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Sardeles Pastes

Sardines and ouzo in LesvosThe snack of choice with ouzo is Sardeles Pastes. These are the sardines that have been caught that morning, salted on the boat and served that night. To eat them the skin is removed and they are seasoned with oil, lemon or whatever your host prefers to season them with (though some eat them totally unseasoned.) Sardeles Pastes are not a treat for everyone, but I am certainly a convert to them, so much so that I have written a book about it called IN SEARCH OF SARDELES PASTES which is part of my major work Spearfishing in Skatahori. The best sardines come from the large bay of Kaloni on the island of Lesvos where the main sardine fleet is based in Skala Kaloni. But some argue that the sardines from the gulf of Yera are smaller and better. It just depends upon who you ask, like most things in Greece.

As I have discovered, sardeles pastes are seasonal. In July and August the sardines are generally the perfect size. If they are too big it may take two days before they are ready to be eaten. Visitors who come in September and  October may have a hard time finding them at all. Even in July and August they won't be served in every cafeneon though most of the restaurants in Kaloni, Eressos and Molyvos will have them.

Sardeles pastes from Medusa, Skala Kaloni, Lesvos Occasionally a truck will come by with fresh sardines and the fish merchant will make the sardeles pastes right there before your eyes. First he lays down a layer of course sea salt and then a layer of sardines packed together on their sides. He alternates sardines with salt. The top layer is salt. Sometimes his hands work so fast it is like watching a magician. Some of the restaurants buy their pastes from the trucks but many make their own and each claims to have the best pastes in town. The technique is generally the same though there are variations that some pastones claim make theirs better, more firm, more tender or tastier. For example the pastes at the restaurant Arion in Skala Eressos are completely different from the pastes served in the cafeneon down the beach. The cook told me his technique is to lay the fish with their bellies up. While in the more populated towns like Mytilini, Kaloni, Eressos and Molyvos sardeles pastes are a regular feature on the summer menu, in the small village cafeneons they are considered a treat and not served every day.  In the village of Vatousa a rumor that Michalis is serving sardeles pastes at his cafeneon across the street is enough to make us jump up from our table at Tryphon's leaving half filled glasses of ouzo and half eaten plates of delicious food behind.

sardeles pastes from the market in Mytilini, LesvosEating sardeles pastes is easily mastered especially when the cafe owner has done most of the work for you before hand. But on occasion you might find yourself staring at a plate of salt covered whole fish with no idea of what to do. This can happen in places like Agiassos where the sardines are sold by street vendors who will just hand you a quarter of a kilo of uncleaned sardeles wrapped in paper, assuming you know what to do with them, or if you buy them from a fish market in Mytilini or from a truck, or you have salted them yourself.  There is no cause for panic because the technique is simple and easily mastered. Once you learn how to do it you can buy your own with confidence and eat them on your hotel balcony watching the sunset and stinking up the room for the next guests.

Step 1: Hold the fish body between the forefinger and thumb of your left hand (if you are right-handed).
Step 2: Taking hold of the tiny head with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand bend it down towards the belly. As the spinal column breaks and the head is severed, pull it towards the tail so that the guts come with it when it is fully detached. Throw this to the cats that surround your table.
Step 3: Peel the skin from the fish using a rubbing motion of your thumb.
Step 4: Line the fish up in a row. Season with olive oil, (some like me add lemon or vinegar) or ask the proprietor to season it for you his special way.
Step 5: Go home and take a bath.

Amarandi Barret demonstrates the Tom & Jerry Method of eating Sardeles PastesIn most cases this process will have been done for you by the cafe owner or his  wife or mother in the kitchen and your first contact with sardeles pastes they will not look unlike giant skinless anchovies. In this case the only thing you have to worry about is how to eat them which can also be tricky if you are not familiar with one or two of the techniques. The first is what I call the 'Tom and Jerry technique'. If you remember back to your cartoon watching days how when a cat would eat a fish he would drop it into his mouth while holding on to the tail and pull out a skeleton, then you have a very clear picture of what to do. It is just a matter of adjusting the pressure so you are not left holding the tail while your mouth is full of bony fish. The trick is to bite down gently but firmly right where your finger is holding the tail and then pull it slowly through. It may take a couple tries but with practice you will become an expert.

