Making the most of sardine season in Lisbon.
It’s sardine season and if these little delicacies intimidate you we have a comprehensive guide to enjoying them this year.
This fish evokes some pretty strong reactions in people. There are those who are positively evangelical in their love of this superfood little fishy and there are those who cannot even have the word uttered in their presence, such is their disdain for it.
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, sardines are a national obsession in Portugal, especially in Lisbon during the month of June, which sees the celebration of the feast of St. Anthony, the city’s most popular saint. The humble sardine is as much (if not more) a star of the month-long festival than the saint himself. Walk down any cobbled alley in Lisbon in June, and you’ll be greeted with the distinct sweet and smokey aroma of fresh sardines grilling on the charcoal on makeshift outdoor grills. Tascas all around the city proudly display ‘Ha Sardinhas’ scrawled onto paper tablecloths and pinned up in their windows. There’s even an annual competition to design your own colourful sardine mini mascot! Fisheries estimate that during the month of June alone, the Portuguese consume 13 sardines a second – or about 34 million fish. So if you’re visiting Lisbon this June, or indeed anytime this summer, here’s the lowdown on Portugal’s favourite summer staple.
The Saint and the Sardine: Why in Lisbon are sardines associated with Saint Anthony?
The link between Saint Anthony and the sardine is tenuous at best, but as the biggest consumers of fish and seafood in Europe (a whopping 57kg per person in 2018!), the Portuguese could easily find a reason to make the sardine the star of the festival.
According to tradition, Saint Anthony travelled to the city of Rimini, which was renowned as a hotbed of heresy. Upon his arrival, however, he found his homilies falling on deaf ears amongst the locals. In frustration, he headed down to the mouth of the Marecchia river where it flows into the Adriatic. Walking along the water’s edge, he began to preach, not to people but to the fish. He called out: “You, fish of the river and sea, listen to the Word of God because the heretics do not wish to hear it” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi ch.40). All of a sudden the fish began to gather in their thousands, lined up neatly in rows and listening attentively to the friar’s sermon. Some local onlookers witnessed this miraculous event and dashed back to the city to recount the tale. The people of Rimini were so convinced by this miracle that they gathered to listen to Anthony, repented and returned to the Church.
The evidence for sardines in this story is slim at best, especially since the miracle happens in a river, but the month of June is when sardines are in season and so it seemed natural to pair up the saint and the sardine!
When to eat fresh sardines and how to spot the good from the bad
The Portuguese are seafood aficionados and with such a dazzling bounty of fish and seafood available in local waters, they are very strict about the quality and seasonality of what they consume. For sardines that means that the summer is really the only time to eat them freshly grilled off the charcoals. The rule of thumb is that you should only eat sardines in the months with no “r”. Thankfully this little tip works in both the Portuguese and English languages – Junho, Julho, Agosto, or June, July and August are prime sardine season when they are at the fattest and juiciest. You can get some sardines in May, although honestly, they are still few and far between on menus at this time and a bit on the scrawny side. In fact, in some years Portuguese fishing quota laws don’t allow the sardine fishing season to start until June 1st, so any caught before then are not local. I’ve eaten perfectly good sardines into September too, but I’m usually pretty sardined-out by that stage!
If you’re travelling in Portugal out of season and you see sardines on a menu you can be guaranteed that they are frozen from the previous year. A local non-touristy establishment would never ever dare put them on their menu for fear of reprisals! The Portuguese are a passionate bunch where food is concerned. If you do see them on a menu and you just can’t resist, go ahead, but beware, you’ve likely walked into a bit of a tourist trap. The experience probably won’t be terrible, but it won’t be authentic and the taste not a patch on the real thing eaten during the summer eaten hot off the grill.
Where and how to eat sardines in Lisbon
If though you’re lucky enough to visit Lisbon during the summer and you want to have that authentic fresh sardine experience there are a few tips to bear in mind.
The best way to find good sardines in Lisbon is to just follow your nose!
The Lisbon Sardine Festival
Come the month of June, Lisbon is awash with colour, music and the scent of freshly grilled sardines wafting through the streets as the city goes into party mode – for an entire month! Most neighbourhoods host a month-long party known as an ‘Arraial’ and everyone’s invited. Some Arraiais are more elaborate and famous than others. Alfama’s is legendary, but Madragoa and Mouraria are equally fun and often less crowded. But even small non-touristy neighbourhoods will have a modest Arraial. Think of it a bit like a block party: essentially the streets and are decked out with colourful bunting and garlands, with tables and chairs jostling for position in the narrow alleys among the crowds of chattering families and friends with cheesy Pimba music blaring through speakers.
