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Sardeles Pastes
(Sardine Sushi?)

Sardines in Lesvos- Sardeles pastesThe 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 where the main sardine fleet is based in Skala. 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.

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.  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 PastesEating 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.  There is no cause for panic because the technique is simple and easily mastered.

Another method 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 so 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.
Sardeles Pastes in LesvosMy 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.

But the 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. See this short instructional video

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. 

Lakerda in LesvosBecause of the high oil content of sardines, they are perhaps the best fish to eat salted and raw, whether in a can or fresh. There are others including anchovies or anchooyes, well known and popular in Lesvos and the rest of the world and called gavros marinatos. Generally when you order them in a restaurant or cafeneon they will be canned but many restaurants in Lesvos make their own and are very proud of them. Also Mackerel, called kolios 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. Lakerda is a variety of 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, even the most remote taverna will have one kind of pastes or another. Skoumbri is another kind of mackerel and is usually smoked.
Sardeles pastes, raw sardines from 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.
Grilled sardines from LesvosTo 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 and we eat them at almost every meal. For the best restaurants serving them grilled, fried (also delicious) or sardeles pastes, go to my restaurant guide. The best time to have them is in July when they are the perfect size and called papalina. They are also good deep-fried and when they are this size you can eat the whole thing, bones and all, including the head. That doesn't mean you have to though. Many people meticulously clean each sardine.

Here is my first Experience with Sardeles Pastes 
(from my book In Search of Sardeles Pastes )

Sardeles Pastes, raw sardines from Lesvos...We turn around and start up the hill ready to begin the night of ouzo and entertainment. We walk past the tourist restaurants that advertise their fare in big English letters, to the settlement of cafeneons around the famous church. We find the least crowded and take a seat on the street. I order some fried sardines and some ouzo and we begin the night's festivities. It is as traditional a place as you could imagine. No menu. Just Ouzo, beer, restsina and whatever the proprietor happens to be making to eat that evening.

While we are going through our first bottle of ouzo I see a retarded fellow drop a pile of fish on the next table. I follow him down the hill to see what the deal is. He goes into a store where a man is selling sardines out of a pail. They were caught this morning in the bay of Kaloni and then left in salt for several hours. I buy a handful for two hundred drachs and bring them back to Andrea to her un-delight. These are the famous sardeles pastes.

I eat the first one, skin bones and all and realize I either have a lot to learn about sardeles pastes, or that I better find some hungry cats. I don't panic though. I walk over to the next table to see what the pros are doing with theirs since they obviously know a little more then I do. A man leaps up from another table and comes to our rescue, not only showing me how to clean them, by removing the skin and the heads, but cleaning my entire bag full. I thank him and try the first one. Delicious. Better than sushi and perfect with ouzo. Before I know it they are all gone and I'm drunk on ouzo and raw fish. I stumble back to the store where I had gotten them but the retarded guy and his boss have disappeared into the night. When I return to Andrea we are given a plate of stewed crab by the old men at the next table. I return the favor, buying them a bottle of ouzo. By the time we leave we were all good friends.
-from I MARRIED A LESBIAN by Matt Barrett

My second experience with Sardeles Pastes:
(from my book In Search of Sardeles Pastes )

Ouzo and meze in Lesvos...The second time through town the Medusa Taverna looks like it has possibilities. Pam says that if we don't eat now we could spend the rest of the afternoon looking for a decent restaurant. She volunteers to go in and check out the menu and comes back all smiles.
"It looks really good and they even have sardines!"
We can't get out of the car fast enough.

In the refrigerated glass case we see two trays overflowing with fresh sardines' plus a variety of other fish. We are so excited we can hardly wait to order. Then as I am gazing into the kitchen I see on the table a container of what looks like sardeles pastes. I ask the young owner.
"Of course we have sardeles pastes", he assures me.
I order a plate full and a bottle of ouzo. We also order two plates of fried sardines, a stuffed zucchini flower and beets with garlic sauce. They bring the ouzo first, a small bottle of Mini, with a bowl of ice, some bread and four glasses of cold water. I pour the ouzo but control myself waiting for the sardeles pastes. I am rewarded for my patience when they arrive at our table already peeled. I am surprised that they are not in oil or seasoned but I assume that perhaps this is the custom in Kaloni. No embellishments. Just plain raw sardines.

This is the moment I have been waiting for and I sip my first ouzo in preparation. I take a small sardine by the tail, but stop short. I have forgotten. Do I eat the whole fish or do I pull it between half closed teeth, leaving the meat in my mouth and pulling out the tiny fish skeleton. I can feel the pressure mounting as everyone awaits my move. Even the foreign couple at the next table have taken an interest. I can feel my heart beating and the blood rushing in my ears.
"This is it", I tell myself and eat the whole fish, bones and all.

