Brisling – the Nordic sardine

Brisling (Sprattus sprattus) is a small fish from the herring (Clupeidae) family, to which its more renowned cousin, the sardine (Sardina pilchardus), also belongs.

Back in the 19th century, Norwegian canning companies started exporting smoked brisling under the name ‘smoked sardine’. It became very popular – which the French sardine producers were not too happy about. In fact, they took the Norwegians to court, claiming that brisling could not be sold as a sardine (although it kind of is … 21 different species – including both Sprattus sprattus and Sardina pilchardus – may currently be sold as ‘canned sardines’ according to the FAO/WHO Codex standard). The trials ended with defeat to the Norwegians, so they could no longer export brisling as sardine – in Europe. However, Norway and other countries in the North found new ways to the market, and developed a successful export of smoked brisling/sardine anyway…

This continued until the 1950s when fridges and freezers became more and more common, and the demand for canned fish dropped. Also, competition increasingly became a matter of price, and as wages in Scandinavia gradually rose, the labor-intensive handwork of smoking and canning the small fish made production too costly. Gradually, almost all Nordic canning companies disappeared with only a few left, which now make other canned products.

However, fishing for brisling grew again. This time not for human consumption – but for fishmeal and animal feed. Especially in Denmark, where the number of pigs exceed the number of people by a factor 3. In fact, the catch of brisling for this purpose could cover a third of the whole population’s protein need – if the Danes consumed their catch of brisling themselves instead of the pigs! That would probably be a somewhat more sustainable use of nature’s resources….

In 2018 Mikkel, Rasmus and I established FANGST (means ‘catch’ in Danish) in Copenhagen. With the mission of re-discovering and exploring the riches of the Nordic Waters, preserved in cans and enjoyed as small meals from the North. Re-introducing brisling as the ’Nordic sardine’ became the starting point of our mission. We found out that the craft of smoking and canning brisling had survived in the small Baltic countries on the other side of the Baltic Sea, which we Scandinavians also consider a Nordic water (called Østersøen – ‘The East Ocean’). The Baltics used to be part of USSR and the Eastern bloc, where the demand for canned brisling/sardine remained strong, and a continued production was dictated by the communist authorities.

In now free and independent Latvia, we have found a dedicated small canning company in a fishing village by the Baltic Sea, where brisling is caught and landed with the necessary care to make it into the delicacy it deserves to be. Here, we have developed a new take on brisling – with respect for the traditional methods. We have introduced the Nordic version of premium olive oil in the cans – a local cold pressed rapeseed (canola) oil from the Isle of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. Also, we are using herbs which are a part of Nordic cooking tradition, but new to the World of canned fish.

There is still a long way to go before we can claim to have regained or created a new position for brisling as the Nordic sardine alongside premium canned sardines, but we feel we are on the right track. Last year, the Danish Gastronomic Academy rewarded our efforts with an honorary diploma – the first time ever for a canned fish product! We have started exporting to other European countries under the original Scandinavian name for it: ‘Brisling – Baltic Sea sprat’. And recently also to the US, through our local partners A Priori and Preserved States. Let’s see what the French will do this time 😉

Martin Bregnballe, Fangst co-founder / June 2021

Cole’s Smoked Rainbow Trout

artwork by the author

When there is Cole’s Smoked Rainbow Trout in my possession I eat it every day. Over time I’ve developed a trout delivery system that is very personal and embarrassing: I use a tiny fork to lift it out of the tin, then I rest it on a tortilla and bless it with hot sauce. I say rest because we are not eating it from the tortilla. We are using the tortilla as a plate. Trout in this form is smooth, delicious, and extremely delicate—if I put it right in the dish I risk losing bits of goodness to the process, not to mention drops of the life-giving olive oil it comes in. So I do it this way, tearing off pieces of tortilla and placing perfect bites of trout inside, again with the little fork. Family style!

I discovered Cole’s in 2019, and as you can imagine it became a big part of my 2020 survival. I actually hesitated to buy it then for fear it might become a ruinous association. I’m so glad I did, though. This product has continued to be a joy even into 2021, and I expect it will for years to come.

My passion for preserved fish doesn’t end at its incredible taste: Eating canned, jarred, and tinned foods makes me feel connected to my Jewishness. 

I’m among the many grandchildren of Brooklynites who call themselves “secular Jews.” I grew up that way, religious observances in our house limited to candle lighting and Passover dinners from Boston Market. I’m Russian-Austrian on both sides, but I get my knowledge of these identities where everyone else does: Movies and TV. So whenever I enjoy a pickle or a really bland soup I feel like I’m sharing in ancient tradition, raising my chalice from a stream others can only observe with reverence and curiosity. 

That’s how unsealing and plating a tin of gorgeous trout becomes something devotional. At a time when we didn’t know if groceries would continue to be available in the same speed or splendorous variety, there was Cole’s. And so was a ritual that feeds body and soul.


Katelyn Greller is a writer and illustrator who used to take inspiration from the Eighties, but has lately been feeling very Seventies. Part of that is writing intimate portraits of food and drawing herself in a Tomie dePaola fashion. You can find more of her work on katelyngreller.com.

Iwashi & Herb

The original recipe, in Japanese, from an unknown book on cooking with herbs.

Here in Japan, we are lucky to have seasonal access to fresh sardines, iwashi, and although the original recipe was written with them in mind, tinned sardines also work beautifully in this adaptation.

King Oscar partners with Hagoromo in Japan to market their Oil Sardines or Iwashi Abura Zuke

Iwashi with Herbed Breadcrumbs and Spinach

serves 1-2

  • 1 tin of sardines in oil (I used King Oscar Oil Sardines)
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach, cleaned & trimmed
  • 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp parsley, minced
  • 1/4 tsp dried thyme
  • Other herbs to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Oil from the tin + extra olive oil if needed
  • 50 g butter
  • Sprigs of fresh herbs and herb flowers for garnish

Method

  1. Prepare the broiler and get a pan of water boiling.
  2. Mix together the breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, thyme, other herbs and black pepper.
  3. Coat crumbs with ~2 tablespoons of oil, stirring thoroughly.
  4. Lightly coat an ovenproof pan with the remaining oil. Lay the sardines skin side up.
  5. Sprinkle generously with herbed breadcrumbs.
  6. Broil the sardines and crumbs until the crumbs are golden brown.
  7. While the fishies broil, boil or steam the spinach, drain, and roughly chop. Stir the butter in.
  8. Serve the sardines on top of the spinach, garnished with herb sprigs and flowers.
A Japnese twist on an Italian classic makes an appetiser for two or a small meal for one.

Why is the the recipe singed around the edges? It’s from a cookbook that partly survived a neighbor’s burning house. I found this page resting in a field nearby and rescued it, knowing it would have an appreciative audience here at TTFF.


Kristen McQuillin grew up munching tuna on crackers with her father and enjoying tuna melts at the fancy department store restaurant with her grandmothers. When her husband tried to introduce her to kippers and smoked oysters, she just about vomited. Fortunately tastes change and after two decades in Japan, Kristen now enjoys a wide range of conservas. Except oysters.