Conservas de Peixe: The Tasty but Discernible Truth Behind Canned Fish in Portugal
I 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 a homemade meal.
That said, 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 Portuguese 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. 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!
A 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 1900s 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
There seem 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 economic 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.
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 economic 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 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.
The 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 food for the lower class; hence, the largest consumer of 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, they still prefer to eat their canned sardines and other fish in the summer. If you think about it canned fish makes a nice, light and refreshing meal, especially in a traditional Portuguese picnic!
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 a 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, the 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 warm Portuguese 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 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.
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 leniency 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 to buy afterward.
Types and Styles of Portuguese Canned Fish
Most Popular and Easy to Love
- “Em azeite” – Fish in olive oil, the simplest style for the mildest, pure flavor of the fish.
- “Em tomate” -Fish in tomato sauce, still simple but with a nice added flavor.
- Atum – Tuna, you can find it as basic and cheap as you want but since it’s common everywhere, I advise sticking to only recommended brands and buying it as filetes for the best quality and flavor.
- Ventresca de Atum – Tuna Belly, can be quite expensive but it’s worth the price for the quality in the recommended brands. Canned ventresca is not as dry as regular tuna and has a very soft flavor.
- Sardinhas – Sardines, you can’t go wrong with these in Portugal, they’re fantastic in every style, but if you’re usually a tuna fan, go for the filetes or “sem pele, sem espinha” (skinless, boneless) which taste practically the same as tuna. For the more open-minded eaters, try the inteiros (with skin and bones but no head) and go for the better brands.
- Petingas – Small Sardines, just as tasty as their larger parents but more compact in flavor. Go for the same simple styles as sardines in olive oil or tomato sauce.
- Cavala – Mackerel, specifically the Atlantic Chub variety, is another fish mild and smooth in flavor. Go for the filetes and they taste a lot like good quality tuna.
- Cavalinhas – Small Cavala
- Paté de Sardinha/Atum – Sardine and Tuna paté, you get these many times with your bread at restaurants heres, the better quality ones come canned. I personally love the sardine paté!
- Peixe Espada Preto – Black Scabbard Fish, a popular fish to grill fresh but very uncommon canning, has been brought back into the market by Nero and is canned as fillets in olive oil. Despite the name, the flesh is white and very light tasting.
Not For Everyone But Many Still Enjoy
- “Picante/Pickles” – Spiced and/or Pickled fish, keep in mind the longer they’re in the can, the spicier they get.
- De Caldeirada – Fish (normally octopus or squid) in a traditional “fish stew” broth made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, white wine, parsley, and Bay leaf. Stronger flavor than plain fish but is quite palatable.
- Molho Escabeche – Fish in a type of sauce made with oil, vinegar, tomato, spices, and salt. Very strong flavor.
- Ovas de Sardinha – Sardine Roe, go for it only in recommended brands for its delicate flavor and texture.
- Carapaus – Horse Mackerel, this more mainstream cousin of the Cavala is a great grilled fresh but doesn’t retain its flavor and texture as well when canned, still quite good and healthy though.
- Carapauzinhos – Small Horse Mackerel
- Anchovas – Anchovies, usually come in vegetable oil, olive oil or wrapped with capers, with a strong flavor.
- Polvo – Octopus, go for the simple version in olive oil
- Mexilhões – Mussels, go for simple
- Bacalhau – Codfish, normally comes in olive oil, garlic and onion
- Ovas de Bacalhau – Codfish Roe, comes simple in olive oil normally
- Lulas – Squid, these are available recheadas (stuffed with tomatoes, rice, sausage and spices) but can be strong that way, I’d go for simple
- Berbigão – Cockles, usually sold in “de caldeirada” style.
For Adventurous Tastes
- Com Cravinho – With Cloves, a strange and not exactly appealing addition to plain fish in olive oil or pickled, but you have to try it for yourself.
- “Fumado/a” – Smoked fish or shellfish, either you love it or you don’t.
- Filetes de Truta – Trout fillets, not a traditional fish in Portuguese cuisine and therefore not that common to find.
- Enguias de Murtosa – Eels from Murtosa, usually in escabeche sauce, very strong in flavor.
