Carlos Manuel has been working the high seas for over half decade, and back in March, I spotted this local Setubal fisherman on a quiet Sunday along the harbor quietly fixing his nets. Realizing what a gem of an opportunity this was, I sat down alongside him and inquired about his life’s work and what advice he could give on finding and selecting the best possible fish every time.
Carlos believes that the fish found in Portuguese waters are some of the best you can find in Europe, and I must admit that I wholeheartedly agree! But what I didn’t know is that fish such as carapau and the sardinha can be found all year round. According to local lore, sardines can only be caught during months that do not contain an “R” (May, June, July and August), which is evidently not true. And during the winter months, most are sold to the canning factories. According to Carlos, “In the winter, sardines contain less fat, and therefore, lack any real flavor. Nevertheless, big supermarket distributors (Pingo Doce, Jumbo and Intermarche) will happily buy these thin winter fish, while the rest is supplied to the canning factories.”
Called petinga, or sardinhas pequeninas, I’ve noticed that supermarkets tend to freeze these wee little sardines in frigid winter months, as opposed to serving them fresh. Back in April, I had the opportunity to savor petinga at an outdoor barbecue. Our friend’s father had picked them up that very morning from the docks of Setubal and had taken great care in seasoning them thoroughly with sea salt and letting them marinate before grilling/roasting them to perfection. They’re fabulous to fry and eat whole, as the bones and spines are so delicate and tiny, adding the lovely texture. I have made a mental note after this experience to get some petinga to roast or fry next winter.
Which fish tend to be isolated to specific months in Portugal? Look out for delicious seasonal fish such as: choco (cuttlefish), polvo (octopus), lula (squid), and the linguado (sole), all which are more readily available in spring and summer and the salmonete (red mullet), corvina (croaker) and the alcorraz (white sea bream) in the fall and winter. It?s all about the price to quantity ratio, and this is a good thing to know especially when certain fish like linguado and salmonete are generally more expensive on a a restaurant menu, ranging between 20-30 euros/kilo along with large robalo and dourada. Carlos says, “In the winter, when there is a larger quantity of salmonete, the price descends to 8-10 euros per kilo. linguado on the off season can reach up to 25 euros per kilo, but can drop to 10-12 euros when the fish are in bulk numbers.”
Carlos also emphasized that water temperature dramatically affects the fish population. And it may be a surprise to you, but fish in Portugal tend to favor colder waters. “From May until September, the water is considerably warmer. Instead of 14 to 16, it soars to 20 to 25 degrees Celcius. Consequently, as the water gets warmer, the fish dive deeper in search of colder waters, which allows them to avoid our fishing nets. As a result, we go after shellfish, such as: santola, navalheira (both types of crabs) and different types of clams.” (Flickr photo by Isa Costa)
Having lived in Portugal for over two years, and coming from a background in culinary education, I have wanted to experiment with cooking Portuguese fish at home. However, I tend to hesitate in doing so because I wasn’t confident in knowing the ins and outs of selecting quality fish for a good price in the open markets. But now I know to consider weather before buying fish! According to Carlos, “The days that are said to be bad for fishing are in fact bad for the fisherman, not for fishing. When storms rock the Atlantic coasts, it’s possible to catch more fish and sell it for higher prices, because not as many fishermen attempt to fish. But with good weather, you can catch ample amounts, though it won’t be worth as much. So the best days for fishing are stormy ones.”
The key lesson here is to hit the open aired markets to purchase your fish when the previous day was mild! If it stormed the day before, or that very morning, there will be less fish at a considerably higher price. On the flip side, if I must buy fish after stormy days, at least I’ll know that I’ll be rewarding the courageous efforts of those fishermen!
As for the ten million dollar question, what should I be looking for when selecting fish, Carlos suggests you keep a keen eye as to which fish are on ice. Fishermen will take their boats out at various times of the day, and night, depending on the weather. If a boat happens to come back late the previous day to sell at the market, they’re put in ice for following morning. But for those that come straight off the boat that very morning, they don’t need to be packed in ice. Translated, this means that the ones that are on ice are actually not as fresh as you once assumed. Another trick is to look and see if the eyes are sunken inside its sockets and/or if the gills are white. In both cases, these are signs of a bad fish.
Another interesting tip after considering the weather and looking over the quality of the fish, is knowing if the fish monger is still trying to sell overpriced fish? According to Carlos, “You always have a price list posted where everyone can see it. And based upon the pricing list, you can argue or complain if fish monger is over charging you at their stand. If it’s sardines, they run up to 5 euros per kilo. The cuttlefish can go up to 7 or 8. The robalo (large) is 20 to 30. The carapau (mackerel) is only 2 to 3. If you go to a stand and see the sardines for 5 euros and in another place for 3, you can complain. Inquire why at that stand it only costs 3 euros, while this one 5. There is usually a difference: the quality. One could be from yesterday and another from today.”
Now, I just need to make sure that my Portuguese is good-enough for haggling! And don’t worry if you really don’t care for a whole fish, or having to deal with butchering a whole fish, because the fish mongers will do it for you right there. I tend to prefer to have my salmon cut into fillets. Therefore, I ask for “filetes, sem pele e espina” (fillets without skin or spine).
So what does Carlos recommend for a first-time Portuguese fish eater? “Well it could be an Arroz de Salmonete (Red Mullet with Rice) or Pregado (Turbot) with rice made with butter, garlic and cilantro. Melt the butter with the garlic and cilantro, and then place it over the salmonete and accompany it with potatoes and salad. Another good first time Portuguese fish is Robalo (European Sea Bass) or a Dourada (Gilthead Bream) from the river, not from the fishing farms, and a grilled Linguado (Sole) or Peixe-Espada (Scabbard Fish).”
For more information on Portuguese fish, read “Peixe In Portugal: The Numerous and Delicious Varieties of Portuguese Fish”
It was such an enlightening experience talking to an experienced Portuguese fisherman as Carlos. I learned more about Portuguese fish in our 30 minute conversation than I ever could by reading a book or browsing the net. And now I continue to learn from his advice with every experience I have dining on fish here in Portugal, enjoying it much more than I ever have before. Knowing where it came from and how hard these great fishermen work to get us these delicious creatures to our markets every day is humbling, and I’m very appreciative of their work.