Seemingly exotic and often beautiful, tinned fish thrills a new generation of foodies and souvenir hunters while remaining a staple in cozinhas countrywide.

According to Victor Vicente at the digital museum Conservas de Portugal by Can The Can Lisboa, it was in part due to the disappearance of sardines from the coast of Brittany that lead French industrialists to move to Portugal in search of raw material. Portugal’s abundance and quality of fish, the extensive coastline, and a tradition of fishing combined to create favourable conditions for the rapid development of a Portuguese fish canning industry.

But it was not just through the initiative of foreign concerns that the industry developed in Portugal. Across the country, domestic companies emerged, providing for the Portuguese people’s needs as well. The humble sardine, already a truly local product, fuelled Portugal’s fish canneries.

The ‘70s saw a decline in the production of Portuguese conservas. With the 1974 Portuguese revolution, many industries suffered from the social and political situation. In the ‘80s, the interest in conservas again began to grow. The primary market was abroad and 90 percent of the production was exported. The 2012/13 tourism boom revived the public popularity of Portugal’s canned fish. This burgeoning interest lifted conservas to the prominence they enjoy today. In turn, it continues to boost the many manufacturers and makers that are necessary to deliver a quality product. These include sheet metal, carpentry, printers and lithographers, casting, machinery, salt exploration, fishing, and the production of olive oil needed to fill the cans.

With a landscape of over 150 canning factories in its heyday, Portugal has about 20 remaining canneries yet produces and exports much more than in the past.

That art!
There’s no question that the striking packaging loosens the wallet. It’s not uncommon to buy tinned fish based solely on the package design, regardless of what’s inside.

Some makers print the actual tins; others wrap a plain tin in gorgeous printed-paper, giving them the flexibility to design for several different products. Sr. Vicente tells us that tin versus wrappers is a question of production scale. To make a printed can producers need a large production, at least 100,000 tins, and not all companies can afford to produce on such a large scale.

The old cans were of stunning beauty and, as fruits of prodigious imagination, provided a somewhat unusual marketing image for their time. These designs are romantic, full of history, with stories to tell–especially those that contained more unusual fish.

A lithographer usually created the designs, with thousands of cans made for different markets of the world. Their designers were anonymous. They did not sign the work, making it impossible to establish the authorship of 90 percent of the art produced. The exception is with companies at the end of the 20th century. Used as advertising vehicles, these were often signed and we can identify the artists.

What’s inside
Portugal produces and cans sardines in abundance but also squid, cuttlefish, octopus, blue mussels, razor clams, codfish, Atlantic pomfret, horse mackerel, chub mackerel, Atlantic bonito, albacore, European eel, black scabbardfish (not to be confused with swordfish), grooved carpet shell, etc. The fish come from the entire coast and because some factories have become very large, it’s impractical to buy only in their region. Sardines, for instance, come from the Algarve, Nazaré, Matosinhos, Setúbal, Sesimbra, etc.

The flavour of the fish depends a lot upon whether it’s tinned with spices (think piri-piri peppers, fennel seed, fresh ginger), olive oil, water, herbs. Also, how it’s treated if used in a recipe. Aside from the standard canning preparations, there are ancestral methods that are lesser-known but intriguing. These include fumagem (salting and smoking fish) and escabeche (preserving fish in vinegar).

It’s also very healthy. Tuna and sardines are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, especially when boiled in sea salt and preserved in olive oil. Tinned shellfish like clams and mussels are high in iron.

Interestingly, tinned sardines, some of the healthiest fish in the world, are even healthier than fresh. They are high in protein and vitamin B12, and have ten times more calcium as a result of the jellification process that breaks down the bones and makes them easily digestible. So, in fact, by eating the fish we get added calcium from the bones. Even Portuguese cardiologists recommend that people consume tinned sardines to lower the risk of a heart attack.

Why This Portuguese Sardine Cannery Swears By Its 100-Year-Old Method

Shop smart
From grocery stores to specialty shops, finding great tinned fish in Portugal is easy. And like every product, quality levels and personal preferences vary. The one sure-fire way to find the best tinned fish for your palate is to taste, taste, taste. Some are mild, like Santa Catarina’s Azorean line-caught tuna. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of tuna-security. Not all tinned tunas have the same taste. Sr. Vicente tells us that the strongest tasting tinned fish is “sangacho de atum.” Tuna sangacho is the tuna’s “dark meat,” with more blood.

Be adventurous. Try new-to-you tinned fish varieties, pick some beauties up to have on hand as gorgeous gifts, and experiment with elevating this great and good for you ingredient to gourmet levels. There’s nothing fishy about that!
Learn more: Explore Conservas de Portugal by Can The Can Lisboa at

Relish Portugal Recipe: Simple Spicy Tuna Pasta
250 gr penne or other shaped pasta that will grab and hold sauce
1 medium red pepper, chopped
1 small sweet onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
1 can high-quality tuna in olive oil*
2 tbsp capers, rinsed
piri-piri sauce, to taste
red pepper flakes, to taste
sea salt/freshly-ground pepper, to taste
While straight ahead tuna in olive oil works great in this recipe, try a flavored variety such as funcho (fennel), caril (curry), or piri-piri + lemon.

How to:
Boil water to begin cooking pasta.

As the water comes to a boil, in a medium sauté pan, heat oil on medium and sauté peppers and onion until soft. Add garlic and sauté for a minute. Add ½ to 1 tablespoon more oil and allow to sizzle.

By now you should have the pasta in the water. Add approximately half a cup of boiling pasta water to the sizzling veg in the sauté pan and allow it to bubble and begin to evaporate. Continue to add pasta water when the liquid gets low, reducing the heat to a rapid simmer, not a boil. You’ll repeat this two to four times while the pasta cooks. This will create a silky sauce to stick to your pasta. You should end up with approximately a third of a cup of cooked down liquid. If you have too much liquid, turn it up to a boil for a minute or so to reduce it further.

Drain the pasta and add to the veg/liquid sauté. Stir in the capers, piri-piri sauce, and red pepper flakes. Add the tuna and its oil, stirring gently to break up the filets. Taste and adjust seasonings as you wish. Serve and enjoy!

Bio: Relish Portugal—the English-language food and culture magazine is an award-winning, online, quarterly, free-with-subscription publication. Visit to subscribe.