Since the 1850s, when Portugal’s national fish canning industry emerged, Portuguese sardines have swum their way from working-class tables to soldier barracks during the World Wars, to today’s Michelin restaurants and luxury boutique shops.
As the director of Conservas Pinhais (Portugal’s last fully manual sardine fish cannery) jokingly put it:
"Sardines have become the third marvel of the country, after soccer and sunlight."
A local neighborhood worker at Conservas Pinhais
With a high nutritional value, natural abundance and incredible flavor it is easy to see why sardines's are Portugal's superfood of choice. During June’s peak sardine-eating season, fishery managers calculated that about 13 sardines are eaten every second in Portugal - that’s around 34 million fish during the entire month!
Increased tourism flow in Portugal and canned sardines exports have helped build a growing shoal of international sardine aficionados who recognize these icons of Portuguese culture and gastronomy for their unparalleled flavour and quality, and as a sustainable superfood.
Nutrition and Heath Benefits
A 3.2 Oz can of sardines has 20g of protein, 300g of calcium (more than a glass of milk) and a powerful source of vitamin D, B12 and magnesium, nutritional value which many of our modern diets and indoor habits fail to provide.
Furthermore, canned sardines are easy-to-transport, long-lasting and protein-packed. Paired with a hunk of bread, they got French soldiers through the World Wars (this demand, supplied by Portuguese fish canneries, led to the industry’s boom in the 1900s), and Portuguese workers and students through lunch (similar to ramen in the US, just far more nutritious).
Freshly grilled and served with potatoes and salad, or tinned in olive oil or tomato sauce and hand-wrapped in bright vintage paper, sardines are chock-full of Omega 3 fatty acids which our bodies must source from food to promote healthy hearts and radiant skin, hair and nails.
Antioxidant selenium in sardines’ silvery skins (which are edible AND delicious!) help fight cancer and these fishes’ high protein value helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Best of the Best
A recent study by the Washington Post revealed that sardines are one of the best low-mercurey fish choices. They are small fish, low on the oceanic food chain and caught between their first and second year of age so they don’t accumulate much mercury or pollutants as larger fish like tuna or swordfish.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program even lists sardines as a “best choice” for the better health of our oceanic ecosystems, due to their abundance and high production rate.
The Portuguese Way
The Portuguese government’s strict regulations protect sardine populations from overfishing by limiting yields and concentrating the fishing season from May through October.
This gives the fish time to reproduce, grow and accumulate those concentrated and complex nutritious benefits that can help boost the nervous system and cognitive functioning and metabolism of those who eat them, as well as lower our risk of depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, canning sardines under olive oil and heating the cans to 100 degrees ensures their longevity without the need for added chemical preservatives. Then, through the process of gelification, canned sardines’ small bones break down and become an edible source of calcium and vitamins (also making our eating them less messy!)
Complexity in a Can
Interesting, like wine or cheese, high-quality canned sardines can take on more rich and complex flavours with age, so save some cans to peel open in a few years or decades and dig into a few right now to enjoy, simply with good bread or atop Farah’s favourite Red Red Pepper Tart Tatin.
Enjoy! - Odile Bouchard
Red Pepper and Sardine Tart Tatin
Odile Bouchard authored and served this savoury tart during Quinta do Tedo’s Bistro Terrace opening in 2016 - it’s a creative riff off Portugal’s classic grilled sardines with charred red pepper salad and makes for an easy, elegant and flavorful crowd-pleasing appetizer or main course, served with a salad.
1 puff pastry
6 red bell peppers , sliced thick
2 medium onions, sliced thin
1/4th cup butter
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp balsamic vinager
Quinta do Tedo Olive Oil
1 can of Conservas Pinhais Sardines
squeeze of lemon
3 springs of thyme
pinch of cayenne and paproka
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Then, melt the butter in a medium size cast iron skillet; add onions and sauté over medium heat until soft (3-5 mins). Season with salt.
Add pepper, honey, balsamic vinegar, cayenne and paprika to the sauté and cook until onions caremlize, about 20 mins.
Turn off the heat and assemble the cooked vegetables on the boom of a skillet sprinkle with thyme and a bit more salt and let cool.
Roll the puff pastry onto a floured surface, prick with a form and loosely drape over the vegetables in the skillet, leaving extra dough to tuck into the sides of the skillet.
Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden (about 20 mins).
Let cool for 5 mins before inverting.
Meanwhile , remove the sardines from the can and quickly sear in a hot oiled skillet - then remove from heat and drizzle with lemon.
Place large plate over skillet and quickly invert ontop of plate to release the tart from the pan.
Arrange sardines on top of the tart or on the side, with a few sprigs of thyme.
Drizzle with olive oil.