A woman packs up cans at the Conserveira of Lisbon, an old family business that sells an impressive variety of one of Portugal's culinary specialties - tinned fish.
Long a popular element of Portuguese cuisine, canned fish appears in all sorts of different guises, from a cheap and healthy form of fast food, to an element of gourmet cooking, to a souvenir for tourists, many of whom buy the brightly coloured tins to take home a taste of Portugal.
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"In Portugal, fish (canned or otherwise) is as popular as burgers in the United States or bratwursts in Germany."
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 colourful cans of fish.
Canned fish was always part of my family picnics along the Tagus River or on the beach. I also discovered it later on, included in my army survival kit. It was like a piece of home in the midst of that hostile environment.
In Portugal, fish (canned or otherwise) is as popular as burgers in the United States or bratwursts in Germany. Here, tinned fish can represent all sorts of things, from poor people’s fare to gourmet cuisine, a nice souvenir or just healthy fast food.
Regina Ferreira says canned fish is, in fact, one of the oldest and healthiest fast foods in the world. She runs an 83-year-old family business selling it in downtown Lisbon, which is recommended by most tourist guidebooks. Her Conserveira of Lisbon is one of the few old shops in the city preserved in its original form, where grandmother, mother, son and grandsons work together.
Nearby, at the Comercio Square, a restaurant and bar named Can the Can recently opened up serving “gourmet” canned food in a modern atmosphere. Ferreira hates the word “gourmet”; she says canned fish is just simple, basic, cheap food for everyone.
Fernando Machado agrees. He is the director of Ramirez canned fish factory in Leca da Palmeira, northern Portugal. Ramirez was created in 1853 and is one of 20 factories involved in the modern fish-canning industry in Portugal, which employs more than 3,500 workers and produces over 250 million cans of fish a year, of which 70 percent is exported to some 70 countries around the world.
There used to be many more factories here, but only about half survived the crisis of the 1970s and 80s. The harbour of the fishing city of Setubal, for example, has no factory today; the only remnants of the cans are those painted on the doors of homes in the old downtown area. More demanding labour laws after the Portuguese 1974 revolution made the industry less profitable, and many factories shut down for that reason.
But some problems the old industry faced have also died out: the use of tinplate, often plagued by corrosion, has 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 aluminium 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 new success.
The old can designs are displayed together with new ones in grocery stores and souvenir shops. Tourists buy tins almost like they buy postcards, taking with them not only the image but also a bit of the flavour of Portugal.
Grocery shop Loja Portugueza in Lisbon is an example of such a store. Half the customers are foreigners, looking at the huge range of canned fish and taking the tins away as souvenirs. There are enough of these famous cans to satisfy all sorts of tastes: sardines, tuna, squid, mackerel, eel, clam, fish eggs, horse mackerel, codfish, anchovies, in salty water, olive oil, tomato, lemon, hot spicy, garlic or onion sauces.