I ONCE SPENT A MORNING ON THE GALICIAN COAST SPEAKING WITH FISHERMEN AND WATCHING THE WOMEN ON THE WHARVES MENDING THEIR NETS BY HAND. THE WOMEN KEPT THE NETS TAUT BETWEEN ONE STRONG ARM AND THE TOES OF AN OUTSTRETCHED FOOT. MY CONCENTRATION WAS DISTURBED BY A MAN DRIVING UP TO A FISHING BOAT AND, ALMOST CLANDESTINELY, PACKING A WOODEN CRATE OF SMALL SARDINES INTO THE BOOT OF HIS LATE-MODEL MERCEDES. I AM GOING TO EAT THESE WITH PLENTY OF VINO TINTO,’ HE SAID IN A GRAVELLY VOICE. SUDDENLY I HAD A CRAVING FOR SARDINES. NICE SMALL, MEATY ONES WITH PLENTY OF OILY FLAVOUR. LATER THAT DAY I WAS LUNCHING WITH GALICIAN FRIENDS. THEY TOOK ME TO THEIR LOCAL RUSTIC RESTAURANT, TIO BENITO, AND AFTER PLATES OF CLAMS, MUSSELS, RAZOR CLAMS AND SEVERAL BOTTLES OF ALBARINO OUT CAME A WONDERFULLY HOT PLATE OF MEATY LITTLE SARDINES BRAISED WITH GREEN CAPSICUM (PEPPER), ENLIVENED WITH LEMON ZEST. I WORKED UP ENOUGH DUTCH COURAGE BY THE END OF THE MEAL TO GO WHERE NO MAN DARES TO TREAD — A KITCHEN RUN BY A WOMAN. THIS PARTICULAR KITCHEN WAS WORKING UNDER THE WATCHFUL EYE OF A WONDERFUL WOMAN CALLED SALADINA. THIS IS HER RECIPE AS BEST AS I CAN REMEMBER. IT IS WONDERFUL.
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over very low heat. Add the onion, bay leaves, garlic and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, or until soft. Add the capsicum, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45–50 minutes, or until the capsicum is very soft. If the capsicum appears to be browning or catching, reduce the heat as low as possible and add a little water.
Increase the heat to high, then stir in the wine, parsley, olives and lemon zest and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and spread the mixture over a large baking tray.
Remove the spines from the sardines by removing the head, then laying the fish stomach side down. Hold the tail and run your thumb down the spine, breaking the little internal bones. Starting from the head end, gently pull out the spine from the inside of the fish, then cut off or break away the spine and discard.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Dust the sardine fillets in the seasoned flour and fry for just over 30 seconds on each side, seasoning each side with sea salt as you go.
Place the sardine fillets, skin side up, over the capsicum mixture on the baking tray. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and
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