Glorious weather, trips to the beach and dreamy sunsets … All these spring to mind when thinking of summer in the Algarve. However, to the Portuguese, summer is not just about the tourist season, it is the season for sardines! And the history of sardines in Portugal is as rich as their taste.
Sardines (‘sardinhas’ in Portuguese) are famous all around the world for being widely available, a great source of protein, and extremely versatile.
These days, the distinct smell of grilled sardines is nostalgic for most as you stroll down the streets of Portuguese beach villages. Some may imagine a silver platter full of perfectly grilled fish with a side of salad, some boiled potatoes, and a glass of light white wine to pair.
However, the most popular version is arguably less romantic but comes in a tin. Even more so than café culture and lunchtime restaurants, the Portuguese preserved seafood tradition is deeply ingrained in the history of this beautiful country.
This Mediterranean marvel was discovered in Portugal in the Roman Era, but it was actually the French that first put them on the map through their revolutionary method of canning. In 1880, French entrepreneurs took to Setúbal and inaugurated the first sardine factory to overcome the shortage of sardines on the Breton coast. By 1912, Portugal was the top worldwide exporter of canned fish and sardines were the bulk of it.
Most of the packers in Europe were women. This was because their hands were believed “to be better suited to small tins” and they were said to be more skilled with “quick motions and hand-eye coordination”.
The Portimão Museum is one of the places you can discover quirky facts like these. There, visitors can discover “an amazing history with a film of the early days and the thriving sardine business before the revolution”. There is even a large statue located close to the Museum honouring the women who worked in the factories.
During the Great War, the need for shippable, pre-packaged foods was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Rapidly, a tin of sardines was seen as the ‘must have’ lunchbox accessory for soldiers, women, and children as they were economic and extremely healthy. However, as people were elated at the prospect of the war ending, this idea was bittersweet for the sardine factories.
Evidently, after the war, a lot of factories were forced to close, and many workers were made redundant as they turned to machinery for packing to cut costs.
Today, only a few canneries in the country still maintain the artisanal process of canning by hand.
In current times, usually during July and August, villages and towns across Portugal celebrate sardines with countless festivals. The local councils call on fishermen from different parts of the coast to offer their sardines to locals and tourists from far and wide. They also coordinate live entertainment and music as well as inviting other local craftsmen and farmers to attend. Portimão holds one of the most popular sardine festivals in the Algarve, usually in August. It is a hit with both locals and tourists – in 2019, a record 100,000 people were in attendance.
This year, if the festivals do go ahead and you want to be prepared, you can follow some simple steps to ‘look like a local’. The traditional Portuguese way to eat sardine is to ditch the cutlery and simply use your hands. First, place the sardine on a slice of bread and eat the meat from either side.
Once finished with the sardine, put the bones to one side and place another sardine on the same piece of bread. Once you are done with the fish, all that is left is the most flavoursome piece of bread, thoroughly soaked in the rich juices and olive oil, and you also are guaranteed to impress some locals.