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Jun 16, 2006 01:34 AM

The Great Sardine Taste-off – the Sardine Saga continues (cans 31-39)

  • r

Who knew there were so many kinds of canned sardines?

This was my first taste of fancy French sardines and humble Mexican sardines.

I didn’t like the French sardines that much. The only reason they ranked as high as they did was because all of the craft that went into making them. That didn’t translate to taste for the brand I tried.

The Mexican sardines come in big oval 15 ounce cans and are packed in tomato or hot sauce. The cans cost about $1 - $1.20 compared to the usual four ounce cans of sardines which can average from $1 - $3.

I opened the first one gingerly. I was almost afraid they might have heads attached and I’d have to deal with beady little eyes staring at me accusingly. No heads.

I went safe and opened the Bumble Bee can first. Good thing I did because otherwise it is unlikely I would have tried the Calmex or El Mexicano brands because these last two were so awful.

However, the Bumble Bee was the only brand of ANY canned sardines in tomato sauce that I’ve ever liked. These are excellent sardines and an excellent value. Oddly enough Bumble Bee regular 4 oz sardines are one of my least favorite brands. Bumble Bee Mexico – si, Bumble Bee USA – no.

As to Calmex and El Mexicano … I learned that sriracha sauce is an excellent match for sardines and can make, well, awful sardines edible.

The flabby El Mexicano sardines are last on the list of over 39 canned sardines sampled. If I ever do buy a worse tasting sardine, it will go directly in the garbage.

Pacific Star, a sardine from Thailand, was an unpleasantly bitter, sloppily-packed sardine. While it was in a traditional 4 oz sardine can, it didn’t have a pull tab and needed a can opener. Skip them. There are better sardines at the same price.

Cracovia sardines from Poland were tasty, but they were not whole, and looked at first like canned tuna.

This group wasn’t all bad. Roland Sardines took second place in the overall rankings And BELA-Olhao in plain olive oil ranked third out of the 39 cans sampled.

This also reinforced my theory that the best sardines are the sardines packed in olive oil or water. They are a better quality without sauces or spices to mask flaws.

BELA-Olhão sardines flavored with lemon or chile placed low in the rankings, while the sardines in plain olive oil were excellent.

Some sardines have a bitter taste to them. I think that happens when the tail is not cut off

At this point, I would say that sardine quality can pretty much be determined my country of origin with the following ranking.

The Philippines

Here are the details next 9 canned sardines, in order of preference:


1. Roland Sardines in Olive Oil - Morocco - $2.95
2. BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
3. Connetable Sardines entières à l’huile d’olive vierge extra - France - $2. 95 (on sale, usually $4.50)
4. Bumble Bee sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 29 (15 oz)
5. Cracovia - Poland - $2. 55
6. BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in lemon-flavored extra virgin olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
7. Pacific Star Lightly smoked sardines in vegetable oil - Thailand - $. 99
8. Calmex sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 19 (15 oz)
9. El Mexicano Sardinas en salsa de tomate con chile - Mexico - $1. 09 (15 oz)

Rankings of all 39 brands and link to previous post are at the end.


Size – my casual grading:
Extra large – Bumble Bee Mexican sardines in 15 oz oval cans
Large = length of can
Small = ½ length of can or smaller
Medium = anything in between

Brand: BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
Calories per can: 240
Ingredients: Sardines, olive oil, salt, natural smoke flavor
Taste: Three large beautiful sardines in excellent olive oil. Great not too tuna taste. Tails cut off. While I didn’t like the flavored varieties, the can in plain olive oil was good enough to rank number three out of 39 cans.

Brand: BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in lemon-flavored extra virgin olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
Calories per can: 260
Ingredients: Sardines, extra virgin olive oil, natural lemon flavor, salt, natural smoke flavor
Taste: Three large sardines with tales cut off. I didn’t like the lemon flavoring which tasted like lemon oil rather than lemon juice. The sardines were salty and the lemon flavor just overwhelmed the sardine flavor. Like a mild tuna in taste and texture. Not too spiny. A slight flabbiness around the edges.

Brand: Bumble Bee sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 29 (15 oz)
Calories per can: 70 calories per serving, 7 servings per can
Ingredients: Sardines, water, tomato paste, starch, sugar, paprika
Taste: Seven extra large sardines. The sauce was a nice flavor, a little like Hunt’s tomato sauce … and that is a BIG improvement over any other sardines in tomato sauce. They held their shape very well. With the sauce, it was hard to determine any other appearance. The taste was fishy somewhere half way between Norwegian and Spanish sardines. Packed in olive oil, these would be very tasty and might match the Spanish sardines. Very meaty, little spine, a little dry and just a little bitter. Although it says 7 servings per can, it more realistically is two.

