“A symptom of the Odessa grip. In the morning, all-day dining cafés supply the city with impressive hangover breakfasts: a cup of hot broth, pickles, bruschetta with salt sprats and a shot of vodka.”
-Caroline Eden, Black Sea
I’m currently in Estonia, and a quick look on Google, at the sort of sites entitled ‘The X number of dishes you must try in Estonia’, tipped me off about smoked sprats.
The general consensus seemed to be that these were definitely common fare in this northern-most Baltic country, and, in the spirit of research for Saucy Dressings, off I went in search of them.
First stop was my local supermarket (indeed, there didn’t seem really to be anywhere else to buy them, from a self-catering point of view, at least).
I found some fish labelled Kiluvðileib which had a spratty sort of look I thought, but instead the ladies in the supermarket recommended these beautiful little gold fish which they told me were smoked. I’m not sure how I managed to glean this from them since they didn’t speak any English, and my Estonian is rubbish, but on checking later it turns out that they were right, and I had, miraculously, got the right end of the stick.
What exactly are sprats?
The European sprat (sprattus spattus for good measure) is the one commonly found in the Baltic. It’s a forage fish, very oily, and beloved of gannets (the bird kind, not the human kind) who need a lot of fuel to haul their two metre wingspan out of the sea towards the heavens above. Sprats are sprats – they are not baby sardines, anchovies, or baby herrings – although they are not dissimilar in size and all of these often get confused.
In addition to gannets, sprats are also beloved of Estonians, and their neighbours on all sides, in particular the Latvians and the Russians.
How should you eat sprats?
- The Estonians like to eat them on open sandwiches, kiluvõileivad. Traditionally they use the local black rye bread, butter, the sprats, a snipped spring onion or two and some sliced hard boiled egg which adds texture.
Rather than towing the traditional line however, I thought I would experiment. I love the local rye bread – and the butter – so that was a given, but I thought the bread needed a bit more sauce and that the egg might be a bit too dry (you could get around this by making it a soft-boiled egg).
- So I decided to try them with a Russian salad (yes, I’m aware that Russian salad is about as Russian as an English muffin is English), and to pep the whole thing up with a bit of rocket.
I was very pleased with the result! It worked excellently. I was a bit concerned about all the bones in the fish, but the tinning process makes them soft. The fish has a very smoky taste but the creaminess of the Russian salad made it palatable.
An appropriate drink pairing might be a Pohjala Pime ÖÖ Islay BA – an imperial stout made in Tallinn, aged in Islay whisky barrels to gain a peaty smoke taste – definitely man enough for the vigorous sprats!
- But you can also eat the sprats on their own as the Fish Society – (providers in the UK) poetically describe as ‘a sort of piscatorial peanut, which will occupy your fingers as much as your palate’.
- Sprats also go well on a piece of toast with avocado.
- They are good with boiled potatoes or mash (rather Scandinavian that).
- You can mash them up with a bit of oil and lemon, and use them as a sauce for pasta. Or a sort of loose pâté. Or simply eat them with the lemon as is…. this is how the Russians approach sprats
Finally, after all of this, I reread one of the helpful websites about Estonian food. Kerli (no surname, but a musician apparently) on the Visit Estonia site, states encouragingly:
“This delicacy really makes me smile because it’s considered far from fancy these days. To be honest, I don’t think anyone under 40 actually purchases it, ever.”
Ah well….if only I’d known!
Below you can listen to Velly Joonas singing Stop, Stop time! Bet she ate sprats….