I wouldn't have come up with this one on my own at all. I just happened to be playing a word game that had a "fun fact" at the end, suggested that a sardine is not actually a type of fish at all--more of a category. I assume they must know what they're talking about, but all the same, I was surprised. I've heard sardines are quite healthy for you, but is this just true across the board for all small fish?
No surprise--it's true. Sardine is the name for any number of small fish. The Free Online Dictionary tells us first that it is one of numerous small or half grown oily fish, herrings or others, from the family Clupeidae. The second definition, though, is: " Any of numerous small, silvery, edible freshwater or marine fishes unrelated to the sardine." (Emphasis mine.)
I guess the real question is, when is a small fish not a sardine? When it's a pilchard?
This article in The Independent took the whole region of Cornwall to task for rebranding the lowly pilchard as the "Cornish sardine". I hadn't noticed that the sardine was any less lowly than the pilchard, but apparently there was some kind of perception problem. Wikipedia uses sardine and pilchard interchangeably. And even the aforementioned article ends with advise from the "food industry":
But when is a pilchard a sardine? "A pilchard is bigger than a sardine," explained a food industry source last week. "Anything under six inches is a sardine, and anything over six inches is a pilchard - but could also be called a sardine." Perfectly straightforward then.
The problem stems perhaps from the source of the name itself. The thought is that it comes to us through Latin from the Greek sardine, sardinos and is thought to refer back to the island of Sardos, which we know as Sardinia, and around which the fish once swum in abundance. However the Online Etymology Dictionary also gives a dissenting opinion, that of etymologist Ernest Klein:
"It is hardly probable that the Greeks would have obtained fish from so far as Sardinia at a time relatively so early as that of Aristotle, from whom Athenaios quotes a passage in which the fish sardinos is mentioned."
Whether Klein is in a position to know how far Aristotle would go for small, oily fish, I don't know. But one thing is sure--I am not.
It seems fitting to end this post with the festival called "The Burial of the Sardine". This is the way Spain celebrates the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. Each town has its own tradition, but the basic pattern is that the "Sardine" in some form is carried through the streets by a procession of "mourners" and ritually burned at the end.
We can start with Goya's famous painting, El Entierro de la Sardina , which captures the spirit of the festival, though not, unfortunately, the sardine. It is thought to have been painted sometime around 1810, and I guess we can presume this was not the first festival, so it must go back a long way.
If that's not to your liking, maybe this modern day procession is. There are any number of YouTubes up, but I particularly like the 'mourners' in this one. It took place in Sitges, which is on the coast near Barcelona.