Brand: Connetable Sardines entières à l’huile d’olive vierge extra - France - $2. 95 (on sale, usually $4.50)
Calories per can: 360
Ingredients: Sardines (80%), extra virgin olive oil, salt
Taste: Stylish can in red, gold and black Five large sardines. The flesh was firm and not too spiny. However, There was a woody taste to them, like fish baked on planks. They had a bitter aftertaste and notes that were musty and gasoline-like. Although they are fried, I would never have guessed that without reading about it. The French age sardines, so maybe these will taste better after a few months.

Link for more info:

Brand: Calmex sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 19 (15 oz
)Calories per can: 60 calories per serving, 7 servings per can
Ingredients: Sardines, tomato sauce (tomatoes, iodized salt, spices)
Taste: There were about a dozen sardines in the can. This is the only can that had sardines of different sizes in. The cut ends were raggedy. They didn’t hold their shape well and fell apart easily. These were not pretty. Not too much spine. The sauce was watery and not too tasty. There were really about three servings rather than two.

Brand: Cracovia - Poland - $2. 55
Calories per can: 180
Ingredients: steamed herring fillets, vegetable oil, salt
Taste: I was surprised to open the can and see what looked and smelled like tuna. Double checking the can, it said sardine fillets. It was like the cans of salmon that have the skin and bones mixed in. Except no bones, just skin and sardine. Actually it was pretty good with a tuna taste. The only weird thing was the skin which had an odd flabby texture. It was a little salty, but the taste was actually quite good.

Brand: El Mexicano Sardinas en salsa de tomate con chile - Mexico - $1. 09 (15 oz)
Calories per can: 75 calories per serving, 8 servings per can
Ingredients: Sardines, tomato sauce, chile, salt
Taste: Seventeen large sardines with tails attached in a watery sauce that tasted of neither tomato nor chile. While the sardines had a pleasant taste there were texture problems where pieces had flabby spots. Yuck. Obviously did not keep their shape well and fell apart easily. While the can says seven servings, it is more like three … three miserable servings.

Brand: Pacific Star Lightly smoked sardines in vegetable oil - Thailand - $. 99
Calories per can: 140
Ingredients: Sardines, vegetable oil, water, citric acid
Taste: These were truly unattractive sardines with that bitter note that some sardines have. Four large messy sardines with the skin really nicked and the head and tail cuts jagged. I had to pry out two sardines that were stuck to the can. Also the sardines were flat like they had been pressed into the can to fit. And the can needed a can opener, no pull-tab. The meat itself wasn’t bad if it wasn’t for the bitterness. More along the tuna flavor. The vegetable oil was so weak I checked the box to see I they were packed in water or oil. There are much better sardines in this price range to choose from.

Brand: Roland Sardines in Olive Oil - Morocco - $2.95
Calories per can: 200
Ingredients: Sardines, olive oil, salt
Taste: Four large sardines with the tails cut off. Instantly good tasting. In fact, with my first bite I did an audible ‘mmmm’. Lovely balance with he tuna taste I prefer in sardines, but not overly so. Lovely olive oil that was buttery. At first I thought the spines were removed, but on very close inspection, the spines were very delicate and small. Excellent. It might beat out Angelo Parodi and in the future I’ll have to do a back to back tasting.


