Packed Like Sardines in Portugal
March 6th, 2021
After yesterday’s stroll around Tavira, today we’re taking a closer look at a heritage industry and food of Portugal: canned sardines. In the past 150 years there have been as many as 400 canneries operating in Portugal. Today there are only about 20 but the industry is thriving, shipping canned fish within Portugal and all over the world.
The sardine, a small silvery fish, is found in abundance along the lengthy coast of Portugal. Sardines have been fished here in the Atlantic for centuries, although the sardine population has declined and moved north to cooler water in the last several decades. This has led canning companies to expand their product offerings to other locally available options including mackerel, tuna, squid and octopus. Sardines are a main export of Portugal and a nutritious staple of the local diet — full of protein, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.
The sardine canning industry started in the late 1800s and experienced huge growth in the early 1900s as sardines grew in popularity. World War I created even more demand for sardines due to the need for non-perishable food items in the field. Sardines were also in demand during World War II but, since then, have gone in and out of culinary fashion. These days, they’re popular once again due in part to the eye-catching design and packaging of each canning company. But even a fresh sardine has timeless appeal — simply salt it, toss it on the grill and dinner is ready.
I was introduced to the booming trade of canned sardines at a little shop in Lisbon. Loja das Conservas features a wide variety of canned sardines from all over Portugal. In addition to hundreds of cans on display, the history of Portugal’s oldest and most successful canning companies is displayed with their products. Loja das Conservas also has a great website.
Reading about these canning companies, it’s clear that sustainability is becoming the most important issue of the industry. What was once a plentiful food source throughout the year is now a resource that must be managed if Portugal wants to keep the tradition and industry alive. Here are a few highlights about the featured canning companies, with photos and artwork from the displays:
Ramirez was founded in Vila Real de Santo (on the Guadiana between Portugal and Spain) by Sebastian Ramirez, owner of a salting factory business and textile manufacturing unit. He created the first canned fish factory in 1876. The company increased exports during WWI and also supplied canned sardines to the U.K., Belgium, Germany and the Red Cross in WWII. Ramirez now exports to 43 countries.
Located in Varzim, Expoconser was founded in 1994 after two companies merged, with history dating back to 1942. Fish in Expoconser’s products is separated and prepared by hand, and packed in cartonetes. They specialize in sardines, mackerel, tuna.
Briosa was founded in 1991 in Figueira da Foz (north of Lisbon) at the local fishing port. Being close to the daily catch is a source of pride for this family-run business.
Cofaco was formed in the Algarve in 1961. The following year, the company moved to the Azores — the location of the tuna migration — due to the lack of tuna off the coast of the Algarve.
Vianapesca, located in Viana do Castelo in northern Portugal, is one of the largest fishing cooperatives in the country. The company uses artisanal fishing methods for a wide variety of species, most of which are sold to Spain, France and Italy. Select reserves are used for canning.
Lucas was established in 1896 by Joaquim Pedro Ferreira Lucas. It was the first canning factory in Matosinhos, near Porto. Lucas & Co. was founded in 1920 by sons Domingos and Adriano. Production reached 8 million cans per year in the 1950s. Their products are popular in Greece.
Porthos (Portugal Norte) was also established in Matosinhos, after Lucas in 1912. This family-run business ships internationally to the Middle East, Far East, Europe, Africa and North America.
La Gondola was founded by Italians in Matosinhos in the 1980s. Their canned fish is exported to the EU, Mexico, U.S., Japan, Brazil and Canada. Fish are processed manually one by one, and sardines used by La Gondola are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Santa Catarina canned fish comes from the Azores and Madeira. Fishermen work with pole and line from the Mestre Afonso, Maria Leontina and Bela Aurora boats plus other local vessels. This method of fishing is certified, environmentally friendly and dolphin safe. The practice employs the coastal population of Sao Jorge Island who make their living from fishing. Canned Santa Catarina fish is washed in sea water and cooked in brine just before being packaged. The company was originally founded in 1940.
Sardines are fresh and in season from June to October, and Lisbon hosts the Santo Antonio Festival (also known as the Festival of Sardines) every year from June 12th-14th. No matter what time of year, if you find yourself in Portugal be sure to try a sardine — fresh or canned — and check out the artistry of this historic industry still alive and fishing, feeding Portugal and the world.
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.