Sarde in sa’or – sardines in a sweet and sour sauce – a tribute to the market fishmongers

Fish markets in Italy are fascinating, often steeped in history and tradition. They can be found in rather special places, like the markets in Treviso, those in Pola (Pula) in Istria and not forgetting the incredible Rialto market in Venezia.

I imagine that people who work in fish markets must have a passion for it. The relentless task of unpacking boxes of fish; gutting and filleting; wrapping and selling can’t be easy. Yet they seem to do it gracefully and effortlessly. Being in an incredible location might also play a part. The fishmongers working in the Rialto market in Venezia right by the Grand Canal, seem to have a great time, surrounded by so much history (and so many tourists taking photos!).

I also love visiting my favorite fishmongers at the local fish market, the Victoria Market. They smile and we might have a chat whilst I am shopping. They will happily tell me what is fresh and give me tips on how to cook the fish they are recommending. Regular readers will know that the fish that never fails to draw my attention is the sardine, especially if the sardines are already filleted. I start thinking about whether I will serve them crumbed and pan-fried, or with pasta or in sa’or.

Sarde in sa’or is a Venetian style dish. My father called them sardine in savor (in his dialect) and loved them so my mother made them for him often. I have eaten them in other towns along the Adriatic Sea, from Grado, to Trieste. Tradition has it that the dish was favored by Venetian sailors on their long journeys. They bring back strong memories of family and home, in particular my father.

The sardines are filleted then fried and layered with onions which have been cooked in the same pan as the fish. A splash of vinegar is added to the onions and I like to scatter on pine nuts and sweet sultanas. Sardines made this way keep for a week in the fridge and are best left for 24 hours before eating, to let the flavours infuse. The fish is salty and deliciously tasty whilst the onions are soft and sweet and sour at the same time. They are wonderful as a light supper on a hot summer night with a glass of Riesling.

Sarde in sa'or

  • Difficulty: easy
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20 sardines, filleted
1/2 cup olive oil (for cooking)
3 medium sized brown onions, thinly sliced on a mandolin
one bay leaf
5 black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
handful sultanas
handful pinenuts
sea salt
plain flour (for dusting the sardines)

Heat half the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan and add the onions, peppercorns and bay leaf. Cook on medium to low heat, making sure you check them frequently, stirring and adding a bit of water if they are browning. The onions should be soft and lightly golden. Add the vinegar after about 20 minutes and cook for another ten minutes, making sure the onions remain moist. Set the onions aside.

Dust the sardines with flour on both sides. Heat the rest of olive oil in the same frypan and cook the sardines on medium heat on both sides until golden. Place on absorbent paper to soak the excess oil and scatter with some sea salt.

In a ceramic container, preferably with its own lid, place a layer of cooked onions. Scatter on a few sultanas and pine nuts (and a few more black pepper corns if you like), then add a layer of sardines. Repeat the layers three or four times until you have used up all the onions and sardines, the top layer should be onions. Drizzle on a bit of olive oil if it looks dry.

Place in the fridge covered for at least a day before serving.

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