It appears that my arrival in France coincided beautifully with the ever-popular Festival of the Sardine. I was thrilled to the core at my impeccable yet eerie timing – such an occasion could not be missed.
The mayor of Aix-en-Provence hosted the event for the citizens of the city on that July 4th. La Sardinade, as I eagerly learned, is a festive collective culinary occasion that is practiced mostly in the south of France. It is crucial that only fresh sardines from the port be used, fished that very same day or at most, the night before. It is not necessary that they be cleaned, one can eventually cut off their heads, yet it is not an obligation. It all depends on the number of people participating.
In a courtyard in a quieter part of the city, large tents were set up, with rows upon rows of long tables and trees strung with little white lights. A large brick oven was manned by middle-aged men who dutifully participated in the painstaking grilling of what must have been thousands of little silvery bodies. Some of them (the men, not the fish) wore the clichéd white/navy blue striped T-shirts, made popular by the French. Concurrently, an assembly line of middle-aged women, sporting the same nautical-themed t-shirts and berets, manned the utility tables, serving the people.
Everyone lined up in single orderly file. Marching forward, we were each supplied with a dish of grilled sardines and a plastic bag that contained the necessary: a baguette, Camembert (soft cheese), a peach, a water bottle, and a small bottle of rosée wine. We were even treated to a joyous rendition of ‘La Sardinade‘. While the band played, people dined, equally occupied with ridding the tiny bones as with fighting off the unwanted mosquitoes. Or perhaps it was only I who struggled to clean the fish: ever-so-carefully separating its flecks of skin and its practically microscopic bones. A laborious task. It puzzled me how, on others’ plates, there didn’t seem to be nearly as much debris. To finish off, a local business had set up a pizza stand, and my friends and I shared a large pizza garnished with tomatoes, Emmental cheese, and, you guessed it, sardines.
After dinner, people of all ages paired off and danced. White lights, soft breeze, tummies full. Kinda folksie, very lovely. Ahhh, the French. What’s not to love?