I've always loved a fish feast. But some years ago in Barcelona a plate of pescaditos fritos gave me a nasty shock. The tiny fried fish that arrived at the table for nibbling on before dinner were exceptionally good. Until I looked at them more closely and realised they weren't whitebait or the like but miniature hake, mullet and sole. Of these, stocks of hake are so low we shouldn't be eating them when they're fully grown, let alone landing the fish long before they've had a chance to breed. Some sorts of mullet and sole are also on the list of fish we should avoid eating.No wonder some of our favourite fish are under threat when fisherman haven't been giving them a chance to grow up and replenish stocks.
But there are small fish you don't need to feel guilty about eating. Sprats, which are members of the herring family, are among those we're actually encouraged to eat because stocks are in a healthy state' whitebait aren't a problem, nor are sardines. Even full-size smelts aren't very big, and we're allowed to eat them - probably because they're not very popular any more. You usually get them smaller than sprats and virtually transparent when really fresh with an extraordinary smell of cucumbers. Pilchards sound comic, but they're only more grown up sardines and we don't think twice about eating them grilled on a Mediterranean holiday.
Whitebait feasts were popular in Victorian times, as were fried sprats, but we're reluctant to cook these little fish at home now - which may be why they haven't been over-fished. Perhaps it's the bones and heads that put people off, but for me that's part of the appeal - anyway the bones are soft and the heads are so small you can't separate them. And since we should be thinking about cooking and eating alternative fish, it's time to rethink these ones. With anchovies you don't need to worry about the heads - it's only the fillets that are easy to come by in tins and jars. Anchovies are commonplace in Mediterranean cooking but have always seemed rather sophisticated here' you don't need many of them to make a real difference to a dish. Like all fish they should be treated as a luxury, though, and cooked with the utmost respect - bones and all.
In Japan I went to a robata grill restaurant in Tokyo and chose a small garfish from the iced display that was then cooked in front of me. Once I'd finished with the fleshy parts, the skeleton of bones and head were retrieved by the cook and returned to the grill to crisp up. It then came back as a new dish. That's what I call showing a bit of backbone.
Spaghetti with sardines and chilli
In Italy this is quite often made with red mullet, but small fillets from oily sardines, even mackerel, work just as well. The Sicilian version would contain pine nuts and currants in that traditional sweet and savoury style. Chilli would be used when currants weren't available and sometimes fried breadcrumbs are scattered on top. It's an ingenious way to make a tasty pasta sauce with a few fish fillets that wouldn't stretch to a full meal. You can even get away with using a can of sardines.
Try to make sure all your bones are removed from the fish beforehand - just cut along either side - although sardine bones are tiny and pretty harmless.
4 tinned anchovy fillets finely chopped
6 medium sized fresh sardine fillets, boned
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 medium chilli, seeded and finely chopped or a good pinch of dried chilli flakes
4 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp chopped fennel tops, or dill (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g or more of fresh or dried spaghetti
Put the anchovies and sardine fillets in a pan with the olive oil, garlic, chilli and tomatoes, season and cook on a very gentle heat for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the sardines are beginning to break down into the oil. …