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Conservas de Peixe: The Tasty but Discernible Truth Behind Canned Fish in Portugal

Canned Fish - Spain & PortugalI absolutely love Portuguese fish. Whether writing or speaking, I can go on and on about the quality, freshness and simplicity of a perfectly grilled piece of fish in Portugal.  It’s something I recommend everyone should experience at least once in their life. But if you had asked me not too long ago about Portuguese canned fish, I probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic.  I’ve had fluctuating experiences with canned fish over the last 5 years, especially from my random supermarket sampling.  It was like having a can of Spaghetti-O’s. Though tasty in its own way, I would still prefer having homemade meal.

That said, as of recent, canned fish has gone gourmet in Portugal. Specifically in the major cities of Lisbon and Porto, several  gourmet shops have been popping up all over the city, not just selling your typical wine and cheese, but also revamped, quality brand canned fish, wrapped in delightfully artistic packaging and boxes. Who could resist?!

Evidently, I could. I not only resisted buying canned fish for myself, but trying it in any capacity. I was eager to buy various types of canned fish for everyone else back home, but rare was the day that I considered it for myself. It wasn’t until I was asked to do write a piece on the canned fish of Iberia did it dawn on me, what do I know of canned fish?! My memories weren’t great from what I’d tried, so how could I trust myself to take an honest approach on this? It was then and there that I decided it was time to go can fishing!

SardinhasA Little Bit of History

Portugal has a long history of preserving fish. It was during  the Iron Age when the method of preserving fish in sea salt was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula and used by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, followed by the Romans. Ruins found along the coastline, such as Roman clay amphora pots found in Peniche, show evidence of a developed industry for salted fish during this time. Ancient writings also tell how the fish was exported to Italy, Gaul (France) and North Africa. Salted fish continued to be the preservation method of choice for many centuries but the methods of drying and smoking slowly came into popularity.

The first commercial cannery in Portugal (and now the oldest in Europe), Ramirez, was opened in 1853, setting up factories in Setúbal, the Algarve and Vila Real de Santo Antonio in the North to can sardines in olive oil. After the method of pasteurization was introduced in 1862, several more canneries opened, not only for sardines, but tuna and various other fish. These canneries were mainly in the areas of Espinho (near Porto), Setúbal and the Algarve, where there were thriving fishing industries. Setúbal eventually became the main hub for sardine canneries.

The early 1900’s brought new technology, including the first can-sealing machines which streamlined business and allowed more factories to open, producing for both the local and international market. It was also around this time that the age-old practice of frying fish before canning eventually changed to boiling it in salt water and other spices, adding the remainder of the cooking liquid in the can. This style of preparation not only enhanced flavor, but helped retain the juices.

By 1983 there were 152 canning factories in Portugal, producing around 34,000 tons a year and was one of the largest exporters of canned fish.  It was soon after though in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s that the canning industry suffered a terrible period of decline, with numerous factories and producers closing their doors and canned fish taking the back shelf in Portuguese minds.

The Rebirth of Canned Fish in Portugal

Canned Fish Spain & PortugalThere seems to be three main reasons why the canned fish industry was brought back into the limelight. The economic crisis in the last couple of years has hit Portugal with a fervor, but some people have also seen it as an opportunity.  The economical and practical value of canned fish has allowed the budget sensitive to open up a can of tuna or sardines for a quick and easy meal without breaking the bank. Additionally, canned fish is quite healthy for you. Both tuna and sardines are a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids and loaded with vitamins and minerals, especially when boiled in sea salt and preserved in olive oil. Canned shellfish like clams and mussels are also high in iron. Sardines, in particular, are some of the healthiest fish you can eat and studies have shown that canned sardines are even better for you than fresh.  Not only are they high in protein and vitamin B12, but they have ten times more calcium, as a result of the gelification process. When canning whole sardines, gelification breaks down the bones and makes them easily digestible. Hence, you can eat the whole fish and get that added calcium from the bones. And now, Portuguese cardiologists recommend that people consume canned sardines at least three times a week to lower the risk of heart attack.

After the slump in the 90’s, the canning industry went from 152 to just 20 factories; however they now produce over 59,000 tons of fish per year.  Aside from promoting the economical and health benefits of canned fish, several producers decided to revert back to traditional methods and packaging, recreating the colorful and enticing hand-wrapped labels that were once popular back in the iconic period of canned fish. With the immersion of high-end, gourmet shops in Lisbon and Porto, many canned fish producers offer boutique brands of the highest quality fish using the renovated packaging. Consequently, canned fish is now “in fashion”, with gourmet shops reporting a huge increase in sales. Several canned food themed bars and restaurants have now opened up in the major cities, like Can The Can restaurant, whose fantastic canned dish creations bring canned fish to a whole new level and hole-the-wall bar Sol e Pesca, which was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in Lisbon last year.

Portuguese canned fishThe Portuguese and Spanish Perception of Conservas

Both the Portuguese and Spanish have had a long tradition of canning and preserving fish, but the way that they feel about it can vary.  In general, both agree that canned fish is an easy and inexpensive meal, especially due to its high quality. And in general, both the Portuguese and the Spanish like to consume canned tuna on a regular basis, often used in appetizers, salads, Spanish tapas and even on pizzas. Since canned fish tends to be more expensive in Spain (due to logistics, transport etc.), the Spanish tend to view it with higher regard, many considering the most expensive brands as a delicacy.  However, for the Portuguese, despite the recent canned fish renaissance on the gourmet market here, most people view it as a “poor man’s food”. Historically, it was a food for low class; hence, the largest consumer for canned fish are well in their golden years. Many like to eat them during the week for lunch and always have several cans in the pantry at any time, but only supermarket brands that are easy to get. Younger generations – say late 30’s to 50’s – are mixed. They grew up eating canned on a regular basis, some with good memories and others with memories of it being a cheap meal when mom didn’t feel like cooking. As a result, the gourmet trend targeted this age range and has been taking them by storm: releasing “vintage cans” that are secretly sought out to “under the counter” to age like a fine wine. Finally, there’s the 20 something generation who could care less one way or another. As we didn’t grow up with the flavor, the interest just isn’t there unless you’re a tourist.