1. Angelo Parodi Sardine Portoghesi all’olio di olivo – Portugal/Italy - $1.99
2. Roland Sardines in Olive Oil - Morocco - $2.95
3. BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
4. Matiz Gallego sardines in olive oil - Spain - $2. 99
5. Idamar Portuguese Sardines in olive oil - Portugal - $2. 25
6. Gonsalves Sardines in olive oil – Portugal - $1.99
7. Da Morgada Sardines in Pure Olive Oil - Portugal - $3. 99
8. Albo Sardines in Olive oil – Spain - $4.99
9. King Oscar Sardines Mediterranean style – Norway, packed in Poland - $2.99
10. Yankee Clipper lightly smoked sardines in soybean oil – Morocco - $2.49
11. King Oscar Extra Small Sardines in fish oil 2 layers – Norway - $2.99
12. Connetable Sardines entières à l’huile d’olive vierge extra - France - $2. 95 (on sale, usually $4.50)
13. BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in cayenne pepper-flavored extra virgin olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
14. Crown Prince One Layer Sardines in soy bean oil no Salt - Scotland - $1. 85
15. Beach Cliff Sardines in soybean oil – USA / Canada - $.69
16. Brunswick Sardines in Spring Water No Salt Added – Canada - $1.19
17. Madrigal spiced sardines in vegetable oil – Morocco - $1.59
18. Brunswick Sardines in Olive Oil – Canada - $1.19
19. King Oscar Extra Small Brisling Sardines in purest virgin olive oil – Norway - $2.99
20. King Oscar tiny tots Sardines in olive oil two layers – Norway - $2.99
21. Bumble Bee sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 29 (15 oz)
22. Cracovia - Poland - $2. 55
23. Palacio Real Small Sardines in Olive oil (slightly smoked) – Spain - $2.99
24. BUMBLE BEE Sardines in Water – Poland - $.89
25. King Oscar Sardines in pure spring water – Norway - $2.99
26. BELA-Olhão lightly smoked sardines in lemon-flavored extra virgin olive oil. - Portugal - $1. 75
27. Mega Sardines in tomato sauce with chili – The Philippines - $.79
28. Brunswick Sardines in Mustard Sauce – Canada - $1.19
29. Bumble Bee Sardines in Mustard – Poland - $.89
30. Yankee Clipper lightly smoked sardines in tomato sauce – Morocco - $2.49
31. Yankee Clipper lightly smoked sardines in mustard sauce – Morocco - $2.49
32. King Oscar Sardines in tomato – Norway - $2.99
33. Brunswick Sardines in Mustard and Dill Sauce – Canada - $1.19
34. King Oscar Skinless & boneless Sardines in olive oil – Morocco - $2.99
35. Gourmet Award lightly smoked sardines in tomato sauce – Morocco - $1.89
36. Pacific Star Lightly smoked sardines in vegetable oil - Thailand - $. 99
37. Calmex sardines in tomato sauce - Mexico - $1. 19 (15 oz)
38. Brunswick Sardines in tomato & basil Sauce – Canada - $1.19
39. El Mexicano Sardinas en salsa de tomate con chile - Mexico - $1. 09 (15 oz)


Brand: Calmex
Manufacturer: Ocean Garden Products, Inc.

Brand: Connetable
Manufacturer: Connetable

Brand: Cracovia
Manufacturer: Cracovia Brands, Inc.

Brand: El Mexicano
Manufacturer: Marquez

Brand: Pacific Star
Manufacturer: Star International

Brand: Roland
Manufacturer: American Roland Food Corp


Brand: Albo Sardines
Manufacturer: Albo

Brand: Angelo Parodi
Manufacturer: Icat Food S.p.A

Brand: Beach Cliff
Manufacturer: Bumble Bee Crop

Brand: BELA-Olhão
Manufacturer: Blue Galleon, Inc.

Brand: Brunswick
Manufacturer: Bumble Bee Seafoods

Brand: Bumble Bee
Manufacturer: Bumble Bee Seafoods

Brand: Crown Prince
Manufacturer: Crown Prince, Inc

Brand: Da Morgada
Manufacturer: Tradifoods

Brand: Gonsalves
Manufacturer: The Henry Gonsalves Co

Brand: Gourmet Award
Manufacturer: Gourmet Award Foods

Brand: Idamar
Manufacturer: Idama

Brand: King Oscar
Manufacturer: Bumble Bee Seafoods

Brand: Madrigal
Manufacturer: Unimer

Brand: Matiz Gallego
Manufacturer: Matiz Gallego

Brand: Mega Sardines
Manufacturer: Mega Fishing corp.

Brand: Palacio Real Small Sardines in Olive oil (slightly smoked
)Manufacturer: Palacio Real

Brand: Yankee clipper
Manufacturer: American Natural & Specialty Brands


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  1. You rock! A true chowhound! Thanks for the report :-)

    1. rworange, thank you for these excellent ratings.

      I found your first post from a while back, but it didn't mention how you taste the sardines. Do you eat them straight out of the can?

      What do you usually do with sardines for lunch or dinner? I never ate them as a kid and don't know many recipes or what a sardine sandwich should be like.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Joseph E

        Yes, straight from the can ... or, rather from can to bowl. This is what I try to do to balance all the other deep-fried, unhealthy, yet intersting foods I might sample at dinner ... or those eggs benedict for breakfast.

