I’m not sure at what stage the idea of food being sold as ‘sexy’ came about. I mean, I’m sure there have always been those who, thanks to their own private preferences, see food in a special way, but I’m talking about that branded sexiness you see around almost everything to do with food and cooking in the advertising and media. Whether it’s phallic representations of asparagus, recipe columns that insist on the sexiness of their product or, of course, Nigella Lawson, taking the whole thing to a comically absurd level, there seems to have been an across-the-board decision at some point that, for some reason, this is a sensible way present food. I think it probably happened at some time in the late 80s or early 90s, not long before the arrival of a young, supremely irritating (but, nevertheless, I’ll grudgingly confess, rather compelling) Jamie Oliver, on the basis that you never caught Delia or Keith Floyd at it, let alone Gary Rhodes or Sophie Grigson. In any case, it’s stuck, and there seems to be no getting away from it. I’m not the first to notice, either.
All that is all very well and one mustn’t, like King Canute commanding the retreat of the tides, grumble, but what of the unsexy foods? It’s all very well to be exhorted to prepare slippery linguini, squeezable tomatoes and fattily dribbling medium-rare steaks, but I’m sure many of us hanker occasionally for something a little guiltier and less photogenic. In this case, I’m talking here of the humble tinned sardine. I’m not sure tinned fish will ever be accused of sexiness. What it lacks in style though, it makes up for in good, old fashioned indefatigability; none of your E-numbers or cold-smoking for the tinned sardine! It keeps nature’s insistence upon decay at bay using nothing but some oil and the non-negotiable obstacle of a steel wall between it and anything that might cause it to decompose. How long (meaningless best before dates aside) would it take for a tin of sardines to go off? Ten years? Fifty Years? Never?
Real Fast Food doesn’t shy away from the use of tinned fish, devoting a small chapter to it. Nigel goes into some detail on the varying quality of the tinned fish out there, from French canned sardines, where the producers “…even declare vintages, like those in wine” to the more run of the mill tuna, smoked oysters and mussels where, despite their packing liquids being “…almost invariably horrid…” can provide the basis for a lunch no less interesting than one might prepare from fresh ingredients.
For this recipe, I mixed a teaspoon of preparatory curry powder with the juice of a lemon, spooned it over a tin’s worth of sardines, and chucked the lot under a hot grill for literally 60 seconds (long enough for them to begin to sizzle slightly) before gently placing the lot on top of a slice of sourdough (gone a little hard, but saved amply by the toaster. Does sourdough bread ever really go off? It just seems rather to change in what it’s useful for with each passing day) alongside a generous dollop of Mango Chutney which, if I’m honest with myself, I could probably quite happily tuck into a whole jar of, if nobody was looking.
I must confess, I didn’t hold out enormous hopes for this recipe. The sheer simplicity and humble store-cupboard-ness of the ingredients list and the idea of putting canned sardines under a grill made me think the whole thing would resemble the kind of thing you might throw together upon returning home at 1am, hungry and a little the worse for wear, but the whole thing actually came together wonderfully. The fruity acid of the lemon and gentle, spicy warmth of the curry powder cut across the oiliness of the fish clearly and logically, and the chutney, as it does with practically anything, complimented the lot and made it a really enjoyable thing to eat. In a way, it barely qualifies as cooking, but I suppose is no lazier than boiling some pasta or baking a potato, just a lot, lot quicker which, let’s face it, makes it a likelier and perhaps even more pleasing lunch for one.
Buy your own copy of Nigel Slater’s ‘Real Fast Food’ HERE.