"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 next to the commercial fishing marina.
“My grandfather started the business in 1954,” Jorge Ferreira, the managing director, told me. “At that time there were 40 canneries in the town, now there are only two.”
He gave me a tour of the factory and explained the process. Lines of women were cutting and preparing the fish.
“They have a maternalness, dexterity with their fingers,” said Jorge as he pointed out the steam ovens where the sardines are cooked before being hand packed in the tins. In some factories the sardines are prepared by machine and cooked during the sterilisation process (at 120 degrees for 45 minutes) inside the cans, but Jorge said the sardines have better flavour if they are cooked before.
These manufacturing differentiations are not printed on the tin. I asked Jorge how a consumer can tell the quality of the sardines standing in front of dozens of multicoloured brands in a supermarket or specialty shop. He turned over a tin and we squinted to read the symbols and numbers that identified the fish species, the oceanic area where it was caught, the manufacturer and the canning country. The label, he explained, “might be a manufacturer’s brand, a retailer’s brand or a distributor’s.” At Conserveira do Sul, for example, they can fish for two of their own brands, “Manna” and “Good Boy,” as well as for supermarkets and international brands. It’s confusing.
Jorge agreed: from a manufacturer’s point of view it was frustrating too. “Canned fish is a blind product. You cannot see inside the tin.”
Despite this, tinned fish is transforming itself from a cupboard staple into an upmarket appetiser. The Spanish have a long tradition of tapas bars specialising in conservas: octopus, razor clams, monkfish liver, smoked mussels, baby squid in its own ink. The idea is spreading to New York and London too.
The tinned sardine-loving boyfriend and I made a pilgrimage to Conserveira de Lisboa in Lisbon, which has stocked its own brand of dozens of different tinned fish since 1930 (“stepping into the shop feels like time travel” waxed a recent New York Times article) and bought sardines in olive oil and smoked octopus. We went to Lojas do Conserveira where they showcase all 19 of Portugal’s canneries and picked up several more brands to try. We found an entire shop selling only the 1942 brand of tinned eel in escabeche sauce. And then we had lunch at Miss Can, a modern hipster-artisanal conserva just below the castle, where they have designed a mermaid logo whose mackerel, cod, tuna and sardines come in “five moods”: Traditional, Hot, Brave, Creative and Patriot, according to added tomato sauce or lemon or spice or pickles.
Lisbon is very much a tourist hotspot these days: the centre has been taken over by Airbnb, the bars are full of budget airline weekenders and souvenir shops are packed with sardine merchandise. But sardine stocks off the Portuguese coast are declining and the Portuguese sardine fishery has lost its certificate of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council. In Portimão, a town further along the Algarve coast, the last canning factory closed in 1982. It is now a museum. Its halls feature plaster statues of workers standing over empty tanks where sardines once sluiced. Tourism can be a kind of preservative too. St Anthony, it turns out, is also the patron saint of lost things.