What if we told you “It Happened In Monterey” was actually about tasting sardines for the first time?
It’s not. But Monterey, California is deserving of its own anthem for bringing the pelagic schooling fish into pop culture. Two Steinbeck novels, lyrics in a Bob Dylan song and serving as the backdrop to a Nick Nolte film aren’t enough.
Sardines are celebrating a resurgence, and it’s one that we hope is here to stay.
Long before Californians were swooning over sardines, Lisbon put them on the map. Chalk it up to another Roman “discovery”. Romans first settled Lisbon in 19 BC and discovered the fish in abundance along the coast. It quickly became a staple of the local diet and has persevered centuries later for the Portuguese.
Sardines have enjoyed a rich history ever since, with the innovation of canning – in France, by Nicolas Appert – taking them global. In fact, in 1836, it’s estimated that the Breton coast in Northern France was producing about 30,000 tins of sardines. By 1880, that number skyrocketed to 50,000,000 tins – each packed by hand.
It’s during this boom that sardines came stateside. But the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 pumped the brakes on imports. As necessity is the mother of invention, American entrepreneurs capitalized on the opportunity. Commercial canning on the East Coast began in 1875. (It was actually Atlantic herring, but let’s not get hung up on specifics.) Maine embraced the sardine more than any other state on the East Coast, with over 400 sardine factories at its peak. None remain in the state today.
While the East Coast had Sardineland (their word, not ours) and Atlantic herring, the West Coast had Cannery Row (in Monterey, California) and Pacific sardines. The season was bigger out West too, running from October to March.
At its peak from 1936 to 1945, the factories in Monterey were producing an average of 332,000 tons (over 13,000,000 tins a year). However, by the late 1950s, workers had left, sardine fishing had nearly ceased and the fish had all but disappeared. In 1967, the fishery was closed.
From 1967 to 1986, a commercial harvest moratorium on Pacific sardines was enforced. Restrictive measures were adopted in Portugal as well, as sardine stocks fell below target biological levels in 2009.
They’re back (and on the menu!)
Populations of Pacific sardines began to recover in the 1980s, thanks to strict fisheries management. Today, it’s regulated, and commercial fishing allowances fluctuate based on the population trends of the fish.
Tough measures in Portugal appear to be bringing the critical fish back from the brink as well.
Our dish at select Water Grill destinations is an homage to the “Sardine Capital of the World” in Monterey as well as the rich tradition and quality of tinned products in Portugal. We present the sardines on a wood board and accompany them with a traditional vegetable escabeche, preserved lemon-manzanilla olive relish, lemon slices, butter and toasted baguette.
Our sardines come to us from Conservas Pinhais, one of the oldest preserving factories in Portugal, which follows an artisanal canning method it developed over 100 years ago in 1920.