Every Friday the cobbles outside Sol e Pesca in Lisbon’s Chiado district thrum with groups huddling on benches that spill into the middle of Rua Nova do Carvalho. Bottles of effervescent vinho verde are served alongside tins of fish and seafood, indigenous to the shores of the Iberian Peninsula. More than mere sardines, the conservas–preserved seafood—are assiduously spiced or brined and served straight from the can, tasting as fresh as the day they were caught. But the scene here is far from unique. Bars and restaurants across Portugal and Spain serve them with an aperitivo as an everyday indulgence.
Ovas de sardinha, tiny strips of sardine roe, also known as “Portuguese caviar”, are a perfect topping to a slice of buttered bread; berbigão ao natural picante from Tricana, smooth, small flesh of cockles that come in a pleasant spicy brine; enguias de Murtosa from Comur, morsels of smoked adult eel from the Portuguese coastal village of Murtosa, carry a silvery skin and sweet but balanced soft and flaky flesh; polvo em azeite from Gabriel, are tender and moist cross sections of octopus tentacles, fitting in a tin after being captured in the Atlantic coast and preserved in extra virgin olive oil; and cavalinhas from José Gourmet, tiny horse-mackerel in olive oil, with a clean, saline taste, retaining its inherent flavor, nothing like when it is smoked.
Indeed, conservas, just like caviar, ask for very little in the way of manipulation. Served with wine, Vermouth, sherry or beer, Portugal and Spain’s tins have a quality and variety that confers an elevated status. With a bountiful coast, much of the Iberian Peninsula’s best seafood, from the chilly waters of the Cantabrian Sea in the north to the rough Atlantic to the west, are processed at the peak of freshness, bathed in olive oil or escabeche and sealed inside cans, largely reserved for the domestic market. These traditional methods in this part of Southern Europe go back more than two centuries.
Tinned fish is neither a cheaper alternative to the fresh seafood you buy from the market or something decoratively labeled to be offered as a gift: it is somewhere in the middle, an edible luxury but part of daily life, to be enjoyed frequently. There is no Portuguese shopping trolley that doesn’t include two or three cans.
Tinned tuna, which is more familiar to the US and UK, also has its pedestal within the conservas trade: ventresca, cut from belly of the white tuna (bonito del norte) found and fished in the Azores. Most menus will offer the oil-rich fillets alongside baby eels, octopus and cockles because it is revered for its supple texture and mellow taste, and nothing like the dry and flaky stuff of supermarket aisles. Granted, there is a price difference (it is approximately double, with a price tag of 10 euros).
Although the first tinned fish factory opened in Nantes, France, in 1822, canning anchovies in oil, it wasn’t until 1853 that the first commercial cannery in Portugal, Ramirez, — now the oldest in Europe — set up factories in Setúbal, just south of Lisbon, and in the Algarve in the far south to can sardines in olive oil.
By 1912, Portugal was the top worldwide exporter of canned fish—with sardines being the most popular, followed by tuna. By 1925, with Europe still reeling from World War I, demand for pre-packaged food had rocketed and some 400 canneries were in operation in Portugal. In fact, George Orwell contended that WWI would not have been possible without tinned food, adding: “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
Even then the Portuguese canning industry was recognized for its remarkable label design: lively graphics were extremely important to seduce the audience and brands, with their in-house designers — more like artists — competed for their collectible tins. The old cans were the fruits of prodigious imaginations: colorful, illustrated with daily life scenes or popular characters from literature (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) or Hollywood (Tarzan) and had created their own special typefaces.
In the wake of World War II and subsequent economic reforms, many factories closed. There are only 20 factories in Portugal today, but producing over 59,000 tons of fish and seafood per year — the highest output since 1923, thanks in part to visitors to Portugal’s main cities and lesser traveled parts of Spain who take them home as souvenirs.
Although a single tin of sardines, however decorative, is a pretty poor catch by comparison.
Miguel Andrade is a food writer living in Lisbon.