In Portugal, dive into sardines

Every vacation is in some way an observation of other people working while you are not. A hotel stay testifies to maids and hosts; dinner sees chefs, busboys, and waiters; an excursion requires a tour guide, a driver, a boat mechanic if you are lucky. But there’s a quirk about going to a working factory to stand on a raised platform and watch the locals do old-fashioned hard work, while you escape from your own job.

Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, is the capital of one of the country’s main industries, canned fish. Canned sardines are having a moment in the food world. With exquisitely decorated cans, sustainability perceived as questionable, and the decadence of being drenched in oil, they have earned a devoted following among young people who love them with all their hearts. At Conservas Pinhais et Cia in Matosinhos, a fish cannery just a few kilometers from central Porto, visitors are invited to see that their new favorite treat is, in fact, a very old operation.

Founded in 1920 by two brothers and two external partners, Pinhais is considered one of the best providers of canned fish in the crowded Portuguese market. The company’s factory is one of the few to survive a big shift in sardine production to West Africa, where more than half of all sardines are now canned. Sardines are a favorite among diners in the fish-centric city and are a favorite throughout Europe, though US customers may be more familiar with the company’s international label, Nuri, which is yellow in color. bright and is available at specialty stores and fine grocery stores. The fish is known for its high quality and perfect seasoning, and now, on a tour of the working factory, sardine fans can see exactly how it’s made.

The workforce is almost entirely female, a tradition established by the fact that, historically, the men went to sea while the women stayed behind and did the fishing. It is not uncommon for generations of women to work in the factory, with mothers, daughters and aunts finding steady jobs canning. In fact, the tour of the sardine factory begins with a video of a Portuguese daughter hoping her father will survive a storm. (She does it.)

“This film is dedicated to all the families of our fisherman, because of the stress they endure,” said guide Olga Santos, at the start of a recent tour. Thus begins the entrance to the wonderful and reverential world of canned sardines.

The 90-minute tour, which Pinhais unveiled in November 2021, begins in an office originally built in 1926 and complete with rotary telephones and a pulley system, in which orders would be tied to a string and sent to the floor of the office. factory, separating the office from the fish canning itself.

After the video of the fishermen’s families and one on how the seasonings are made from the fish, the screen rises to reveal a window into the working factory. You leave the impeccably decorated display area (the original founders shaped the stairwell so that when you look into the factory lobby you see the outline of a sardine) for the essential work area.

After donning protective coverings, he enters via a walkway that skirts a mostly open floor, divided only by arched windows, save for a few offices where workers type on laptops. The first thing you see is a table of women chopping chili peppers, bay leaves and pickles to fill spicy versions of the company’s four varieties of sardines, which are offered in tomato sauce or olive oil.

In the next area, the fish are bathed in salt water before their heads and tails are cut off with fish knives, leaving some of the workers’ aprons stained with blood and gore. All the extra parts go to the animal feed manufacturers, Ms. Santos tells us.

After striking, the remaining bodies are placed in a vertical container in individual slots that give the impression that dozens of headless sardines are attending a conference in a small room. The audience is sent through a shower before entering a large oven, where the fish are cooked for 15 minutes. Then comes the delicate packaging of the fish in their tins, by hand, before the tins are filled with olive oil using machinery, introduced a few years ago. In a promotional book that can be purchased at the gift shop, some factory workers lament the new oil machine, fondly recalling getting “really covered” in the olive oil, which comes from the nearby Douro Valley.

The cans are machine sealed, which explains some of the loud noise on the ground. Also strong is the constant flow of water, echoing throughout the factory as the sardines are washed several times before cooking. Other noises are harder to track: Oil spray, pulley wheels rolling fish from station to station, and steam ovens all seem to create enough clamor that guests are given headphones to hear the guide while they’re on. floor.

Finally, everything is packed with lightning speed in what amounts to wrapping paper. You have the chance to try it out for yourself in a locked room after exiting the tour and removing your PPE, but it’s impossible to match the dexterity of the wrappers on the factory floor handling the yellow, green, and blue papers. with amazing ease.

Ms. Santos told us that “on a good day” canned women often sing. And, when we entered the factory floor, the cannery really was in full chorus, although the words were impossible to make out above the sound, even if you spoke Portuguese. Whether the singing is truly spontaneous is hard to tell, but the myth of the women singing emerges when talking to locals familiar with the factory. Regardless, it seems likely that singing is the best way to communicate over the loud buzz of canned sardines, whether it’s a good day or not.

The tour ends with a tasting of the sardines you just saw canned, accompanied by bread from a local bakery and optional wine. The sardines, it must be said, are delicious. (And the smell in the factory is that of freshly caught sardines going in and out of the salt water.)

“I love sardines,” Sandra van Diessen, 57, from the Netherlands, enthused me after the tour, as we discussed the advantages of deboning our free samples. (They’re not supposed to, Ms. Santos told us, but the three of us laughed that we all did it anyway, more out of habit than necessity.) After opening last fall and, with around 70 tours offered a week, in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French, the factory has so far welcomed 2,821 sardine fishermen. (The tours are €14 per person for adults, with an additional €3 for wine; €8 for children.)

The city of Porto seemed to take pride in its global industry. Across the small town, everyone I spoke to about the Pinhais factory echoed the same sentiments: these are good jobs, these are valued employees, and that the factory exists is a credit to the region itself.

“They are precious to us,” Marta Azevedo, communication director for ANCIP, Portugal’s largest canning union, said of Pinhais. “It’s the best canned fish we have, it’s the best place to work.”

But what about the payment? It’s “not very good,” she admitted, estimating that women earn roughly 800 euros a month, or about $832.

“But in Portugal, wages are very low,” he continued. “They are well paid, by Portugal.”

Canned sardines are a common dish served throughout Portugal, and the city’s specialty shops, like the pristine Loja das Conservas on the sloping Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira, a few blocks from the Douro River, are dedicated to celebrating the products. Pinhais, along with other local brands like Minerva. A partnership with ANCIP, Loja has yet to resume tastings since the pandemic, but nearby Mercearia das Flores, on quiet Rua das Flores, offers full tastings. Both shops, like the factory, are run by women, and you can pair your sardines on toast with local wines and fine chocolates.

For a more decadent take on the classic bread and fish dish, sandwich shop A Sandeira pairs the canned delights with a perfect red pepper spread, all served on mismatched antique china at a nearby hardware store. Nearby, the Aduela bar, located on Rua das Oliveiras, also serves the most classic dish: sardine toast with fresh tomatoes. Especially perfect for people looking to spend very little in a trendy spot, it’s a great place to start a sardine tour.

There is possibly a bit of a dispute between those who serve the sardines fresh and those who serve them canned, according to the owner of Loja das Conservas, who grimly told me that “nobody knows” why the best restaurants don’t serve the town’s famous canned offering. . Visitors looking to sample fresh fish are spoiled for choice, including the excellent Meia-Nau, where they come grilled to perfection. The trendy restaurant, located on chic Travessa de Cedofeita, requires reservations for dinner, but lunch is more open to visitors without a plan. If you happen to ask about the fresh vs. canned debate, be sure to mention Loja: It turns out that the owner of Meia-Nau is the son of the store’s founder. In Porto, after all, sardines are a family business.

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