Meanwhile, the air is thick with smoke from rickety makeshift barbecues fashioned out of old tin boxes and even oil drums. This without a doubt is the best way to experience fresh sardines and understand the Portuguese love affair with them.
Traditionally fresh sardines are eaten simply, grilled whole with a liberal dousing of natural sea salt, added a few hours beforehand, in order to crisp up the skin on the coals. Oh and by whole, I mean whole – head, tail, skin, bones and … ungutted. To the uninitiated keeping the guts in may seem like a step too far in the adventurous foodie stakes – I was even a bit taken aback when presented with my first grilled sardine. However the Portuguese maintain that keeping the guts in during cooking improves the flavour and rest assured, you’re not meant to eat the innards, that’s for the neighbourhood cats, for whom June is their favourite time of the year.
Needless to say, sardines aren’t exactly great first date food eaten in the traditional Portuguese way. They’re a small fish, and served whole they can be a bit fiddly for the novice. Don’t worry though, there’s no wrong way to do it and even the locals vary in their approach. You can eat the crispy salty skin or peel it off to get to the juicy flesh underneath. Once you’ve devoured that, simply flip it over and repeat! This is the basic way of tackling sardines with a knife and fork, but if you’re at an Arraial, you may notice the sardine pros eating their sardines on a piece of rustic bread, without a plate or cutlery. I have yet to master this technique without getting a mouthful of bones and guts, but the method shouldn’t be ruled out: once your sardine is gone, you’re left with this piece of bread soaked in all those delicious oils and juices. This matches perfectly with the traditional sardine side dish of a roasted green pepper salad, dressed with olive oil and a dash of sharp vinegar.
For those of you here after the festival in June, sardines are still plentiful: just look for those handwritten paper signs declaring ‘Ha Sardinhas’. Grab your sardine lunch or dinner early though, because in most tascas or restaurants once the daily supply has run out you’ll have to wait till tomorrow!
You can experience the Arraials and grilled sardines of Lisbon by joining our ‘Dark Heart of Lisbon‘ tour, a great way to see Alfama by night and learn the darker parts of Portugal’s history
Our favourite spots to grab a plate of sardines in Lisbon?
Ponto Final is worth a visit for the views alone, located on the other side of the Tagus river in the area of Almada. From the centre of Lisbon it’s very easy to get to: simply hop a ferry from Cais do Sodre across the water followed by a short walk along the riverfront and you’ll arrive at the prettiest little pier decked out with yellow tables and chairs and an amazing view of the entire of Lisbon. It’s worth calling in advance to secure one of the coveted tables along the water.
A hidden gem of a place that tourists don’t know and would never accidentally find is Ultimo Porto. Hidden among shipping containers in the port of Lisbon this place is always packed with locals and is known as one of the best places in the whole city to eat grilled fish. Everything is cooked to order on an outside grill just steps from your table. Open for lunch only, it’s worth getting there early to grab a seat and booking ahead is strongly recommended.
If you are here during the month of June then the choices are abundant and on almost every street corner.
How to choose and cook your own
If you’re feeling brave enough to wander down to the local market and grill up your own batch of sardines then make sure to get the freshest ones you can. A good fresh sardine will be shiny and shimmering. The gills are clean and fresh and its eyes are bright. Make sure they’re firm and not flabby or limp and you’ve got yourself a good fresh sardine.
When you get them home you only need two other things: plentiful sea salt and a searing hot grill. The Portuguese use a very liberal amount of sea salt when grilling their sardines and they add it about an hour or so before they want to cook. The reason for adding so much salt is that helps to draw some of the moisture out of the fish as hits the grill and helps to form a barrier to stop the little critters sticking to the bars. The health-conscious may want to remove the skin before eating! The best way to cook them is as simple as possible on a very hot grill. Please do not try grilling indoors as you’ll be smelling sardines for weeks to come. The Portuguese will barbecue on a postage stamp and you’ll regularly see people grilling on small balconies or even on the streets outside their apartment!
