Portugal Sardines – Why you should savour Sardines in Portugal

In Portugal, sardines have a very special status. In fact, sardines have become Portugal’s symbol! Sardines are a delicacy, present at any table in Portugal. If you are planning a trip to Portugal, then you know you must eat grilled sardines as well. Read on and we will share everything we know about Portuguese sardines, so you know just what to look for when you arrive.

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Why are the Portuguese in love with sardines?

Portugal is a small country with the largest fishing area in Europe. Its coastline stretches along an impressive 943 kilometers towards the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, the population has always had a great connection to the sea.

Portugal sardines
Popular brands of Portuguese tinned sardines

Since the waters held an abundance of sardines, they quickly became the most caught species. Fresh sardines were poor people’s food. For decades, the population survived off the land and the sea. So they had to be creative. They began to dry or salt sardines and exchange them for meat and vegetables from rural areas.

As the Portugal fishing industry developed, the canning industry flourished all along the coastline. Tinned sardines quickly became accessible to everyone, especially in the countryside. During World War II, canning factories played an important role by providing enough canned foods, both for soldiers and the population.

Sardine canning factory opened in 1928 in Povoa de Varzim

The Portuguese have been in love with sardines for centuries.

After the war, the canning industry almost disappeared when most factories closed. After many years of downfall, today, young entrepreneurs are recovering an old tradition by creating new and delicious cans of preserved sardine. You will be surprised to find how tasty canned sardines can be.

Modern Day Portugal Sardines

While visiting Portugal, you will discover plenty of sardine recipes. “Sardinhas de Escabeche” fried sardines covered in tomato sauce or fried sardines with tomato rice are the most common ways to have this fish in Portugal. When there is no time for cooking, a can of sardines, boiled potato, and a tomato and lettuce salad seasoned with olive oil is a simple course everyone enjoys. However, grilled sardines are the top favorite.

The traditional “Sardinhada” is a casual get-together among friends and family, who have a Saturday lunch full of grilled fish. Usually, the Portuguese organize “Sardinhadas” in one’s backyard and drink a fresh cold beer or Sangria. It is common for the “Sardinhada” to extend into the afternoon.

Sardine BBQ (Sardinhada)
Sardinhada (Sardine BBQ)

However, Portuguese eating habits are changing. For the past decade, sardines registered a diminishing stock. Between the effects of climate change and overfishing, sardines were at risk of becoming extinct. As a result, the fishing quotas were updated to lower levels, and the prices escalated. These events led the population to look for more inexpensive options. Nowadays, it is common to find tuna, horse mackerel, or blue mackerel at any “Sardinhada”.

 If you are visiting Portugal but do not know any locals who would invite you to a “Sardinhada”, there are some places where you can enjoy the experience.

Where to Try Sardines in Portugal

In the traditional Lisbon neighborhoods of Bairro Alto, Alfama, or Mouraria, you can have grilled sardines along the narrow cobbled streets. Choose a small restaurant and enjoy a serving of sardine with the locals.

Sardines World, Lisbon

On Saint Anthony’s day, the feast day of the city’s patron, locals set up charcoal barbecues on the street and spend the night eating grilled sardines.

You can find similar celebrations in Porto. However, in this city, the popular saints’ festivities happen during Saint John’s Day.

In the Algarve, you can find an outdoor “Sardinhada” at Arrifana. On the last Saturday of July, the local fishermen organize a party to thank the village’s patron for another great fishing year. At the harbor, you will find plenty of charcoal barbecues that you can use to grill your fish.

When and Where to Buy Sardines

The best time to have quality sardines is between May and August. During this period, sardines are fully grown and get closer to shore to feed.

Fresh sardines in Algarve fish market

You will find the freshest fish on the Portuguese coast at local markets. To select the best fish, you must pay attention to its eyes. The freshest is always the shiniest. Another detail to consider when buying sardines or having them at a local restaurant between Tuesdays and Saturdays. Why? It is simple! Fishing boats do not go out to sea on Sundays and Mondays. So, if you find “fresh” fish for sale on a Monday, it might be two days old.

If you are looking for quality canned fish, then local supermarkets or specialized shops are the perfect places. You will find cans with cooked sardines, octopus, and seafood served in tomato sauce or with spices and garlic.

Eating Grilled Sardines Like a Local

While in Portugal, you will notice that most people do not use cutlery to eat sardines. It is all done by hand, even at restaurants!

Since sardines are small fish, we ate them whole. They prepare the fish with sea salt and placed them on the charcoal barbecue. And this is where the experience begins. The smell of charcoal, smoke, and fresh fish on the grill will involve you, making you feel eager to start eating.

Sardinhas assadas

To have grilled fish like a local, you must have a slice of traditional bread from the Alentejo region. Then, get a Portuguese sardine straight out of the grill and place it on the bread. You will see how the bread soaks up the unburnt sea salt on the fish’s skin, as well as its oil.

Some people eat their sardines with the skin. Others prefer the taste of salty and smokey skin against the greasy white flesh. We recommend you try both ways and then decide which is your favorite. Grab the sardine with both hands, and eat its flesh in the middle. In the end, you must eat the bread. It will be soft and soak up from the fish juices and seasoning. You can also try different flavors by adding lemon, Piri Piri, or spiced olive oil.

Take a cooking class while you are in Portugal

The Original Recipe

Would you like to have your own “Sardinhada”? We will help you!

After finding the freshest sardines and mackerel at the local market, season them with sea salt and let them rest for a few hours. There is not a specific measure of salt. You can add it to your taste.

Grilled sardines

The secret to the perfect grilled sardines is the charcoal grill. Burn the charcoal to the point of ember and place the sardines on the grid. The grease on the sardines will set the charcoal in flames, which might burn it. A simple trick is to cover the ember with some ashes. This way, you will have enough heat without the flames.

The sardines are ready after a few minutes. Serve them with boiled potatoes and a tomato salad, seasoned with olive oil and vinegar. Finally, a cool glass of sweet Sangria or white or rosé wine is the perfect combination.