Tuesday, May 12, 2015

les Sardines + Bécassine

 I'm thinking about sardines tonight since our kitchen is filled with the distinctive 'odeur' of baked mackerel....close enough, right?
In France, Brittany has always been closely associated with the sardine and the names given to a range of fish including pilchards and immature herring.
 Over the years, stocks of these fish have risen and fallen, and these cycles of plenty or scarcity have had an enormous impact on the communities that depend on the sardine fishery. More than once, the economy faced a Sardine Crisis.

It is an old adage that armies march on their stomachs. Napoleon with his ambitious plans for empire had a lot of stomachs to march. So he offered a 12,000-franc prize for the invention of a better method of preserving food. The prize was claimed in 1809 by Nicholas Appert, who came up with a method still used today when “canning” food by sealing the heated and boiled food in airtight glass jars.
The process for “canning” in metal tins might appear to have come from England where Peter Durand was granted an English patent for the process of preserving food in tin-coated metal containers. However, later research revealed that Durand was not the inventor. He was the agent for a Frenchman Philippe de Girard who, at the time, was not eligible for an English patent.  Eventually the lowly sardine, which for centuries had been salted to preserve it, found itself canned and a new industry emerged. An industry based on a French not an English invention.
With the new technology and an abundant supply of sardines, the tinned sardine industry flourished. 

Then came La Crise Sardinière of 1870, when the French catch and output per French factory plummeted by about 50 percent. Everyone connected to the sardine industry suffered, including M. de Molon whose French fertilizer factory went into receivership to Credit Mobilier in 1877. There was a famine in Brittany.
That would not be the last Crise Sardinière. But in the meantime, times were good in the 1890s when the fish were plentiful. Then 1902 brought another catastrophic collapse which lasted until 1911. Many of those in the industry fled to other parts of France to find work.  Hence the Breton servants who came for work and became a characteristic part of the population of old Paris. The ‘sardine crisis’ of 1902, when overfishing caused a collapse, forced many young girls from Brittany to leave home and work in Paris. Over 100,000 of them worked as maids, but others became filles de joie in brothels. Other women turned to lace-making to earn a living.
Many of the poor Breton maids became stereotyped and one became the famous Bécassine, a character who in 1905 became the first female protagonist in the history of comics. 
The character Bécassine is a young Breton housemaid,  depicted wearing a green dress pastiching traditional Breton peasant costume, with lace coiffe and clogs and not too smart.  And she never has a mouth!

Seen as a stereotype and remnant of the contempt with which the Bretons were long seen, she is the typical provincial girl. But over the course of the stories, and coupled with the success she has, she is depicted more and more favorably. Bécassine is also a nickname, derived from the French word for a number of birds of the family of the snipe which is also used as a way of saying "fool" in French. So in a way Bécassine came about because of the lack of sardines.
The crisis in the French sardine industry also allowed other countries to enter the market. It even led to a court battle over whether the Norwegians could use the term “Sardines de Norvège” for what the French considered a lesser product. The French lost that one.

Nonethelesss, an English biologist wrote in 1915 "The natural fine quality of the sardine and the skilful ‘tinning’ and ‘flavouring’ of it by the French ‘curers’ of Concarneau in Brittany, have made it celebrated throughout the world as a delicacy." But either tinned or baked one thing remains is l'odeur. 
Cara - Tuesday


  1. Cara, I love the gentle lessons behind this post, about the mistakes of over fishing and how disasters change a culture. Oh, and I want that grilled sardine on the blue and white plate. Just that and a nicely chilled glass of Chassagne Montrachet would do me very well.

  2. Thanks Annamaria - I'll let you know next time and set a place for you!

  3. Most appropos, Cara. I just arrived in Denmark, and one of the first things I love to eat is Danish pickled herring. If I were in The Netherlands, it would be raw herring.

    In South Africa around this time of the year until July, there is what we call the sardine run. Actually it is probably better name the pichard run. Gazillions of these swim up the coast from the Cape almost to Mozambique, providing food for fish and birds - and people. The schools are so big that they can be seen from the shore, even though they are several miles offshore. On the occasions when the schools get washed on the beaches pandemonium ensures. Fun!

  4. Holy Mackerel, Cara! I know, you figured either EvKa or I would say that. The advantage of being 10 hours ahead of PST Time.

    Interesting recollection I have on the overfishing issue. I recall when in Monterey for LCC in 2014 seeing an exhibition where the ebbs and flows you describe also affected it's famous sardine trade. I also recall reading that science came to attribute the phenomenon to natural events and not overfishing. Not sure if a fishing industry PAC funded the study. :)

  5. The dorm I lived in during my college years was built in 1927, and it was still heated (in the early 1970s) by old cast iron radiators. One of the prime pranks (boy do love their pranks) was to get into someone's room and pour the oil/juice from a tin of sardines all over their radiator. This was best done in the fall, as then the stink would continue to bake off the cast iron all winter long whenever the heat was turned on.

    Or, at least, so it was rumored...