Like many Italian migrant fishing families lured to the other side of the world with the promise of prosperous work, Jim Mendolia’s family - who introduced sardines to the Australian palate - landed in Fremantle with a somewhat shaky start. “My mum [Rosa] used to cry a lot in the early days, she was so homesick. But then the city became a magnet for other Italian families like ours and soon she felt at home,” he says.
Mendolia's family migrated from Sicily in the 1950s to capitalise on the booming Fremantle lobster trade. Little did they know that they’d be laying the foundations for driving the rise of a far more underrated seafood: sardines. The family successfully brought these delicious fish to Australia’s attention and Mendolia heads up a newly expanded seafood company, Fremantle Sardines, now in its 30th year of business. The company aims to showcase the virtues of other underrated and highly sustainable fish, including Australian salmon and long tail tuna.
“Dad brought over his nets from Siciliy and we started fishing for sardines ourselves."
“Sardines were a lot of our diet growing up, because they were so cheap and plentiful,” Mendolia explains. “Dad brought over his nets from Siciliy and we started fishing for them ourselves.
“Mum used to marinate them in the Spanish style of white anchovies, with oil and vinegar and herbs; or she’d make a stuffing of breadcrumbs, egg and herbs and sandwich that between two fillets, tie them together and fry them; or cook them in a rich tomato sauce.
“I also remember one of our other favourite ways to eat them, was to cook them over coals and baste them with olive oil, garlic, oregano and parsley. It gave me the idea to start the first Fremantle Sardine Festival, which we ran for 11 years, and it really changed the way people saw these wonderful fish.”
“Mum would often send us off to school with the hollowed out crusts of bread loaves, stuffed with lobster salad and dressed with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.”
Sardines may have been humble sustenance, but being the son of a lobster fisherman isn’t without its perks.
“Mum would often send us off to school with the hollowed out crusts of bread loaves, stuffed with lobster salad and dressed with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper,” Mendolia recalls. Tough gig!
“When we joined the family business, she would always manage to track me and my brother down no matter where we were, and make us come home for lunch every day.
“There was always chickpeas and pasta, lots of lentils, and spaghetti with lots of meat sauce, cooked with beef bones, which would give the sauce such a rich flavour.”
"Mum would always manage to track me and my brother down no matter where we were, and make us come home for lunch every day."
Mendolia explains that because meat was so expensive in Sicily, the moment the family could afford it in Australia, it became a simple luxury they celebrated regularly. “Mum started selling sardines from home, because we caught so many. Our neighbours would come over and bring her apples and oranges from their garden, fresh vegetables and herbs, it was very typical of the Italian community spirit,” he says.
In true, proud Italian mother style, Mama Rosa was not only the backbone of the household, but Jim’s greatest champion. “Mum never gave anyone a discount on our sardines. Though she’d always share the bounty of fruit and vegetables given to her, she used to say ‘My boys work too hard, I can’t take a cent off. Not one cent!’”
Images by Jim Mendolia.
Sardines are a quintessential Spanish delicacy. Fresh sardines are a revelation. Try them simply fried with a garlicky mayonnaise.
“Plump sardines simply grilled – one of the easiest recipes you’ll ever master. The sardines are sold frozen in Australia and are found in Portuguese and Spanish emporiums. When they’re cooked, their skins slide off like a wetsuit – it’s a party trick I never get tired of. Served with roasted capsicums and red wine, these are the true taste of Portugal.” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire
My family get a lobster every year for Christmas and it still feels special. The true magic of this dish is in the shellfish boil – an aromatic cooking liquid that adds buckets of flavour to whatever you’re cooking. You could also use yabbies, prawns or marron in this dish instead of the lobster.
Choose sardines as a healthier and more sustainable alternative to larger, less sustainable fish, and choose Australian sardines over imported canned sardines. There is no need to import what is already abundant in Australia. By eating sardines sourced from Australia you can support local industry, ensure the sustainability of the fisheries they are sourced from and avoid the environmental impact of transporting food from the other side of the world.