato sauce or other more exotic flavourings are added nowadays, but in my opinion you cannot improve on the plain fish served in brine or sunflower oil. The overfed and over-indulged consumers of 2017 may dismiss the humble tin of sardines as beneath contempt, but they are much better for you than the processed snacks that the manufacturers love to force down your throat; they are also much cheaper. At one time I used to buy a tin of pilchards to feed my dog, as it was cheaper than buying a tin of dogfood; nor was it bulked out with such indigestible ingredients as ash, which happens with some commercially produced dogfood.
Besides being an inexpensive source of protein, sardines do not require cooking or even heating to provide the basis of a meal. A tin of sardines, with sufficient fish to feed a person, or even two if they are not too greedy, may be bought at Sainbury’s for under 50p; at other shops they may be had for less. When there are such nutritious and cheap foods available, people must be in dire circumstances indeed to need to access a food bank. I am glad there are those charitable folk who support these facilities; I just hope that none of these hungry recipients of free food spend any of their scarce resources on smoking. Unlike a sardine, a cigarette is both bad for you and expensive. You may protest that such people are in the grip of an addiction, but I used to smoke and I know that with just a little will power it is not hard to give it up.
‘Sardines’ is also the name of a party game, played by children. The adults in whose house the game is played have to be quite relaxed about the resulting mayhem, because the game requires that as many children as possible squeezing into small an unsuitable corners of the dwelling. My own childhood house was too small for the playing of sardines as we were squeezed in like sardines anyway, but my grandmothers home in Kings Lynn was amply big enough, and at Christmas I and my cousins would crowd under beds or into wardrobes while others found us and joined us. It was also a popular game during the long winter evenings at weekends at boarding school. The lack of domestic furniture in which to hide was compensated for by the much larger area in which to hide, in box rooms and cupboards. Whether at school or not, ‘lights out’ was a prerequisite of playing sardines.