Portugal’s love affair with canned fish

May 30, 2013

Lisbon, Portugal

By Jose Manuel Ribeiro

Canned fish: poor people’s food, gourmet cuisine, souvenir or just healthy fast food?

It was late when I arrived home, tired and starving. I opened the kitchen cupboard looking for some late-night lazy-man food, and there, they were: my friendly and colorful fish cans.

My oldest memory of canned fish brings me back to primary school when both children and teachers were asked to bring basic food that could be packed in boxes to send to starving people in the south of Nigeria during the Biafra war in the late sixties. I had not seen that many cans of fish together in my life since that day, until I visited a factory.

Canned fish was always a part of my family picnics along the Tagus river or on the seacoast beaches. I also discovered them later on, included in my army survival kit. It was like a piece of home amid that hostile environment.

In Portugal, fish (canned or otherwise) are as popular as burgers in the U.S. or bratwursts in Germany.

Regina Ferreira says canned fish is one of the oldest and healthiest fast foods in the world. She runs an 83-year-old family business selling canned fish in downtown Lisbon, one that is recommended by most tourist guide books. The Conserveira of Lisbon is one of the few shops in Lisbon preserved in its original form and fashion and where grandmother, mom, son and grandsons work together.

Nearby, at the Comercio square a new restaurant and bar, Can & Can, recently opened serving canned “gourmet” fish in a modern design atmosphere. Ferreira hates the word “gourmet”, saying canned fish is just simple, basic and cheap food for everyone.

Fernando Machado agrees. He is the director of Ramirez canned fish factory in Leca da Palmeira in Northern Portugal. Ramirez was created in 1853 and is one of 20 factories. The industry has more than 3,500 workers and produces more than 250 million cans of fish, of which 70 percent are exported to 70 countries around the world.

Only half of the factories survived the crisis in the seventies and eighties. The harbor of the fishing city of Setubal has no factory today. The only remnants of those cans are those painted on the doors of homes in the old downtown area.

More demanding labor laws after the Portuguese 1974 revolution made the industry less profitable and many factories shut down. But the use of tinplate, often plagued by corrosion, has since been abolished and the belief that canned fish raises cholesterol levels is an idea left in the past.

Today, we know that fish and olive oil lowers cholesterol, cans are made in varnished aluminum and, with the help of industrial fridges, factories can work on a regular basis and not depend on how lucky fishermen are with their catch. The declining industry of the past has found success.

The old can designs are displayed together with new ones in groceries and souvenir shops. Tourists buy cans almost as they buy postcards, taking with them not only the image but also a bit of the Portuguese flavor.

Grocery shop Loja Portugueza in Lisbon is an example of such a store. Half the costumers are foreigners, absorbing the diversity of canned fish and taking them with them as souvenirs. The cans include sardine, tuna, squid, mackerel, eel, clam, fish eggs, horse mackerel, codfish, anchovy, in salty water, olive oil, tomato, lemon, hot spicy, garlic or onion sauces.

Bon appetit!

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