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Grilled Sardines, Basque Port Style: Sardinas Santurzi
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1 c
kosher salt
10 c
room-temperature water
impeccably fresh Mediterranean, Greek, or American sardines, rinsed, scaled, and optionally gutted
¼ c
extra-virgin olive oil
Japanese or Maldon smoked sea salt, for finishing (optional)
Grilled bread, for serving

In The Basque Book, Alexandra Raij takes a look into the recipes and traditions of this rich gastronomic region.

The women who traditionally carried sardines to Bilbao from the port town of Santurzi were known as the sardineras. Each day they would trek some eleven miles along the Nervión River, which runs through Bilbao to the Cantabrian Sea, carrying large baskets of sardines on their heads to sell. Images of these women engaged in their taxing hike are depicted in paintings and murals all over Bizkaia (Vizcaya, or Biscay) Province, where eating sardines grilled on grapevines is a real treat. I have run this trail in an annual race, and it is grueling.

There is nothing better than simply grilled sardines in season. They are a social food—you don’t eat one, you have an afternoon’s worth—and they arrive crusted in a bloom of evaporated seawater.


  1. Make a brine by combining the kosher salt and water in a large bowl or other vessel and then stir to dissolve the salt. Add the sardines to the brine and let stand for 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the brine, discard the brine, and pat the fish on both sides with paper towels (several times if needed) until thoroughly dry. Rub the sardines on both sides with the oil.
  2. Lightly oil an 8-inch wire-mesh strainer and place it directly on top of the burner on a gas stove. Turn the burner on and allow the screen to heat for about 15 seconds. Place 4 oiled sardines on the screen and then immediately lift the screen about 1 to 2 inches above the flame to prevent burning the sardines excessively. Return the screen to the burner and cook the fish for 1 minute on the first side. Then, using tongs, carefully flip the sardines and cook on the second side for 30 seconds longer. Expect some flames and crackling from the oily sardine juices that fall on the fire, and when flare-ups occur, pull the screen away until the flames die down, then move the fish back to the heat source. When the fish are ready, transfer them to a platter. Repeat until they are all cooked.
  3. Sprinkle the sardines with smoked salt and serve immediately with grilled bread for soaking up their juices.

In The Basque Book, Alexandra Raij takes a look into the recipes and traditions of this rich gastronomic region.