        The only thing I've done is add sriracha sauce to sardines I really don't like. It makes them bearable.

        Actually, the sardine tasting was just an outgrowth of trying to eat two healthy meals a day. It made it more interesting to try all the variations of a single item like sardines.

        And it really has been interesting to me. For the years I've read Chowhound, the question of the best sardine gets asked occassionally. And the answer was usually they are all pretty much the same.

        They aren't though. I wasn't too fond of sardines when I started this. Yet I've found that some really are very tasty.

        So except for when I eat out, I'm doing that business of eating small meals frequently. Just the sardines by themselves for lunch, fruit for a snack two hours later.

        Now that it is summer, I'll probably add tomatoes since I like sardines with tomatoes alot.

        Last time I posted, there was an interesting thread about how people eat sardines, and that might give you some ideas. Link is at the end.

        With a sandwich, I'd go with a dark Eastern European bread, maybe some peppery green and, of course, tomatoes.

        However, when I was a kid going to an all-American private school where the kids brought chicken salad sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off and perfect carrot sticks, my Polish American mother would send me off with sardine sandwiches on pumpernickel that leaked through the bag.

        I'm still not all that fond of sardine sandwiches to this day.


        1. re: rworange

          Thanks for the link. Mmm... now I want to buy some fresh sardines to grill, too!

      2. Some of the most dreadful cans in Sardine-land have the prettiest labels.

        Start a collection and relish the memories.

        1. thank you for the great report. My husband is not a chowhound- eats to live only. so uninterested in food. When I have nothing for dinner-or actually any time at all, he loves a can of sardines for dinner with a tomato, some bread and cheese. Ugh. I will look for the brands you recommend. [he will say - why did you go to the bother to make all this- I could have had a can of sardines].Ohmygod. I want to kill him( but i love him).

          1 Reply
          1. re: Emilief

            If he really doesn't care about food, I'd go with the Brunswick sardines which are inexpensive, decent and really what most people identify as the classic sardine taste. For someone who doesn't care, the different between that and anything except the top two wouldn't really matter.

            The #1 sardine, which I love, has a strong Italian tuna taste, like Genova tuna. So if that is not objectionalbe to him, you might give that a try. Otherwise, if you are going for the top of the line, those Roland sardines are really nice. They are harder to find though. I've only seen them in one store - The Spanish Table in Berkeley. I'm guessing other Spanish (not Latino, from Spain), might carry them.

          2. You really need to get up to Monterey and buy a few cans of Monterey Bay sardines. Last time I was there, they were available at Sea Harvest fish markets.

            Until you do that, these are just preliminary results :-).

            Seriously though, this is a great service. And glad to know about the Bumble Bees from Mexico - they may make a good substitute for the Monterey sardines which I haven't found anywhere but on the Mty peninsula.


            5 Replies
            1. re: e.d.

              Thanks. I was beginning to think I was running out of new sardines to try. I just have one can that is new to me in the kitchen. I was wondering if I needed to schedule a trip to NYC to stock up on those fancy aged Fairway sardines. I did see from the salmon thread a few new sources of Le Sardine.

              Hope you'll report back about how the Bumble Bee Mexican sardines compare to the Monterey sardines.

              I've only seen the Bumble Bee Mexican sardines at one place so far ... Hi Country Market on Apian Way in El Sobrante. Most of the other Mexican markets sell those dreadful Calmex and El Mexicano sardines.

              1. re: rworange

                You'll certainly find canned piscatorial treasure here in NYC!!!

                Sure you can seek the gold at high-end markets like DEAN & DELUCA, the Italian Market in the Chelsea Market complex, CITARELLA's and FAIRWAY.

                But don't leave without hitting the ethnic neighborhoods for Kosher, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and other labels.

                To name a few: DAGIM (Kosher), SEASON (the entire line can be found at Friedman's Market in Borough Park, Brooklyn) and KING-OF-THE-SEA; GOYA and VITARROZ (Spanish) all over town and (not sure if they're still around) GOUVEIA and others (Portuguese brands) along Newark's Ferry Street brave and head for lunch at "PIC-NIC" (fresh-grilled sardines or whole spit-roasted baby pig a.k.a. "leitao."

