There are few things simpler and more satisfying in life than a good grilled sardine – which may have a great deal to do with the fact that there are few things in life more redolent of a balmy evening in Spain or Portugal. Or West London: My sister used to live in Trellick Tower, the iconic Erno Goldfinger designed block that looms over the top of Golborne Road, close to the foot of which is a Portuguese community centre. Or at least there was – I don’t know if it’s still there, but I certainly hope so. The Portuguese community is, thank god, because with them come the fabulous, and justifiably famous Lisboa Patisserie - home of the best Pasteis de Nata in London, if not the world (I say that, I can’t possibly know, never having even been to Lisbon) - and the only slightly less fabulous, but considerably less famous (and therefore less rammed) Oporto patisserie and deli over the road. Anyway, back when my sister lived there, it was a rare evening in the summer months that the aroma of char-grilling sardines wasn’t wafting up to the 27th floor from the front yard of the community centre below, and if I close my eyes I can still smell it now. And I know some people have a problem with the smell of cooking fish, particularly oily fish like sardines or mackerel (which you can of course get round by simply not cooking them), but I don’t, and I mean that in an entirely good way. Proust can keep his madeleines, I’ll take sardines sizzling over charcoal every time (or if it has to be a cake, then a pastel de nata).
Of course, like anything that’s redolent of a particular time and place, it’s never quite the same when you do it yourself in the here and now, but it is still damned good, and, as I said, really couldn’t be simpler. The two most (indeed only) crucial things are that your sardines are good and fresh and your grill good and hot. Pretty much everything else takes care of itself. Season your fish simply with salt and pepper, a bit of olive oil. Marinate them (but only briefly) in lemon juice with a bit of the zest grated over if you like, but it’s not necessary. Keep it simple. And make sure you have a decent metal fish slice or spatula – I seem to have mislaid mine and my tongs (otherwise one of my favourite implements, if you don’t have a decent pair I highly recommend investing in some) left rather more sardine seared to the grill that I’d have liked. But never mind, it’s not a delicate, elegant kind of dish, and if the fish ends up in bits on your plate it may be a disappointment but it’s not the end of the world. Just close your eyes and savour the aroma.
On this occasion I served it up with what some people might call an Iberian style warm potato salad, but I’d call jersey royals tossed with fried chorizo and pine nuts, and a handful of chopped parsley, and a simple but brightly refreshing salad of tomato, cucumber and red onion. It was both delicious and a fitting way to celebrate the return of the sun to our lives.