From sardines to roe: The art of canned fish in Portugal

Different types of Portuguese canned fish and their colourful packaging

The practice of preserving food is not new, preserving ingredients through dehydration, fermentation or salting are ancient methods. In Portugal, salted cod is one of the best-known examples of preserved foods, but the Portuguese canned fish are not left behind and have an important role in the history and culture of the country.

Read more: The 10 Portuguese cod dishes you must try

A Brief History of Canned Sardines

It all started when the Frenchman Nicolas Appert published his method of conservation using hermetic glass jars in the book “The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years” in 1810. Soon afterwards, the Englishman Joseph-Pierre Colin adapted the technique and introduced canned sardines to the market. Kicking off a large-scale production with its canning factory in Nantes, France.

Four tin cans open with different types of canned fish
Different Types of Canned Fish | © olenayeromenkonphotos

The Portuguese Canned Fish

In the middle of the 19th century, more precisely in 1853, the first fish conservation company in Portugal was created. Years later, driven by the two great wars, Portugal considerably expanded its production, supplying the countries of Europe and their soldiers with easy-to-transport, nutritious and long-lasting food.

Since then, the Portuguese have remained active in the improvement of new canning techniques, which has made the product a speciality in the country. The convenience of the canned fish left the scene of war and got into the daily lives of Portuguese families.

Main types of canned fish and seafood in Portugal

The canned sardine, in spite of being the most well-known and traditional Portuguese canning, is not the only one. In Portugal, it is possible to find the entire sea canned, the options include squid, octopus and roe within a multitude of recipes and oils. It’s common to find:

  • Canned sardines, the classic one. Found with different options of olive oils, tomato sauce and others.
  • Sardine roe, a.k.a the Portuguese caviar – are preserved in olive oil and only need toast with butter to taste perfect in the mouth;
  • Octopus, usually found pure only with olive oil or already seasoned with garlic or tomato sauce. It is worth eating straight from the can or cooking Portuguese style, pouring its own sauce over potatoes to cook;
  • Tuna, forget the ordinary canned tuna that is sold around. In Portugal, you can find top quality cuts of canned tuna. Try the canned tuna belly, the fleshiest part of the fish;
  • Mackerel, this fish is usually canned in fillets, good to eat with toast and in salads;
  • Squid, this delicacy goes even further, it is practically a dish inside the can, the squid comes with a sauce based on tomatoes, onions, peppers and olive oil, there are also versions with only olive oil;
  • Cod, as it could not be missing in Portugal, there is also canned cod. With many varieties of different cuts and seasonings – from the simple version with only olive oil to a mixed one with chickpeas.

Read more: Discover the main typical dishes of Portugal

How Canned Fish is Produced in Portugal

  1. Before production begins, sensory quality analysis is carried out to assess the odour, texture and classify whether the fish is suitable for conservation;
  2. Then production begins with the fish in brine, the time will depend on the salinity of the water and the quality of the food;
  3. After that, the parts that will not be preserved are removed and the fish goes through a canning process. In this stage, sauces are added in excess so that the cans are completely filled, then the cans are hermetically sealed, that is, in a way that does not enter air;
  4. Finally, the cans are closed and heated to over 100 degrees Celsius, this part of the process cooks the fish and sterilizes the cans, allowing the product to be preserved without the addition of preservatives.

Canned Fish for tourists – From experience to souvenir

With a vintage look and packaging that tells the country’s history, the canned sardines have become a design icon of Portuguese industry and a symbol of the country’s gastronomic culture. And they make a great souvenir! Currently, you can find cans with fun prints, retro designs, dates and historical events.

In the spotlight, a great idea for gifts is to take a look at the store ‘O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa’, which sells cans with different years and historical events on the label.

portuguese canned fish sardines for gifts and souvenirs
Canned sardines with our birthday years – a cool gift from a great friend

Visit factories and museums

To understand more about the history of Portuguese canned fish, it is possible to visit related establishments during your trip to Portugal.

For example, in Matosinhos, Porto region, you can visit the Conserva Pinhais, the Nuri brand factory. There, you can get to know the artisanal process of producing canned sardines, in addition to visiting the Vivo Pinhais Museum that tells the story of tradition.

Now, if you are in Lisbon, be sure to visit the ‘A conserveira de Lisboa, which in addition to selling canned fish, is a historic warehouse.

If you buy some for a souvenir, be sure to check the rules for entering your country with this type of food.

Featured image | © Jurriaan Persyn via Flickr

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