Tuesday, June 11, 2013


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?

I'm confused.


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.



  1. Ach, just avoid the piscine confusion and order a pizza--but without anchovies.

  2. Sardines share something in common with anchovies, though, which is that they are oily fish, meaning that they have oil in their tissues, while whitefish like cod only have oil in their livers.

    Don't worry--I will forget all this stuff by the end of the week.

  3. You few you'll forget? Eat fish; it's good for the brain.

    Your discussion has, by the way, taught me the difference between oily fish and the other kind. My doctor says I should eat the oily ones.

  4. Yes, I think it's the oil rather than the name of the fish that turns out to be important.

    I don't just fear I'll forget. I know I'll forget.

    I did eat some tuna last night, so thought I'd check out whether it was an oily fish or a whitefish. Turns out that it is an oily fish, but when it's canned they take out a lot of the oil so it's no more healthy for you than a whitefish.

    And, heading into ever more murky waters, it also turns out that 59% of the tuna Americans eat is not actually tuna!

  5. Next thing, I may find reason to grow skeptical of corporations, advertising, and consumer capitalism.

  6. Peter, sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

    Kathleen, yes, good advice, except apparently in the case of escolar, which apparently can cause some uncontrollable side effects if more than six ounces are eaten at a time. Bad news is that 89% of white tuna is actually escolar. Good news is that though the side effects are unpleasant, they are not actually harmful. Also, it's apparently delicious.

  7. I ate a tuna sandwich for lunch today. At least, I thought I did.

  8. First of all, I have come to love Sardines ahead of this post. I love them, love them, love them. And they're good for me. And now, I don't know what I was actually eating in restaurants with "fresh sardines" because they were definitely bigger than six inches. So probably pilchard.

    But I have to say, after seeing that video, I now have the first item on my bucket list.

  9. Jaybird, I think I learned about sardines' nutritional value from you. Pilchards are sardines, so I wouldn't worry about it.

    That's the first item on your bucket list?

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