It’s hard to change the mindset of a generation but perhaps if you factor in geography and seasonality you see more of a variance. When you live on the coastal area of Portugal, most people do prefer fresh fish to canned, but people who live more towards the interior tend to consume canned fish as the availability of good quality fresh fish can be limited.  Also, in the areas where many of the canning factories reside, more residents tend to be can-friendly as well.  And though some popular types of fresh fish like sardines are not available in the winter, the Portuguese still prefer to eat their canned sardines and other fish in the summer, which when you think about it, on a hot day, canned fish makes a nice, light and refreshing meal.

My Adventures in Canned Fish Land

I started pretty much the same way as my generation here in Portugal; canned tuna makes a great sandwich when there’s nothing else to eat at home, but that was my limit. I recall trying canned sardines and anchovies at a friend’s home (of some well-traveled Americans) when I was teenager and enjoyed it!  It makes me wonder now if those cans were Portuguese.

In the last month or so, I’ve done a variety of canned fish “tastings”. I polled many Portuguese, and some Spanish, to find out which ones were their favorites. Other than tuna, both like sardines and anchovies, but the Portuguese continue to stick to fish, like cavala (Atlantic Chub Mackerel) and the smaller versions of sardines and mackerel – petingas and cavalinhas, and of course, bacalhau. The Spanish, on the other hand, eat a lot of canned shellfish like mussels, berberechos (cockles, berbigão in Portuguese), squid and octopus.  In terms of style, Portuguese always say when it comes to canned fish, getting the filetes em azeite (fillets in olive oil) is the best tasting and usually the best quality. Though with the small fish, the whole versions with the bones and skin on are fine, and many like them in tomato sauce or spiced and pickled. With the Spanish, many enjoy the spicy and stronger sauces, like escabeche, especially with shellfish.  What’s never debated across the peninsula is how you eat canned fish: on some nice fresh bread, on top of a salad or for the really good ones, right out of the can.

My favorites mirrored the Portuguese. Tuna, sardine and cavala fillets in olive oil are fantastic, regardless of the brand. For whole sardines, the smaller, the better. Anchovies and bacalhau are not bad at all, especially when it comes cooked with garlic, onion and olive oil. This made for a great lunch with white rice and a salad. The others were best on bread or crackers. As for my least favorites, anything in the heavy sauces was a turn-off, as the fishy flavor was enhanced, especially with shellfish. Mussels, clams and squid are so light in flavor when cooked fresh, it’s hard for me to accept their canned version, though many adore them.

So does canned fish pair well with wine?  It certainly can, as I’ve learned! Many light, acidic white wines pair well with most canned fish and seafood in simple olive oil, like Portuguese Vinho Verde and Espumante, as well as Spanish Cava and other whites from Penedes and Costers del Segre. The stronger canned fish in sauce can be a bit tricky but some red wines could work, just takes a little trial and error.  My biggest surprise was how well fortified wines like Sherry and Port pair with canned fish. In fact, one of my most memorable meals recently was a Port and canned fish themed dinner at Can the Can restaurant with Pinhais brand canned fish and Poças Port wine: two very old, excellent quality brands.  Pinhais, from the coastal town of Matosinhos in northern Portugal, is the only producer who still uses exclusively traditional methods for their canning, with only fresh sardines brought in from the boats daily and everything is cut, trimmed and canned by hand. Poças Port exports to more than 30 countries and is searching for new and unusual ways to drink Port wine. They posed this unusual gastronomic challenge to Pinhais and Can the Can and the results were fantastic. Out of all the dishes, my favorites were the cavala fillets with a mash of sweet potato and quince, topped with fresh dill and paired with Poças Pink, a lovely, almost magenta colored rosé Port with vibrant berry flavors that went perfectly with the sweet potato and light fish. The sardine roe with eggplant mousse, tomato confit and sprouts paired with Poças Special Reserve Dry White was insanely delicious. And let’s not forget the whole sardines in olive oil with roasted red and green peppers and cilantro pesto on pão de centeio – a type of Portuguese rye bread, delicious with a Poças Special Reserve Tawny.

Final Thoughts

Portuguese canned fish is definitely worth a try. It goes beyond just being a quick and easy food to something that is not only very healthy but can make a great snack. However, choose high-quality brands when buying canned fish. The difference in flavor makes it worthwhile and it allows you a bit of lenience when you can’t find fresh fish on hand. You may pay a bit more, but it will be a real treat to be able to quickly whip up some appetizer plates of sardines and cavala or octopus with some fresh bread and crackers for your next summer party. Pair them with some good Portuguese and/or Spanish wine to maximize your experience.  And if you’re not convinced, come and taste them first at one of the canned fish bars and restaurants when you’re in Lisbon or Porto, then you’ll know exactly what what to buy afterwards.

Gourmets in Lisbon should check out our recommended food and drink tours!!

Types and Styles of Portuguese Canned Fish

Most Popular and Easy to Love

Not For Everyone  But Many Still Enjoy

For Adventurous Tastes

Our Recommended Portuguese Can Brands

Where To Buy Them In Lisbon

Where To Savor Them In Lisbon

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