Tiny Doctor Tim demonstrates the correct method of eating Sardeles PastesThe way the pros do it is to grasp the sardine by the tail and tear it exactly in half. The bone will seperate from one side, leaving you a little mini-filet. Then you have to get the bone out of the other side which you can do by pulling it out or going to the fork method whch is to lay the fish down and using a knife or the edge of your fork, starting at the base of the tail scrape along the spine and separate it from the meat. Then turn the fish over and do the other side. You will need to be holding down the tail with your thumb or the whole fish may end up in your neighbors plate or ear. This can also be done by hand but you will need extra napkins. My method, which I am quite proud of, is actually a combination of the Tom and Jerry and the fork method where you substitute the tines of the fork for your teeth. In other words run the fish through the tines of the fork (starting at the tail as always). The end result will be two filets of sardeles on one side and the fish skeleton on the other. Like anything these methods take practice so don't become frustrated if you don't attain perefection on your first few tries. But if you make it a point to eat sardeles pastes and drink ouzo every day by the time you are ready to go into rehab you will be adept at it. If you don't drink ouzo you will be happy to know sardeles pastes can also be eaten as a meal. My friend Peter Poulides is a non-ouzo drinking sardeles pastes lover who became addicted to them at first bite. But ouzo and sardeles pastes certainly compliment each other and in my opinion there is no better meze when they are in season. 

lakerdaBecause of the high oil content of sardines , they are perhaps the bestfish to eat salted and raw, whether in a can or fresh and if you eat them every day you can toss that bottle of Omega 3 fatty acids that you have to keep in the fridge. There are other healthy raw fish in the same catagory including anchovies or anchooyes, well known and popular in Lesvos and the rest of the world.  Sometimes whenyou order them in a restaurant or cafeneon they will be canned which is fine but you should try the fresh ones. They usually call them gavros marinatos when they are fresh. Also a kind of mackeral, called scoumbri is served, sometimes out of cans and sometimes done on the premises. The canned stuff makes a great gift and is available not only in food markets but in gift and tourist shops too. This pretty much has to be eaten with ouzo. It looks delicious when you buy it but its one of those things that tastes better the more you drink and tastes awful if you don't. Much better is Lakerda, (photo) a variety of small tuna that is available in some restaurants and this is generally made in the restaurant or at home. Chances are good that no matter where you go in Lesvos, even the most remote taverna will have one kind of pastes or another. On other islands and in Athens chances are any raw fish will be canned.

Sardeles pastes at Aglaias's in Xidera, LesvosAs for buying sardeles pastes to keep in your room or carry around with you to give as gifts to your friends or favorite cafeneon owner, you can sometimes find them in the market in Mytilini town at a fish store around the corner from the Mattis Ouzo shop. In Kaloni there are several fishermen who sell it from their homes. Usually the procedure is to meet with the fisherman and order some for the next day, or whenever you can make it back to the village. I buy mine from a fisherman named Panayotis and his hard bargaining mother. They have a house on the main beach road and you can find him through Fiona at Tsalis rent a car on the beach road. You can also ask the master boat builder Panayotis Psaradelis who along with building and maintaining the sardine fleet at Kaloni, sells sardeles pastes from his workshop next to the Medusa restaurant. The Medusa Restaurant will sell them to you if they have enough. That is where i get them now and then bring them to Aunt Aglaia in the village of Xidera, Lesvos and when she is done with them they look like this photo.

Grilled sardinesTo spend a whole page or two writing about sardines and not mention other dishes besides pastes would make this guide incomplete and leave the reader unaware of what I think is the best fish dish and culinary delight on the face of the planet. Yes, better then the poison dart fish of Japan, better then Maine lobster and perhaps even better then barbounia (red mullet). I am talking about fresh grilled sardines, seasoned with oil, lemon and oregano. When sardines are in season they are available almost anywhere. For the best restaurants serving them grilled, fried (also delicious) or sardeles pastes, go to my  Lesvos restaurant guide. You can also get them in Athens at a number of restaurants including Paradosiako Cafeneon on Voulis street. See my Athens restaurant guide.

For more on sardelles pastes read my True Life Stories of Eating Sardeles Pastes

For information on Lesvos where eating sardeles pastes is a way of life see

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