How Sardines Became The Most Iconic Fish In Portugal

Some countries have majestic big cats or exotic birds as their mascot. But Portugal…Portugal has the sardine. This small fish is so beloved that it’s become something of a national icon, woven into the history, culture, music and art. From the moment you arrive in Lisbon, sardine iconography rains down on you from every corner. Hundreds upon hundreds of canned variations exist in colourful tins that are packed onto shelves waiting to work their magic on newcomers and sardine veterans alike. 

Like so many mighty things in the modern world, the popularity of sardines was the work of the Romans. When they settled in Lisbon in 19 BC, they discovered this fish was found in abundance just off the coast and it soon became a staple of daily life. Their popularity never waned but it wasn’t until 1853 that the first commercial cannery opened in the Algarve region, canning sardines in olive oil, and the demand for this new convenience skyrocketed.  

World War I drove up the need for pre-packaged, shelf-stable food and by 1925 there were over 400 canneries across the country. There was a slight decline during the 70s and 80s when it fell out of fashion, but the last decade has seen a steady resurgence in its popularity. Today there a 14 main canneries in the country and they are responsible for upholding the ancient legacy.

This revival is in part due to the growing awareness about healthy eating and wellness in general. Sardines are one of the healthiest fish around with high omega-3 fatty acid levels for heart health and blood pressure. And because sardines only eat plankton, they tend to have lower mercury levels than most fish. They’re also a great source of vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, calcium, iron, potassium, and protein. 

On 12th June each year, Lisbon celebrates their beloved fish at the Feast of St Anthony, also unofficially known as the sardine festival. As the story goes, St Anthony was visiting Rimini a town which was deemed a hotbed of sin and vice. The people were uninterested in his sermons but as he spoke from his pulpit near the river, hundreds of sardines poked their heads out of the water to listen to him preach. Since then the fish have been tied to this patron saint and during the festival, the air is heavy with the smell of fresh sardines grilling on open flames. 

When eaten fresh, most places choose a very minimalist approach to cooking. The fish is slathered in olive oil and generously salted, but aside from that, very little is added in terms of flavour, allowing the natural oily fish to really shine. Canned sardines on the other hand receive a more intricate treatment. They are doused in all sorts of sauces and flavours such as tomato sauce, red peppers, vinegar, herbs, curry sauce, Piri Piri – the list goes on and on.

As with all things, there is a dark side to this popularity, as due to the rising demand, there have been concerns about overfishing. However, the idea of Portugal without the sardine is unthinkable and steps are being taken to ensure that these precious ambassadors of Portuguese culture are preserved for generations to come.