ONE of the pleasures of travel is serendipity. Not for us the guide book and the beaten track – at least when there is a bit of time to spend.
That is how we wound up one late lunchtime in the docks district of a Portuguese town, in an unpromising restaurant across a dusty road from a shipping container park.
Tall bluegum trees provided welcome shade for us and for a yellow dog that stirred into life occasionally to chase pick-ups carrying other equally fly-blown yellow dogs.
In the middle of the courtyard stood a circular barbecue pit, probably three feet across, and waist high. We had missed the lunchtime rush of dockyard workers, but there was heat enough left in the coals to provide us a delicious meal of fresh Portuguese sardines, served with crusty bread and a cold glass of the local rosé wine, Vinha Lomeda.
Over the years I have modified the recipe, as you do, but if you do not feel up to the complexities described here, a squeeze or two of lemon or lime juice and the occasional brush with olive oil while cooking is really all you need for a fishy feast.
Serve as a starter, with bread to soak up the juices. As a main course, this goes well with barbecued potatoes and Portuguese tomato sauce.
Sardines with chili, dill and lime
Preparation: 20mins plus marinating
You will need
12 fresh sardines, cleaned and gutted. Adjust the number according to the size of the fish
The zest and juice of two limes
1 green chilli sliced thinly (optional)
100g/4oz fresh dill, chopped, or half a teaspoon of dill seeds
A small bowl of olive oil to brush on to the fish while cooking
A fish clamp or four long wooden skewers, soaked in water for an hour
At least an hour and a half ahead of time, rub off fish scales under cold running water, then gut and trim off fins.
Make a few shallow diagonal cuts on both sides of each sardine
Chop dill and mix it with the lime juice, zest and sliced chilli, plus salt to taste. Rub into the fish, inside and out (but not into your eyes).
Cover the fish and leave in the fridge for an hour to marinate.
Make the garlic bread: Crush a clove of garlic under the flat of a kitchen knife, then chop and mash as finely as you can. Mash up enough butter for the bread you have. Cut the French loaf part-way through and smear garlic butter inside the slices. Wrap in foil and put in the oven, gas mark 4, for 10 minutes, or a cool corner of the barbecue.
Oil your fish clamp, if you have one. Otherwise, impale the fish on pairs of skewers to make something that looks like a little fishy ladder.
Brush the fish with olive oil and cook over medium coals for 3-4 minutes each side until the skin blisters and chars a little and the eyes turn opaque.
Serve with warm garlic bread