Freshwater sardines: a millennia-old tradition

Go to Lago d'Iseo and with a bit of luck you’ll see a naèt. It looks rather like a Venetian gondola, but unlike those iconic vessels, these boats are not used to ferry tourists across the serene waters of the lagoon. These are fishing boats, common to the land around Brescia and Bergamo. So similar are these two northern Italian cities in their cultures and ways of life, well might the average Italian conflate them.

As we were saying, the naèt are piloted by fishermen. And we were also saying that it might take a bit of luck to spot one, because today, this way of fishing Lake Iseo is sadly becoming ever rarer. Yet there are some who resist, like the fifteen fishing families who still believe in work done the traditional way. Their lives beat to the rhythm of their surroundings. At 3pm they push out on the naèt and work as long as light allows. Even their fishing methods don’t try to force the hand of Mother Nature: their nets are anchorless, and are just left to float in the water, wherever the current may take them. This technique, called pesca volante (flying fishing) is practised mainly in the northern part of the lake, which is deeper and subject to stronger currents. Here they fish for char, trout, common whitefish, and twait shad. The southern reaches of the lake, meanwhile, are much shallower, with its average depth not even touching 20 metres, except in a few areas. This means that the waters are warmer and calmer, and so here you find eels, tench, perch, freshwater shrimp and pike, which require different fishing methods. Here the nets are not left to float, but are fixed to the bottom and the banks of the lake. Traps, too.

When we think of fishing around here, we tend to think immediately of Lake Iseo’s dried sardines, which recently came under the protection of the Slow Food movement. We use the word “sardine” even though it isn’t strictly one: to be completely accurate, the fish in question is a twait shad, which so resembles its marine “cousin” in shape and size (the largest reach about 20 centimetres) that the error is taken with good humour.

Fish drying is an ancient technique, dating back at least a thousand years. It is used primarily in the winter months, when the fish have put on layers of fat in order to combat the chilly waters. Once they’ve been gutted and cleaned, the “sardines” are allowed to rest for at least 48 hours. Then they are left to dry in the sun and the open air for 30-40 days, traditionally dangling from an ash branch, bent into an arc. It takes enormous patience to string up each one.

When the fish have reached a low enough moisture content, they are pressed, in order to squeeze out most of their fat. Then they are put in containers and covered with local olive oil. They are ready for the table after six months, but will keep for up to two years. In this case, though, the oil must be changed every nine months.

The dried “sardines” from Lake Iseo are at their best when cooked on a red-hot stovetop, which lends them a slightly crunchy outside while keeping the flesh nice and soft. Served with a generous helping of polenta, they become an expression of the area, a symphony of history and passion that has been passed down over the centuries. If it hadn’t been passed down, we wouldn’t be able to taste this unique dish today.