We come across the store by chance, and step into the shade it offers from Lisbon’s blazing midday sun. My gaze is caught by the giant stuffed sardine dangling in front of the entrance. Emerging from the white-tiled walls, hundreds of cans in all the colors of the rainbow drew me in. I look around for a counter with fresh fish. Nothing. At least Pastel de Bacalhao? Oh, they only sell canned fish, hm. At least the cans are pretty to look at. My initial skepticism dissolves into thin air, when a young Portuguese woman offers me some canned mackerel on a cracker. It’s not only not bad, but quite the opposite. Whoever thought fish could only be good fresh, has something to learn at “Loja das Conservas“.
The selection is so big that at first, I’m slightly overwhelmed. Tuna? Sardines? Or would mussels be better? Canned in spicy tomato sauce, in lemon, or just olive oil? Smoked, cooked or raw? Luckily there are lots of samples to taste. Seafarers, fishers and deities gaze at me from the beautifully designed cans. Saint Catherine holds a tuna in her arm protectively, as if it were the fishy incarnation of the Saviour. The poor longshoremen of the 19th century could probably never have dared to dream of their favorite food being granted this much love and attention.
I learn from Sara, who is responsible for the business, that Loja Conservas is a project of the Portuguese National Association of Industry for canned fish (ANICP). The basic idea was to provide a space, in which the products of all the fish factories in Portugal would be united for the first time. In that way, along with providing delicious canned fish, the business also functions as a ‘museum’ for the tradition of Portuguese fish canning. The oldest of the 30 brands they carry has 160 years of history at its heels. And indeed, looking at the cans feels like being transported back in time. Many of the brands retain a vintage appearance which comes across as naturally as if the cans contained the quintessence of Portuguese cuisine. My mind’s eye instantly pictures rough, hard-working men on their short breaks, greedily devouring sardines in oil. These are the small wheels that keep a large fish nation running, whose history I can amuse myself with in the here and now today.
In the meantime canned fish has developed into a delicacy. Delicatessens of some distinction naturally carry a wide array of canned fish of all stripes. They even have vintage sardines. So it isn’t surprising that Loja Conservas also serves sardine eggs, or ‘Portuguese caviar’ for the more discerning canned fish lovers.
Thanks to the gracious vendor who takes confused customers like me by the hand and helps them channel their initial overwhelmed state into formulated requests, we go for mackerel, sardines and smoked mussels. Without her I probably would have stared at the sea of cans for hours, unable to make the simplest decision. Of course I also need to bring gifts home with me. And since canned fish on crackers actually works surprisingly well, we get a pack at the grocery store a few steps away and make our way to the waterfront for a picnic. The cans are almost too beautiful to open. I still have an unopened can of sardines in my kitchen. I just can’t bring myself to destroy it. But the further this vacation recedes into the distance, the closer the can is to its last hour.
Pictures: Pedro Cruz Gomes