Writing about sardines got my mouth watering, but it’s too early in the year to satisfy that craving. As a substitute, I thought I’d revisit the sardine festival held by the mountain town of Alte.
It starts with a pile of sardines, provided to both residents and visitors by the Town Hall. Volunteers pull them out of the ice and pack them in styrofoam boxes, with copious amounts of rock salt.
The rock salt acts as both a preservative and a spice. The only spice, actually. Above all other things, the Portuguese love their salt.
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Other than providing grilling supplies, packing the sardines is the extent of the Town Hall’s involvement. After that, it’s all up to the festival participants.
Here, a participant is filling up a grilling rack with salted sardines. In the background, you can see the volunteer with a bag of rock salt in hand, preparing to scatter salt on the layer of sardines he has just placed in the other styrofoam box.
Once the sardines are racked, it’s time to head over to the giant grill and get to work. This is a social moment, with people chatting as they watch their fish and make sure the coals don’t flame up. A bottle of water is passed back and forth, which the grillers will sprinkle on the coals near their sardines to keep them from getting too hot. It’s also desirable to have a certain amount of smoke, as this provides additional flavor.
It isn’t just the grillers who gather around the grill. Other participants do as well, drawn to the action and the conversation. For many, this is an opportunity to dress up a bit, despite the near-certainty of leaving the festival smelling like burnt wood.
Grilling is an art form. Too little heat and your fish are mushy, too much and they dry out. The fish on the left are not quite done, while the ones in the back might be a wee bit crispy. Those on the right have just been laid on the grill.
And when the work is all done, the feasting begins. Some families bring piles of side dishes, others bring just the basics: beer and bread. Sardines must be eaten with a beer at hand; it’s simply a requirement.
Fresh bread adds to the flavor (and soaks up the juices), and has the additional benefit of providing a convenient means of getting the meat from the plate to one’s mouth. Most people use a fork only during the process of separating the sardine meat from the bones and skin. The waste products go onto a community trash plate, while the piping hot meat goes onto the bread. Fingers get burned, and that’s part of the tradition too. And I can attest that for a newcomer to the concept, separating out the meat is a definite learning process. But all of that is forgotten the moment the first bite of hot, fresh sardine and bread hits one’s tastebuds. There’s nothing else like it.