"Tinned fish is transforming itself from a cupboard staple into an upmarket appetiser"by Wendell Steavenson / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) was actually born in Lisbon. He was a disciple of St Francis of Assisi and is famous for his sermon to the fishes, who, according to the legend, “all kept their heads out of the water and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony’s face.” On his saint day in June all of Portugal celebrates by grilling sardines in the streets. I am fond of grilled sardines, but when I was in Portugal in February every Portuguese I asked about sardines told me “you can’t eat them fresh now, it’s not the season. In the restaurants they serve them for the tourists, but they are”—and a grimace invariably followed—“frozen.” Not to be thwarted, I turned my attention to the tinned variety, for which Portugal is equally famed.
Napoleon invented a lot of things: Italy, the concept of a unified Europe and Egyptology. He was also responsible for the canning industry. He offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could devise a method for preserving food for his army to carry on their campaigns. A confectioner called Nicolas Appert came up with the idea of heating comestibles in sealed glass jars 50 years before Pasteur discovered that microbes caused spoilage. The British transferred this idea to metal containers, soldering them shut. Tinned sardines, cheap and rich in omega oil, became a staple, feeding soldiers until the Second World War. In Britain we eat them on toast for tea. In France they are served as an entrée still in the tin, and people buy them according to vintage—four years old is considered the most delectable. My French boyfriend is a devotee and turns his tins every six months, to better distribute the oil inside.
Portugal’s canning industry was at its height in the early 20th century. Hundreds of factories exported Atlantic sardines, mackerel and tuna all over the world. But in the 1970s the industry collapsed when French companies began sourcing their tinned fish from Morocco and Tunisia and sold them in the European Common Market, undercutting the Portuguese who didn’t join until 1986—fishing ports went quiet. Olhão, in the Algarve, on a winter weekday morning, was silent, sailboats battened, plenty of fish in the market, but no sardines. I had a meeting at Conserveira do Sul, a tinned fish manufacturer…