The oily, spiny fish are a surprise favorite of the Portuguese throughout the year—but never more so than in June.
Portuguese seafood is ridiculously good. It’s no wonder that Lisboetas love everything that comes from the ocean. And Portugal is still a place where people eat seasonally, so there’s a respect for the rhythms of the sea.
A case in point is the love affair with sardines. The fish need to be left alone in winter to reproduce but become delectable—and sustainable—in summer: fat, juicy, and flavorful. And that’s when they become a cornerstone of celebrations. (Lisboetas also love summer, so anything that tastes of summer is in demand.) But the rest of the year, they’re easy to find in canned form, and with toasts, they’re a popular petisco.
The cult of canned fish
For many visitors to Portugal, the first introduction to sardines comes in tinned form. Forget everything you think about canned tuna or other fish at home: here, it’s a delicacy. The piquant, oily little morsels are preserved in extra virgin olive oil, vinaigrette, spicy tomato sauce, or lemon and thyme. This can make for strong flavors, so it’s typical to place the sardine on a piece of toast or bread. The big advantage—in addition to being readily available year-round—is that the fish are beginner friendly. Their skins and bones are removed before they’re placed in the tins.
Canned sardines are so popular here that it’s easy to assume it was a Portuguese invention. In fact, the name sardine refers to the island of Sardinia, which once had large schools of them. The practice of preserving them in cans started with Napoleon Bonaparte in order to feed the people of the lands he presided over. Napoleon was far from popular when he invaded Portugal, but his tinned sardines certainly were.
The summer celebrations
That said, a significant amount of the sardines consumed in Portugal are fresh. (And that amount is seriously significant: it’s been reported that the Portuguese consume, on average, 13 sardines per second.) This is generally prepared the same was all of the best fish is prepared: as simply as possible. Grilling the fish whole is best, although there’s also a dish that pairs fried small ones with tomato rice.
Come June, the month of the Santos Populares festivities, Lisbon becomes one big barbecue. Restaurants in the historic neighborhoods, such as Alfama, Mouraria, Bairro Alto, and Santos, hang streamers overhead, set up picnic tables on the streets, and roll out portable charcoal grills. Everyone is welcome at these parties, but there’s just one thing on the menu: sardines. They’re served with marinated-peppers salad, maybe some caldo verde soup, and lots of wine. They’re also served with their head, skin, and bones, meaning they require advanced skills. Learning how to debone them feels like a rite of passage for many foreigners, but until you master it, you can usually ask one of your table mates for help. Everyone is happy and generous while celebrating summer and eating sardines.
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The happy health bonus
Along with being delicious, and an important part of Portuguese culture, sardines are actually some of the healthiest fish in the sea. Since they are small and low on the food chain, they are less likely to be contaminated with mercury or PCBs. Their dense, oily texture means they are high in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which have been found to lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Their high B12 content also promotes heart health, and their vitamin D improves bone health and may turn out to play an important role in cancer prevention. All the more reason to enjoy!
If we could eat sardines every day, we’d be happy. Luckily, that’s exactly what we do on our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Tour, and we want to share the love. Join us for a morning full of foodie fun as we explore several emblematic Lisbon neighborhoods, devouring the city’s most beloved bites along the way.
Ann Abel came to Lisbon on assignment for Forbes in 2016 and fell in love with the quality of life, fantastic light, endless sunshine, friendly people and, of course, the delectable food and wine. When not eating her way through the capital (and coasts) she travels and writes for Conde Nast Traveller, Departures, Afar, Robb Report and other publications.