- Lampreia – Lamprey fish, usually a seasonal delicacy to stew with rice but very rare to find canned, Tricana brand sells it in a type of escabeche sauce.
Our Recommended Portuguese Can Brands
- Atum Santa Catarina – Everything tuna, including ventresca, best ever
- Pinhais – The only brand to use the traditional, artesenal method, with everything canned by hand. Great sardines, sardine roe, cavala
- La Gondola – Since 1940, sardines, cavala, tuna, patés (sardine, tuna etc.)
- A Poveira (Minerva) – sardines, cavala, tuna, sardine roe
- Nero – Naval (Bacalhau), Georgette (Sardinhas), an ancient brand established in the coastal town of Sesimbra in the late 15th century by an Italian immigrant family of that name, who ran a very successful business of producing and exporting salted, dried and pressed fish to Spain and Italy until 1912 when they switched to canning and became exclusively canned fish by 1926. The business closed in 1996 but the Nero brand was reintroduced in 2010 with traditional packaging.
- José Gourmet – Started just a couple of years ago, this brand produces several gourmet products, including canned fish, olive oil, jams and wine.
- Tricana – Classic brand, plenty of variety, you can buy them exclusively at A Conserveira de Lisboa, and also available at A Vida Portuguesa in Lisbon.
- Ramirez – First Portuguese brand, mostly sold in supermarkets but still decent enough quality, good bacalhau, petingas
- Luças – Since 1920, this is Can The Can restaurant’s chef’s favorite brand
- Conserveira do Sul (Manná) – Another good supermarket brand, go for the simple fish
Where To Buy Them In Lisbon
- Gourmet Shops in Lisbon
- A Conserveira de Lisboa – The oldest and by far the best shop to buy canned fish, the family who runs it is exclusively devoted to preserving and selling their 3 canned labels: Tricana, Minor and Prata do Mar, all excellent quality brands for canned fish. The history of the place is well – worth the visit, along with watching the old Portuguese ladies hand-wrap the cans for you.
- Can The Can – They have a great selection on their upper level that you can purchase on your own.
- A Mimosa de Lapa – Gourmet, art and bike shop opened in an antique mercearia in Lapa just down from Jardim/Basilica de Estrela
- Mundo Fantastico da Sardinha – Whimsical, engaging and filled with a wide variety of flavors in a circus-like environment!
Where To Savor Them In Lisbon
- Can The Can – One of the best restaurants almost exclusively devoted to serving canned fish gourmet style. Located in Praça do Comercio, right in front of the river.
- Sol e Pesca – Taking advantage of Cais do Sodré’s fame as a neighborhood full of stores selling fishing equipment, this hip bar and restaurant — once a tackle shop — features dishes made exclusively with tinned fish and seafood like sardines, roe, anchovies, and mussels.
- Miss Can – In 1911, Luis Soares Ribeiro founded two traditional tinning factories in Portugal; now, his descendants have launched this brand of artisanal tinned fish, selling sardines, mackerel, tuna, and more in different seasonings like olive oil and spicy tomato sauce.
Where To Buy Them In Porto
- Loja das Conservas – Every brand, style of fish, and flavor you can possibly imagine is on display!
- A Vida a Portuguesa – This two-story stunning homage to Portuguese products doesn’t only sell fantastic canned fish, but a wide range of artisanal goodies!
- Mecearia das Flores – a quaint and female-founded grocer featuring a wide range of products Portuguese products.
- Casa Chinesa – Porto boasts of a wide range of gourmet grocery stores but this is a fabulous one to choose for your canned fish needs.
- Conservas Pinhais – If you’re keen to watch the ladies professionally and personally pack the fish right in front of you, head to Matosinhos – located just 10 minutes from downtown Porto. It’s an unforgettable and delicious experience!
Where To Savor Them In Porto
- Taberna do Largo – Tucked away on Rua das Flores, this gorgeous little tasca offers delicious wine and fish tastings!
- Wine Quay Bar – Overlooking the Douro river, this wonderful little shop offers a fab selection of wine, fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and of course, canned fish!
- Mercearia das Flores – On a gorgeous Spring day, head outside to their terrace for a canned fish tasting, followed by a slice of their homemade cakes.
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