Sardines are related to herrings, both in the family Clupeidae. The term Sardine was first used in English during the early 15th century, and may come from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, around which sardines were once abundant. Thanks to good fish stock management, they are still abundant here in Portugal, especially in the Algarve.

One of the most visually attractive sights used to be in Portimão, under the old bridge. Sardines were landed next to a row of very basic, but superb, restaurants that sold only sardines. As the fishermen threw them up from the boats, they went straight onto the charcoal grill. It was such a famous sight that it once featured on the front cover of Vogue magazine, some years before the revolution.

It was all very basic. Wine was often served in whatever came to hand, several times it came in an old washing up liquid plastic bottle (washed of course). Some salad if you were lucky, but the fish kept coming until you were full, and then they counted the heads and you were charged for what you had eaten.

Much later, but still before the formation of health inspectors, wine came in bottles, but it was still basic stuff. Even later the luxury of some potatoes was added. Don’t even think about a starter, or a desert, (but maybe an ice-cream). This was very basic, but also very special. You literally watched the Sardines being landed and the straight onto the grill. Fresher than that you can’t get, and they were a delight.

Even though ‘progress’ led to these dock side restaurants being closed and moved to a new ‘modernised’ site, there are still plenty of restaurants who know how to serve these superb fish, and they have to be charcoal grilled. They may be a few hours old, but you probably won’t notice the difference.

But do you know how to eat sardines?

Strange question of course, but there is a special way to eat Sardines, the old Algarve style. Take a slice of the homemade bread from the basket, and eat your Sardines on this bread, allowing the oils, salt, juices etc from the Sardines to soak in. Turn the bread over a few times. When you have finished, send the slice of bread to be toasted on the barbecue. It’s the old Algarve way, but when you taste that toasted slice of bread, you will never want to eat Sardines any other way. Trust me, it’s amazing. The background to this traditional Algarve way of eating Sardines is simple. No plates needed, just the slice of bread. Eat the Sardine with your fingers, finish of the bread on the barbecue. No plates of knives and forks needed, no washing up.

Super nutritious, sardines are a complete food, rich in good quality protein, omega 3, calcium, vitamin D and B12, magnesium… and they also have the advantage of a low risk of contamination from heavy metals such as mercury or cadmium. Do you need any more excuses for eating them?

The Sardine industry back in the 90’s

1853 is the date attributed to the oldest canning factory, founded in Vila Real de Santo António, but Portimao was where you would have found the most Sardine canning factories. These days they have been demolished or used for other purposes, but they were a major employer in the area. 1891, seems to be the year of start of the canning industry in Portimão. By 1935 there were 19 factories. The working day lasted fourteen hours, ten during the day and four at night. Men could earn 600 réis, women earned 220 réis and minors only 180 réis (In 1911, the escudo replaced the réis at the rate of 1 escudo = 1,000 réis).

Women began to work in factories at the age of 14, and since work was unregulated, workers were called by the factory’s siren whistle at any time of day and night, depending on the arrival of the fish. As soon as women heard the siren, they would run to the factories so that they were not penalized in their working hours and subsequently their weekly salary.

According to most historians, the local Algarve Sardine canning industry started to close as tourism arrived. The tourism industry was going to pay a lot better than working in a canning factory.

These days the industry still employees over a thousand people, but mainly in the North of Portugal. Technology has changed the process of canning dramatically. Morocco has also taken over as one of the leading suppliers, not least as labour costs are much lower.

Visit the Portimão museum to find out more

One essential visit if you are curious to know more is the Portimão Museum on the Southern side of the Portimão promenade. They have films of the factories at work, all very ‘propaganda style’, happy women singing on their way to work and singing on the way back. I think that’s a big maybe, but its very interesting. The museum is very well presented and very much worth a visit. Website, not in English but Google will translate for you. Look in the link ‘Há Peixe no Cais

The sound of the sirens calling workers to the factories has long gone, but it was part of the Algarve’s history. Meanwhile enjoy the delights of the fresh Sardine, grilled over charcoal, and don’t forget the secret of how to eat your Sardines in the local historic way.