Packing them in

An unmistakeable sign of the impending holiday season turned up this morning in the form of an email from Thierry Jourdan, boss of the family-run cannery La Quiberonnaise in Britanny. Founded in 1921 by Thierry’s grandfather, the fish canning business packs sardines and mackerel landed by local inshore boats as well as taking in yellowfin tuna to pack a range of cans in domestic sizes.

Such canneries were a common sight in seaside towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, there are still a number of survivors in what used to be a crowded market. As the fleets dispersed and catches waned, the importance of the tourist trade was recognised by canneries along the French coast. The 1930s saw the establishment of paid summer holidays for French workers: it was the salvation of resourceful canners.

They greeted holidaymakers with open arms and tasteful souvenirs. Local artists are still engaged to create designs for annual editions of elaborately decorated cans of fish, with the promise of a fresh series the next year. Themes range from gently humorous picture postcard subjects to classical offerings that are as likely to end up in an art gallery as a kitchen. Canned fish as an art form has some unexpectedly well-known devotees. Food critic Jean-Luc Petitrenaud always takes a decorated can of sardines for his host whenever he is invited to dinner.

What Mona Lisa tells us about sardines

Sardines in the Mediterranean are now smaller and lighter than 20 years ago.  Mona Lisa is a European project which has been studying sardine populations in the region and has established that the average lengths of sardines had fallen from 15 centimetres to 11 and the average weight has nosedived from 30 grams to 10.

Researchers attribute the dramatic decline to a 15% drop in stocks of micro-algae in the bay of Biscay, which has lowered the nutritional value of plankton. The study carried out by the French marine institute Ifremer was able to rule out overfishing and natural predators such as dolphins or tuna. It also established that there was no virus to blame for the dramatic decline.

The  changing composition of plankton was investigated using a controlled sardine population  of 450 fish divided into four groups and fed differing strengths of plankton. This is the largest project of its kind anywhere in the world.

The sardine is one of the most heavily fished species in the world. The high demand from canneries creates a commercial value for sardines within a certain size range. Changing the size of sardine cans would entail substantial costs for retooling packing lines, not to mention major revisions to packing and cooking protocols for the autoclaves.