What if you’re in Portugal out of sardine season?
If you’re here in Lisbon out of sardine season but still want to try some then your best bet is to do as locals do and buy yourself some tinned sardines. The Portuguese are almost as fanatical about their canned fish as the fresh variety, and tinned sardines are both delicious and a great souvenir to bring home. Tinned fish has a long culinary history in Portugal, ever since 1853, when the national canning industry was born. This was cheap nutritious and portable fast food that kept the Portuguese going during tough times. It fell out of favour somewhat after the revolution in ’74, with many of the canning factories closing down, but recent years has seen a Portuguese culinary renaissance and there has been a renewed interest in this iconic Portuguese staple, many of which are packaged attractively in gorgeous vintage tins and wrapping. A much better gift to bring home than a postcard!
If you want to try out some tinned sardines before committing to stuffing your suitcase with them, then I suggest you head down Sol e Pesca in the Cais do Sodre district. Formerly a fishing tackle shop, this quirky little bar serves up tinned sardines and other canned delicacies such as smoked eel, mackerel and octopus. It definitely makes a good place to get acquainted with all things ‘tinned’.
If you’ve enjoyed that and want to bring home a fishy souvenir, then I head down to Conservaria de Lisboa. Operating since 1930, this third generation family-run grocery store knows everything there is to know about tinned fish. In fact, that’s all they sell. Shopping here is like being transported back in time, as the shop assistants carefully help you choose your tin and then thoughtfully wrap it up in brown paper and string. An experience not to be missed.
Whilst it doesn’t quite have the history associated with it another good place to get your tinned sardine fix is at Loja das Conservas. They have a wider range of tinned brands than Conservaria de Lisboa, including Minerva, Santa Caterina and Ramirez and they have recently opened a small restaurant around the corner where you can sample some of the tinned offerings that you can buy in the shop.
We visit all of these stores on our ‘Historic Shops‘ tour, which is a great way to get a deeper understanding of this Portuguese staple.
A Vida Portuguesa, a shop specialising in all things vintage and gourmet is another good stop for your tinned needs.
There are many other stores that have popped up in recent years (especially around Baixa and Rossio) specialising exclusively in all thing canned, but in many cases it’s a case of style and packaging over quality. Go with the more traditional Portuguese brands and you can’t go wrong.
Sardines and sustainability: Alternative options
Increasingly, some Portuguese are actually starting to shy away from sardines in favour of more sustainable alternatives. Sardines are a cool water loving fish. Climate change and the warming of the oceans have started to send local Portuguese sardines further north towards France and coming in from the south we are starting to see more horse mackerel (carapau) and chub mackerel (cavala); species that up until a decade ago were only really found off the coast of Algarve in the south of the country.
Warming waters, other invading species coupled with the huge Portuguese appetite for the sardine has caused stocks to plummet in recent decades and the government has had impose severe quotas on how much sardines can be fished and when. In the 1980’s fishermen landed more than 110,000 tonnes a year, but this this year the quota allowed for both Portugal and Spain is a mere 10,799 tonnes. It could take as much as fifteen years for the sardine population to recover (if at all given the changes in the earth’s oceans) and so the Portuguese government are now starting to investigate the idea of establishing a sardine aquaculture sector to sate the people’s appetite for this most iconic of Portuguese foods.
“Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster.”Ferran Adria
If you’re looking for a sustainable and responsible alternative to sardines then I suggest you try ‘carapau’ (horse mackerel) and ‘cavala’ (chub mackerel). They’re both oily fish and rich in omega-3, just like sardines. They’re typically slightly larger than a sardine, so can be easier to tackle with a knife and fork and can be had freshly grilled or tinned, just like sardines. Again you’ll see them on menus all around Lisbon and a local specialty worth trying is carapauzinhos fritos, small fried mackerel that you eat whole (head and all) with a great big bowl of tomato rice, another Portuguese specialty. Ponto Final does a particularly good version of this with a plate of mini fried mackerels piled high on the plate with a bubbling terracotta cauldron of tomato rice.
(UPDATE: On May 14th, the ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, announced an increase in the allowed fishing quota – up from 10,799 tonnes to 16,450 tonnes, as the fish stocks have increased more than they expected. This means that if you do decide to indulge in some sardines you can do so with a bit of a clearer conscience!)