Sarde in Saor is a hard dish to sell. Made, as it is, of marinated sardines, vinegar, onions and sultanas – all served cold alongside polenta. If there was a marmite of the fish dish world, this would be it. It’s the type of food made for eating in a dark Venetian restaurant, mist rising from the canal, the sky a heavy grey. Its ingredients sweet, acidic, unapologetic; brought together out of necessity.
But I love it. Sarde in saor first made its appearance when I worked as an au pair in Venice. The mother explained how it was cooked, emphasising the impossibly long cooking of the onions. And it really is long and slow – by the end you want onions that are soft and and slick with oil and vinegar, melting into the pan.
In Venetian, ‘saor’ means ‘flavour’, but these vinegary onions do more than that. They also preserve the fish, making this the kind of dish that is cooked days in advance of eating: perfect if you find yourself with a glut of fresh sardines, but not so useful if you’re looking for a cheap and quick fish supper.
So over the summer, while eagerly counting down the weeks until we arrived in Venice, we cooked sarde in saor. Or an utterly bastardised version anyway. The onions weren’t the sweet white ones from Chioggia, nor the sardines fresh from the waters of the Adriatic. We served it with fluffy yellow polenta, not the delicate white triangles that are traditional, and – perhaps most controversial of all – we only left everything to marinate for a few hours, not the recommended 48 hours. It was summer after all, and we were hungry. But still, the sardines were sweet, sour, and rich with the flavours of Venice.
Sarde in Saor
600g fresh sardines
2 white onions
40ml white wine vinegar
50g pine nuts
2 bay leaves
3tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1. Clean the sardines, removing the head and innards. Coat them in flour.
2. Heat the sunflower oil and fry the fish. Once golden, transfer to kitchen paper and season liberally.
3. Finely slice the onions, place in a saucepan with olive oil and cook gently for about 30 minutes in low heat or until they begin to dissolve. Then add the white vinegar, sugar and laurel and cook for another 10 minutes.
4. Add a third of the onion mixture topped with some of the pine nuts and sultanas. Top with a third of the fish, then add more of the onions, pine nuts and sultanas. Keep layering until you’ve used everything. Allow to cool, then pop in the fridge at least 12 hours before enjoying them.