Sardines, LesvosIt's sad how earthly pleasures can never live up to the desires that drive you towards them. I suppose that is the motivation for a life of the spirit, the belief that God or self knowledge is the only thing that will ultimately satisfy. All other goals and desires will end in disappointment. This is how I feel as I eat the first sardine and look woefully at the whole plateful before me. If they don't taste any better then this it will indeed be a long journey. The setting is perfect: the large bay, surrounded by green mountains, with the small fishing boats which had brought in these very fish this morning, bobbing gently in the small harbor before us. What had gone wrong?

I eat another, but still no beating of angels wings or trumpets from heaven. Andrea smiles with enjoyment but I can tell it's not a smile from the depths of her soul, but one with a touch of sadness. A smile that says she is happy because I am happy but she's not that happy because these are not that great. I smile back weakly, not wishing to shatter her fragile happiness.

Sardines, LesvosSeveral cats have begun prowling the periphery of our table, like demons come to taunt us for our fruitless love of the flesh. I sacrifice one of the precious fish and give it to Amarandi to feed to one of the cats, but it turns up it's nose and looks at us with undisguised amusement. By now the other food has arrived and is truly delicious. I use it as a reward every time I have eaten a sardine, and it seems to work. In a few minutes my plate is littered with tiny sardine tails.

Finally there is one left. I take a small sip of ouzo, leaving one mouthful left in the glass. Picking up the final sardeles pastes I put it to my lips, and slowly eat it down to the tail. Then I wash it down with the last of my ouzo. It's delicious! That last morsel was everything I had hoped it would be, like the unexplainable sweetness in that last bite of an ice-cream sundae. Either the aura of sardeles pastes was completely psychological or I had been eating them incorrectly. I try to review the previous bites to see what I had done wrong. It must have something to do with the little ouzo ceremony I did for that last sardine, I am convinced. Once again I am caught in it's spell and I go into the restaurant to bargain with the woman in the kitchen. I must have more. How much will she sell me? She tells me to come back in an hour.

Kaloni, LesvosI spend the time on the end of the dock looking out across the bay of Kaloni. "How many sardines are out there?" I wonder. the sea is surprisingly rough for such a closed area. I turn towards the inner harbor and look at the fishing boats, all ten to fifteen feet long and brightly colored, their nets piled on the decks. How exciting it must be when they come into port each morning full of sardines. I imagine their sailors calling out their prices to the people on the shore.

Then my eyes fall upon a very strange boat. In design it is like all the others, traditional Greek caique, except instead of the simple colorful painted hull, this boat is painted like an African disco. On one side of the bow is a strange mask where it's name should be. On the small cabin is written 'Peace', and the designs are wild and zigzagged. It is the only non-conforming boat in the entire Kaloni sardine fleet and I wonder about it's captain. Is he a black African who has made his home here and been accepted by the locals? Unlikely. More likely he is a free spirited young man, probably considered crazy by the other fishermen, with a taste for reggae or African pop. But it's as strange a sight here as John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce must have been to London in the sixties. It takes all types to be sardine fishermen I suppose.

sardeles pastes, lesvosWhen I return to the restaurant the woman gives me a container of pastes. She charges me a thousand drachma.
"Do you know why our sardeles are so good?" she asks me. "Because they are full of phosphorous. The Doctors of the island prescribe them for children who have trouble seeing at night."
This sounds reasonable. More so then the olive oil washing into the bay story. I thank her and put my precious cargo in the car.

When we get back to Xidera I can hardly wait to bring the sardeles pastes to the two cafeneons where we have been spending all of our time. I bring the container into Thanasis and put half of them on a plate, then give the rest to Avglaia. They both begin peeling them and soon every table has a plate in on it. Thanasis has taken each fish by the tail and torn it down the middle, then covered them in oil. Avglaia has covered hers in oil too but has not torn them and of the two methods of serving them we find hers to be the most delicious. We discover two very important things about sardeles pastes. The first is that they are much better seasoned with oil, salt and pepper and whatever else appeals to your taste. The other is that they are much better if you don't eat the bones. As we leave, the old men in both cafeneons toast me. "Bravo Matheos. Congratulations. You are truly a hero. These are very good sardeles pastes."


Cafeneon in Xidera


Goodbye Matheos. Come back soon 
and stop telling the tourists about sardelles pastes!

Heliotopos Hotel, Lesvos

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