For generations it was the people’s food. Now expensive and increasingly scarce, it has found a new home in the fine-dining world – fresh or canned
It is yet another early morning at sea for 71-year-old João Perruca, owner of the Samuelito, a 19m Algarvean seine fishing boat (rapa). The sardine season began on May 21 of 2018 and, since then, he moved from Olhão port to Quarteira, which is said to be more favourable for this type of fishing this year. He carries aboard 12 fishermen, including his son, the shipmaster.
Perruca, born and raised on Culatra Island – where as a child he would see beached swordfish – started going out to sea, aged 11. “People say there was an abundance [of fish] back then. Obviously. After all, how long ago was the world, the land, the sea and the fish, multiplying and growing, created? With new technology and countries that didn’t fish before now having fleets, it is normal for them to be disappearing,” he says at the helm, keeping an eye on the sophisticated probes scrounging the bottom of the ocean for schools of fish.
This season, he is limited to 3,750kg of sardines per outing. But “the sea is uncertainty” and he has in the past returned with empty baskets. As night turns into day, the crew keep using the VHF radio, speaking in heavy jargon, looking for sardines before the sun rises – the best time to drop the nets, according to the men.
On their return, the entire haul is unloaded, weighed, classified and auctioned. This is a ritual that 31-year-old João Oliveira, executive chef at Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, in Praia da Rocha, knows well. He enjoys visiting the Portimão auction market and speaking with the fishermen. From the hotel’s window, he watches as boats enter the port like old friends. This chef has focused on fish from the coast, from the so-called noble types to the more common, as well as seafood and shellfish. He also seeks to promote less-known species that have been rejected by industrial fishing.
Sardines however are a whole different game in his kitchen. He treats them with such care and respect that almost nothing of this fish goes to waste. “We do an interpretation of the Algarve grilled sardine. The fillets are marinated for two to three days in escabeche: paprika, parsley, coriander, peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic, olive oil, white wine vinegar (boiled to preserve its aroma but not the acidity) and peanut oil, which doesn’t taint the flavours,” explains Oliveira, who won a star in the 2018 Portugal & Spain Michelin Guide. The sardine is served rolled-up in an extremely thin slice of rice bread. The chef extracts a fragrant oil from the bones and dries out the sardine heads for flavouring the salad. This is the only signature dish found on the tasting menu until October, when the fishing season ends.
“Maybe, a few years ago, it was a bit risky using sardines in fine-food due to its [low] commercial value. But in my opinion, it is quite a versatile fish and it is becoming increasingly popular,” says Louis Anjos, 35, Portugal’s 2012 Chef of the Year and who is now undergoing his first season at the helm of Bon Bon, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in Carvoeiro, Lagoa.
Stigma derived from price is no longer an issue, since fresh sardines this summer reached a respectable €15 per kilo in some Algarve markets. “As far as I see it, it is an excellent product, incredibly rich in Omega-3 [a polyunsaturated fat which is great for the body] and with a very characteristic flavour,” he states.
At Bon Bon, it is served as “a snack, inspired by the Popular Saints festivities”, he explains. “The loin is simply braised, over a corn cracker, with basil and a touch of garlic, evoking the traditional Portuguese broa [corn and rye bread]. This year, sardines appeared later and they are very good. Just put one under a blowtorch and you will see.” It is paired with onion pickle, roasted bell pepper and basil shoots. “It also gets what we call the ‘Santo António cream’, made from boiled sardine stock, in a small quenelle,” says Anjos, adding that the final touch consists of pickled roe from Olhão, to intensify the flavour.
Fascinated by Portuguese conservas (canned goods), Victor Vicente opened Can the Can at Terreiro do Paço, in Lisbon, in 2012. “They are the result of a century-plus process, which combines our excellent catch with age-old work skills. The quality and variety, the nutritional properties and the absence of preservatives make our canned goods a very healthy food. This is a sector that has long been international, having been exported to every continent for over 100 years. We have 18 companies which produce around 60,000 tonnes of fish per year, and most of that production is exported to the international market,” he explains.
The Sardina pilchardus, the predominant species in Portugal, arrives in the gourmet niche through a series of high-quality brands. Some are inventive, such as Comur, “which cans sardines with edible gold flecks”, or Porthos, from the Portugal Norte factory, “which packs them with teriyaki sauce”.
Similarly to what happens in France every year, some producers launch a limited series of sardines, named millésimes. “They begin an ageing process similar to wine. They age inside the can, becoming premium products,” Vicente describes. There are also pâtés, the most recognised of which are from the Algarve brand Manná, produced by Conserveira do Sul, in Olhão. This summer they will launch a special brand named Júpiter, with organic olive oil.
Finally, the head of Can the Can cannot help but mention what is known as “Portuguese caviar”, that is, sardine roe. “Once they were a mainstream product in the Portuguese canning industry, but today it is more rare and sometimes difficult to find. It is a very expensive can, but well worth the price. We can proudly say that it would be difficult to find a bad canned sardine in Portugal. On the contrary – it is very easy to find high-quality cans, after all we are the motherland of sardines.”