Tinned tradition

By Cristina Alcock [email protected]

It was one of the biggest industries in Portugal, with hundreds of factories the driving force behind the country’s biggest exporter. Today, there may only be a handful of fish-canning factories left, but it seems that the humble yet iconic canned fish – the traditional Portuguese conserva – is making a comeback.

As well as the resurgence of the vintage packaging, with countless designs dating back to the First World War, there has also been a true revival of both the product and its appearance, with a number of companies bringing out trendier packaging and more exotic recipes.

Even shops and restaurants across the country are getting in on the act, with entrepreneurs from north to south embracing this prized product and returning it once again to having pride of place on the dinner table.

JoseGourmet designs
JoseGourmet designs

Here in the Algarve, the fish-canning industry was once a major part of the economy, and whilst there are still a handful of working factories in Vila Real de Santo António and Olhão, most of the old warehouses are simply a testament to the region’s rich fishing past.

Gleaning the potential of a revived industry – perhaps down to the recession – and relaunching the iconic Catraio tinned sardine in 2010, shortly followed by the Naval and Georgette labels, José Nero decided to pick up where his family left off in the 1980s.

From a long line of fish preservers who came from Italy in 1680, the head of Conservas Nero, founded in Sesimbra in 1912 and producer of some of Europe’s best known labels, has taken it upon himself to preserve his family’s heritage which spans more than two centuries, whilst following in his grandfather’s innovative footsteps.

The Catraio and Georgette labels have been relaunched by José Nero
The Catraio and Georgette labels have been relaunched by José Nero

“The tinned cod was my grandfather’s ‘innovation’ soon after the Second World War, and the black scabbardfish is an ‘innovation’ launched by me in May 2011,” says José Nero, who, alongside maintaining the same artisanal methods and the same quality standards as his ancestors, is adding a touch of originality to the Nero name.

Both the black scabbardfish and the anchovies in muscatel wine from the Douro region, launched last year, have started to make waves in demanding markets, particularly in Japan. It’s a reinvention of the traditional canned fish, often using recipes from previous generations, and this year José admits there are plans to launch a new product “that will surprise everyone”, as well as the introduction of a “fifth-generation” range.

In the belief that canned fish should lose its image as a cheap and mundane product, the new-generation Conservas Nero has been developing recipes and working with leading Portuguese chefs in show-cooking demonstrations, both nationally and internationally, to truly revive the product.

The Nero canned fish factory in the old times
The Nero canned fish factory in the old times

Also boasting the name José but with a far more recent history is the trendy JoseGourmet, launched in 2008 by Adriano Ribeiro. After spotting the potential of the quality of Portuguese products whilst he was abroad, he invited the designer Luís Mendonça and illustrator Gémeo Luís to create the visuals. The result? One of the most instantly recognisable brands on the market.

Producing everything from olive oil and jam to spirits and wine, all in keeping with same philosophy of providing quality, handmade products, it’s the canned goods that have seen the most demand, with the range recently enhanced by organic canned goods, such as the MARIA Organic brand.

Also hoping to renew the image of canned goods, JoseGourmet has been working on recipes for children as well as signature gourmet recipes for adults by Chef Luís Baena.

When asked why such a young company decided to invest in such a traditional product, Adriano’s son Pedro explains: “Because recovering traditional, high-quality products means restoring memories, extending information and promoting identity. We have to restore its value, and that value is essentially cultural.”

Products from Conservas Nero and JoseGourmet can be found in selected outlets across Portugal. Here in the Algarve, the Maria do Mar shops in Lagos and Portimão offer a great selection of products and tastings.

Fish-Canning  ||  Maria do Mar provides a taste of the Algarve’s heritage

With its Atlantic coastline and abundance of fish, the Algarve has a long tradition in the fish-canning industry. Although most of the region’s fish-canning factories have long since closed their doors, there has recently been something of a resurgence of these prized canned products, with their vintage packaging very much in vogue.

Home to a museum located in a former fish-canning factory, which is centred on the riverside city’s strong link to the sea, Portimão in particular was one of the most important fishing and canning centres in the Algarve, so it is only fitting that Pedro Franco decided to pay homage to this cultural and economic heritage in the form of a unique concept: Maria do Mar.

Maria do Mar shop in Lagos
Photo: Miguel Manso
Maria do Mar shop in Lagos
Photo: Miguel Manso

Following the first store bearing the Maria do Mar name which opened in Lagos (Rua Conselheiro Joaquim Machado) in April 2012, its sister store opened in Portimão last October but with a slightly different concept. As well as a huge selection of canned fish – Pedro boasts there are hundreds of varieties of conservas – and other regional products, the shop also doubles as a small eatery for customers to taste the produce on sale.

Located on Rua Direita, Maria do Mar is a small but charming place, designed entirely around the theme of the fish-canning tradition. Four or five tables stand in front of the counter, from which customers have the perfect vantage point of all the store’s products, neatly stacked on the shelves to the left of the shop. The remaining walls feature wonderful blown-up old photographs, one of which is a picture from the 1940s of local women working in an old factory in Portimão.

Owner Pedro Franco said: “All the canned fish is made here in Portugal, and we wanted to have those that aren’t available in large supermarkets, of a higher quality.” With products including everything from tuna and sardines in more exotic forms, to the more unfamiliar muxama (dried tuna) and sardine roe (the Portuguese “caviar”), and of course the simple yet iconic sardines in olive oil, there are also some gems to be found here.

Georgette and Catraio, for example, are two old brands that became well known outside of Portugal during the Second World War, and at Maria do Mar, you can find the vintage packaging that dates back to 1912.

“It’s an Algarvean tradition; it’s not as deeply embedded now because the factories have closed, but it is a huge part of the spirit of the region, of Portugal,” says Pedro, a great champion of Portuguese canned products who believes the flavour of our produce makes all the difference, with the olive oil used setting it apart from other countries such as France or Spain.

And it’s a tradition that can be sampled in the shop itself. Customers can simply buy any of the products on display, or alternatively, for an additional €2.50 service charge which includes bread and other extras, they can taste any of the delicious products for sale, freshly prepared and washed down with a glass of regional wine. These of course are also available here, alongside other local gems such as olive oil, medronho and flor de sal (fleur de sel) from Castro Marim.

Aside from their tasty contents, Pedro also attributes the renaissance of Portuguese canned fish – foodstuff for times of crisis – to the recession.

The concept has proven popular with foreigners and residents alike, many of whom have ancestors who used to work in the local factories.

Maria do Mar is open Monday to Saturday from 10.30am to 9pm. Cristina Alcock

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