                Brooklyn's Russian enclave in Brighton Beach contains a fascinating selection of Russian, Polish and Slavic 'dines and sprats - pick up some BLACKWOODS and DELAMARIS...Head for Bay Ridge and find some hold-out Norwegian groceries...Astoria (Queens) may still have Greek brands you can't pronounce. You'll even get lucky with obscurity in the local 99-cent stores.

                Meanwhile, rworange, your posts are totally reminiscent of my travels years before the birth of the 'Net (like, in 1978) when I tooled around NYC and beyond for recreation, "fishing" for every possible variation on the theme of sardines - and catching a boatload! Some days I borrowed from dads of friends, and then ran out of money for the crosstown bus ride home. At the time feeding a three-can-a-day habit until my big toes hurt.

                There are perhaps one-onehundredth the number of brands around now...and the big corporate fish have swallowed the strong old-time brands (e.g. Bumble Bee/King Oscar), shifting the packing to Poland, meddling with the oils and causing a near-extinction of the KEY.

                Since the sardine knows no boundaries, NYC should be your first stop on an interantional "Tour de Sardine"!

                Go Fish.

                1. re: Mike R.

                  Well, darn it, Mike. I wrote that business about a trip to NY for sardines tongue in cheek. Now you have given me sardine envy.

                  So, what are your favorite brands of sardines? I bow to your experience ... and would like to avoid the Calmex grief in the future ... I've only begun my fishy journey.

                  Others may travel buying postcards and little Eiffel tower replicas. I'm seeing a future checking world-wide markets for the untried can of sardines. I wonder how a suitcase full of sardine cans goes over in customs?

                  By the way, I read on the web that some brands have heads ... that sort of freaks me out ... did you ever run into that situtation? Is that likely for sardines packed in a specific country?

                  1. re: rworange

                    Favorites?...Sounds like a trip to the racetrack!...but just to name a few:

                    TINY TOTS - Norwegian Crosspacked in Olive Oil (KING OSCAR EXTRA SMALL & CROWN PRINCE SMALL DOUBLE-LAYER also qualify)
                    SEASON - in Olive Oil (Portuguese-style, now packaged in Maroc) - today's lunch on Oatnut bread with fresh-grated Reggiano Parmiggiano on the opposite slice... broiled 7 minutes.
                    SEASON - in Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (they're getting "up-SCALE", if you know what I mean!)
                    GOYA - soya oil with the slice of lemon inside.
                    KING OSCAR - Norwegian with Pesto...sure, I read your old posts and ignored the logic...harder-to-find these days, I wonder if the Bumbling Bee people cut back production.

                    I tend to ignore all mustard and tomato-sauce slop ESPECIALLY the wide oval cans or even the upright 4-ouncers that resemble DelMonte tomato paste cans...from anywhere in the world, Thailand, Peru and food. With few exceptions, tending instead to go with the purer, oilier versions and almost never in water, which renders the product mush.

                    Many of the kosher and ethnic brands are very similar to the popular labels, but have a wide range of tastes and off-tastes. Your high-riding opinion of ROLAND gives me pause - historically iffy products. Californians may still be able to get "S&W" Norwegian in Olive Oil-Deep Blue label (for a long time atop my charts), but I haven't seen these in the local A&P for a decade.

                    And now for my "Sardine Moment of the Month": On professional rounds covering the ghettos of Brooklyn, I swam up to the canned fish shelf for a quick inspection - there before my very eyes a single (at-least 4-year-old) can of the famous and beloved MOOSEABECs, spiced Norway Brisling which graced our markets until some bonehead pulled the plug. Their last incarnation was a modified domestic version concocted by the PORT CLYDE (Maine) folks.

                    To answer the other stuff - I've carried multiple layers of cans inside a knapsack...enough to make the TSA scanners wonder. In olden times, tins were lead-sealed.

                    Heads?...only fresh or in the frozen state, packaged in the Iberian Peninsula.

                2. re: rworange

                  > Thanks. I was beginning to think I was running out of new sardines to try.

                  Sardines are one of the requests that Spanish family back in the US makes of us... we'll be bringing back a whole carry on of tinned sea creatures this summer when we visit. I'd be happy to tuck some extras in and send you a little assortment for your scientific gastronomic quest. There are dozens of varieties here in Spain--different sizes, packed in olive oil, escabeche, tomato... Only a tiny fraction of them are available in the US. Let me know if you are interested (email: m at-sign alpha60 dot com).