Only days after the summer solstice, on June 23, people all across Spain gather for La Noche de San Juan, St. John’s Eve. For those living near the sea, this is a vivacious event at the beach, a jubilant celebration of the summer to come, a time to clean one’s humanness of past debris.
In Galicia, the northwest Spanish province right above Portugal, the sands erupt in bonfires at night. People jump over them, symbolically passing into a new stage of life. Later, for many, a wash in the sea ensures a proper cleansing of corpa e alma, the body and soul.
There is dancing and music and, of course, lots and lots of eating. The typical and most popular dish is grilled sardines. Often, they are served alongside tapas and bread. So beloved is the sardine in Galicia during San Juan that La Voz de Galicia, a Galician newspaper, reporting on the market scarcity of sardines, said, “Without a doubt, tomorrow night it will reign at the barbecues.”
There seems to be no other fish that conjures merriment as much as fresh sardines do. So, get them while you can. (Hint: the Asian markets!)
According to Maria de Lourdes Modesto, from her book Traditional Portuguese Cooking, the people of Vila do Conde, a coastal town in the north of Portugal near Galicia, are adamant that cooking sardines over burning pine needles is the most succulent way to cook them. And I, in Seattle, have to agree.
The sardine’s pungent aroma mixes so well with the sweet smoke of the pine needles. When they are ready to eat, the taste is a divine combination of salty and sweet. I found that stuffing them with fennel mellows out some of the salt in the meat, adding a delicate and light fragrance overall. The porcini oil, medium-bodied and savory, raises the sardines to a heavenly height.
Indeed, the combination of sardines with pine needles and porcini mushrooms may become my own San Juan tradition. At least as long as sardines remain available.
Clean & Stuff the Fish
- 12 sardines, descaled and gutted
- Coarse sea salt
- A handful of fennel stalks, broken up
Clean the sardines by cutting open the bellies and scraping out the entrails and intestines. Rinse inside and outside of fish with cold water.
Rub them with salt on both sides. Stuff the fennel inside their clean bellies. I used wild fennel because it grows all over the place here. If you don’t have any on hand, skip it or stuff it with other sweet fresh herbs you may have.
For the Grill
- Several handfuls of fresh pine needles
A Note on Pine Needles: Pines are very easy to identify. Unlike firs and spruces, the needles grow in clusters. If you look at the branch and see that more than one green needle is growing out of the same place, like two or more hairs from one follicle, then you likely have a pine. For visual help, check out the fine examples here. There are more than 100 species of pines and, as far as I know, all of them have edible needles.
For this, we used a little Weber barbecue. Lay out the charcoal on the bottom rack, making sure it covers the whole surface area. Light it. Please don’t use lighter fluid. We made a little fire under ours with paper and sticks and dried leaves. When the coals start to crackle and are hot, spread a layer of fresh pine needles over them, a couple inches thick. Over that, lay out 6 fish.
Cover with another layer of pine needles.
Cover with the lid and let them cook as the thick, aromatic smoke bubbles out from the top.
After about 7-10 minutes, check their undersides. If they are browning and getting crisp, carefully flip them over and cook 5-10 minutes more.
I use actual wood charcoal. If you’re using the briquettes, made from who-knows-what (e.g., Kingsford brand), the coals will be too hot to cook like this. Let them cool a lot or scatter a bunch of pine needles over the coals and use the grill rack for the sardines. Make sure to flip them.
Alternatively, you could use a heavy-bottomed pot in the kitchen instead of a grill. Just mind your smoke alarm.
For the Porcini Oil
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 25 g. fresh porcini mushroom, shaved (about 2-3 small mushrooms)
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 clove of garlic, smashed, but kept whole
In a sauce pan, bring both the oil and mushrooms up to 180 degrees F over low heat. Remove from the heat and let it sit for 2 hours.
Strain through a cheesecloth or sieve with the garlic and thyme. Keep the mushrooms, thyme and garlic for something else — blend into a salad dressing with some vinegar, or add to a soup or eggs or pasta. The oil will stay good for several weeks in the fridge.
To Eat & To Get Messy & Stinky
Once you pull the sardines, put the second batch on using the same pine needles and a few fresh ones. While those cook, clear away any debris from the cooked sardines. Remove the fennel. Serve with bread or boiled potatoes.
You can drizzle the oil over the fish, but dipping the meat into the oil allows you to later strain it and have a very tasty sardine-infused porcini olive oil.
Wipe your greasy hands all over the bread and spit any bones onto the grass to distract the hovering flies. Save the heads and carcasses for stock. They will freeze fine.