The Portuguese, his wife and his (canned) fish
by Maria Pussig
The Portuguese, his wife and his (canned) fish
by Maria Pussig
Even the last article, which presented Porto in all its facets, pleaded for looking beyond Porto’s role as a mere port city and paying a little more attention to the international goings-on beyond Portuguese tradition. Not forgetting this encouragement, we will now be talking about a deeply Portuguese product from the sea: The canned sardine. But not just any canned fish will be presented here, but that of a very special company in Porto, which has made it its goal to transform this fast food of the sailors into a delicacy of the extra class.
When the two Pinhal brothers founded the canning factory Pinhais&Ca. Lda. in Porto in 1920, they had no idea that their company would one day become living history. At that time, the cannery was still a business like any other in the industry: fresh fish was bought at the market early in the morning, brought to the factory and prepared and canned by hand.
But when, after the Second World War, the Portuguese economy also flourished and demand for canned fish skyrocketed, this marked a turning point for the fish processing industry. With the economic miracle comes mechanization and rationalization, which increasingly replace manual labor. At this time, there were around 600 canning factories throughout Portugal, 50 of them in the Matosinhos district of Porto alone, where Pinhais&Ca. Lda. is still based today. This company swam against the tide with its sardines at that time and decided to keep the manual processing of the fish. An important reason for this decision was also not to accept loans for the conversion to machines, in order not to perish at the end like so many other small manufactories from the debts.
In the meantime, Pinhais&Ca. Lda. is under the management of Antonio Pinhal, the grandson of one of the founders and son of the man who in the 1940s was revolutionary in not allowing his company to participate in the machine revolution in fish processing. Today, this decision distinguishes Pinhais&Ca. Lda. from most other companies in the sector: the fresh fish is still bought at the market early in the morning, brought to the factory, where it is still prepared and canned by hand.
The former – buying the fish at auction – was, by the way, always the first task of the next heir, Antonio Pinhal once revealed in an interview. He himself spent a decade going to the market early in the morning to look for the freshest produce. It was necessary to learn to distinguish those sardines that were caught at dawn from those that had already been netted at night. The catch must not be older than one hour to be canned by Pinhais.
Pinhais also relies on tradition in many other ways. “Sardines are born in the sea. Canned sardines are born in the hands of the women of Matosinhos,” wrote journalist Pedro Botelho in a recent article, impressively summarizing what the almost 80% female workforce of the manufactory does every day. From gutting the sardines and grilling the fish to filling and packing the cans, everything at Pinhais is done by hand – just as it was 100 years ago. Also the few technical aids would originate to the majority still from the establishment time, it is said.
It is clear that quality rather than quantity can also have its price. A can of the handmade delicacy costs between 2.50 and 4.45 euros. In comparison: The industrially produced equivalent in the supermarket costs around 0.89 euro.
In addition to the in-house brand “Pinhais”, the manufactory has also been selling the brand “Nuri”, designed for the international market, since 1935 – and with success. Since the pandemic, the international market has almost completely replaced domestic sales through the new online store.
Incidentally, the main consumers include the USA, closely followed by Great Britain, Canada and Singapore. But the number of international sardine gourmets continues to rise since the factory also offers tours and a museum. If the current Corona figures allow it, you can then watch the nimble hands of the employees turn the freshly caught sardines into small delicacies for eternity within a few hours. According to Antonio Pinhal, canned sardines are like port wine: the older, the better.
If you’ve whetted your appetite for more, you’ll find the Pinhais company museum in Porto, as well as other attractions related to canned sardines. O Mundo fantastico das Conservas portuguesas” – “The Wonderful World of Portuguese Preserves” – is a somewhat touristy but charming place to visit. In this store in the center of Porto you will find not only canned sardines in all variations, but also other preserved sea creatures for every taste, which are ideal as edible souvenirs.
But also from the cultural department of Porto initiatives are launched again and again to preserve this heritage of Portuguese everyday culture. Last summer, for example, the public library in Matosinhos dedicated a special exhibition to the history of the canning industry, which was not only able to convince with impressive photo and video material, which opened up highly intimate insights into the reality of life and the culture of fishing, but also allowed antique tools and machines of this guild to shine in new splendor. In addition, local contemporary artists complemented the exposition with contributions related to the theme of the sea and environmental protection.
Initiatives like this are always on offer in Porto, so it’s always worth taking a look at the city’s events calendar.
Apart from the fact that at Pinhais&Co Lda we owe most of the canned sardines to the capable hands of experienced women, what is the woman doing in the title of this article? Well, as it turns out, canned fish is more than just food to the Portuguese people. Whether it costs 0.89 euros in the supermarket or 4.45 euros in the factory, fishing and fish processing have a long tradition in Portugal and are in many ways part of the cultural identity of the Portuguese. Therefore, this topos is also found in many proverbs, including the following: “A Mulher Portuguesa quer-se pequenina, como a sardinha!”In english roughly: “A Portuguese woman should be like a sardine: small and delicate!” Whether this is to be taken as a compliment or not is a matter of taste – just like the choice of canned fish.