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