The Wonderful World of Canned Portuguese Sardines

It’s a €6.5 billion a year industry and one of the healthiest foods imaginable. Vaughan Willmore takes a look at the world of canned Portuguese sardines and speaks to the people behind a newly opened flagship store in Times Square, New York.

“Canned sardines are a nutritional powerhouse”

Portuguese sardines are a culinary delight steeped in tradition, history, flavour and nutrition. As one of Portugal’s most cherished delicacies, canned sardines represent more than just sustenance; they embody a cultural legacy.

The notion of canning fresh food dates back to the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) when the French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone who devised a way of preserving large amounts of food that could be used as rations for their military. It was French confectioner Nicolas Appert who won the award for sealing food in glass jars. A few years later, British merchant Bryan Donkin developed the process of packaging food in airtight cans. 

The benefits of canning were noted by many: easily transportable products that preserved their contents for up to five years and, under the right conditions, even longer than that. In Portugal, the abundance of quality fish, farmed along the extensive Portuguese coastline, made these shores an ideal location for the emergence of some of the world’s earliest canning factories.

During the First and Second World Wars, the popularity of canned fish underwent rapid growth. They were especially popular among American troops, which explains why, to this day, the USA is one of the main markets for distributors worldwide. Nearly 100 years later, thanks to businesses such as Grupo O Valor Do Tempo, the traditional methods of production used in Portugal can still be seen. Sónia Santiago Felgueiras, Marketing Director of Grupo O Valor Do Tempo, told me, “When our Comur factory began its activity in 1942, the production methods were artisanal because that was the standard of the canning industry in Portugal. 

Today, the factory retains the same production methods with all the fish being delicately prepared by hand by those who have inherited generational knowledge.”

Grupo O Valor Do Tempo has 21 stores, with the nearest being in Faro. Each store stocks a whole range of canned fish, not solely sardines, though unsurprisingly, given their popularity, sardines account for the majority of sales. Sónia has worked for the business for four years. She told me how they have no ambition to be the biggest in this industry but are instead focused on providing quality products and working sustainably. “When creating the Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines, we wanted to create something more than just a canned brand. We’re an active defender of ocean management, a promoter of responsible fishing, and a supporter of local fishermen and women. Maintaining our heritage is key to our success. It makes it possible for us to offer preserves of extraordinary quality and, therefore, to pay our staff fairly in a way that demonstrates our respect for their work.”

One aspect that makes canned Portuguese sardines particularly popular is the variety of flavours and seasonings used to enhance their taste. From simple preparations with olive oil and sea salt to more complex marinades with herbs, spices, and tangy sauces, there’s a canned sardine to suit every palate. 

In addition to their exquisite taste, canned Portuguese sardines are prized for their nutritional benefits. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamins, and minerals, sardines are a powerhouse of nutrients contributing to heart health, brain function and overall well-being. This nutritional profile has earned sardines a reputation as a superfood, revered by health-conscious consumers around the world. Indeed, the canned sardine industry is expected to grow to over €11 billion per year by 2030, which bodes well for the industry and the Portuguese economy. 

Last year, Grupo O Valor Do Tempo took the bold step of opening its first store outside Portugal, in one of the world’s most famous and busiest districts, namely Times Square, New York. As one New Yorker reported, “What an unexpected gem! A tinned fish shop right in the heart of Times Square. The sight of millions of colourful tinned sardines decorating the store was both epic and fantastic.” Sónia explained the company’s thinking. “We wanted to bring the Portuguese brand to the centre of the world. To make a statement about the company, the industry and Portugal itself.”

Beyond their culinary and nutritional attributes, canned Portuguese sardines hold a special place in the cultural fabric of Portugal, symbolising the country’s maritime heritage and deep connection to the sea, something which continues to this day.


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