It’s hardly surprising that many Sicilian recipes are based on sardines.
Sardines, commonly found off the Sicilian coast, are cheap and easy to get and so play a large role in cucina povera. I first tasted this dish in Palermo but stuffed sardines, the poor man’s version of cucina baronale, are found all over the island. Lots of variations of course, but this is Sarde a Beccafico Palermitani. It was served as antipasti but could easily have been used as a main dish (secondo)
Beccafico (something like ‘fig beak’)is a small, plump bird which dines on figs all Summer. The Sicilian nobility would eat these birds complete with all the figgy guts.
This dish was a favourite of Maria Carolina, the wife of King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies. Well used to the good life, she imported French chefs to the royal court in Palermo in 1805. These chefs, known as Monsú, a corruption of the word monsieur, produced magnificent over-the-top meals, quintessential baroque opulence expressed in sophisticated presentations. The good life indeed.
Beccafico was obviously out of range of the locals. For a start, they were banned from eating birds destined for the Queen’s table, so they recreated the dish for themselves with sardines and stuffed them with breadcrumbs rather than innards. They filled their specialities with spices, lemon juice, pinenuts and raisins. During assembly, the tail of the fish is twisted upward in imitation of the bird’s tail. The Sicilian name of the plate recalls the bird: sarde a beccafico.
Please, you really can’t make sarde a beccafico from a can of sardines although I’m sure if you were desperate you could manage something almost similar. Buy some sardines from the market, they’re a lot bigger than the canned variety and you can often get the fishmonger to prepare them for you.
Joe Malignaggi reports that the sardines are not so plentiful anymore in Sicily. From recorded sources back to the medieval Mediterranean, the most important industry was fishing, and the leader in the industry was Sicily. The fasting prescriptions of the church assured that fish would always be in demand and it was fairly easy to harvest. Sardines, tuna and sea bass were plentiful.
So news that the sardines have declined is sad news and makes me feel like this statue near La Fontana Pretoria in Palermo.
But let’s get to the recipe while we still can …
- 1 kilo sardines (approx)
- good olive oil (extravergine)
- 1 lemon
- 1 medium onion
- about a cup of pine nuts
- about a cup of raisins (uvetta or uva passa)
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated parmigiano
- 1/2 cup grated peccorino
- pinch of salt
- a large packet of bay leaves (about 20 or more)
- Scale, gut and clean sardines. Split open to remove backbone, but don't cut in half.
- In a heavy pan, over low flame, lightly toss the finely chopped onion
- When the onion is golden, add the pine nuts and raisins to the pan
- Take off the heat after a few minutes
- In a large bowl, mix the cheeses together
- Add the breadcrumbs to the bowl and mix it all together.
- Add a pinch of salt
- Add a little squeeze of lemon and some lemon zest
- Add the onion/raisin/pine nut mix
- Add oil, a little at a time, to make a nice stuffing mixture
- Carefully pack the stuffing mixture into the sardines
- Roll up starting with the edge opposite the tail. If you can't get them to roll nicely, use a skewer
- When rolled, place side by side in baking dish with tail sticking up.
- Place a thick layer of bay leaves at the bottom of a baking dish
- Place the sardines on top
- Place a bay leaf between each fish
- Pour some oil over the sardines
- Squeeze a little more lemon over them
- Bake in a medium oven for about 10 minutes
- Serve either hot or cold with rosemary leaves or Italian parsley over the top