In recent years, I have written several times about sardines and the best places to eat them during Santos Populales. Conversations with fishermen, fishmongers, and the most honest restaurant and grill owners invariably ended the same way. “It’s still not good. Only there it’s more closer to July or August.” They shrugged as if someone was suggesting that they would sell and eat anyway, and I left with my mouth open, asking myself “so why the hell are we doing this?”
By “it” I mean grilled sardines in the month of June, when the only smoke you bring home after a long night is fishy and greasy. It is clear that the sardine fishing season is from May to October. It is currently not illegal to eat it. But if she is not so fat, so good that she drips on bread, is this a good solution? Where does the uncontrolled impulse come from?
Of course the tradition
The cultural forces are certainly unstoppable regarding “sardines”. I called Virgilio Nogueira Gomes, gastronomist and passionate researcher of gastronomy and culture, hoping to get some answers. As soon as he answered the call and told him that I was writing about sardines, he replied: “I already have some good ones in Setúbal.” Good news for him, bad news for me, who for a moment saw the engine of these questions stall in front of me. He later agreed that they were an exception, that a few days later in Lisbon they were thin and boring.
Shortly thereafter, he emphasized his age, claiming that there were times when good sardines were eaten during Santos Populales and even in May. His memory goes even further, to the book Culinária Portuguesa written by Olleboma in 1936. In the table about the Portuguese fish and its season, sardines appear in place from June to October, just in time for St. Anthony, the first saint. By the time the book was published, sardines were already being eaten at parties in Lisbon, and it wasn’t until a few years later, in the 1940s, that the fashion came to São João do Porto, says Helder Pacheco, professor of social and cultural history at Porto, in an interview with Vision.
For Pedro Bastos of the fish and seafood company Nutrifresco, fluctuations in the quality of sardines over the years and between the months of catching them are not an inconsistency. Plus let me know on the phone: you need to understand what a “good sardine” is. “If you talk to anyone here in the Algarve, they will tell you that there are already good sardines there. We appreciate small sardines that get fat faster. On the northern coast, it grows more, but gets fat later,” he explains.
Let’s add some science
Pedro Bastos is working closely with fishermen and restaurants to create a more sustainable fishing and consumption pattern. When he started working with sardines, he was used to eating fatty sardines or not two days apart. “Shoals are not all on an equal footing. A few days ago I was sitting in a restaurant and the sardines of the day were terrible, but you still had yesterday’s, you went to fry them and they were really good,” he says.
It’s all about the biological cycle of the sardine, which is not the same for all schools. If in June it depends on luck to catch fat individuals that properly stained bread, then from July it is not so much: sardines reach their peak to spawn later, at the end of the hot weather. Since spring, the life of sardines is to gain fat, but when the water is very cold, it wears out that layer that seasons the bread so that it stays warm and does not accumulate. A difference of one degree in water temperature is important, says Pedro Bastos. Extremely cold winters can slow the growth of these critters.
There are, of course, other factors: currents and the presence of phytoplankton (precisely because of the presence of this food, shallows, like off the Portuguese coast) or even changes in food chains, that is, the presence of predators. “A 200 kg tuna eats 10 to 12 kg of sardines a day,” says Pedro Bastos. This is a hole in the availability of sardines and their ability to develop.
Another threat is overfishing, and in recent years, even before the demise of popular festivals due to Covid-19, there have been those who have envisioned a future where saints won’t smell like sardines. 2015 was one of the worrisome years and the price has tripled from the pre-2011 average price. At auctions, they cost more than 2 euros per kilogram, and in urban roasteries the same amount per unit. I have a news report in my mind where they ran into a man at the grill with 2 euros who asked for a sardine on a slice of bread. He protested: “Others may be cheaper, but they have frozen sardines since D. Afonso Henriques.”
according to International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), in 2015 stock The number of Iberian sardines has decreased by 10 times compared to the 1980s. In 2019, a controversial reduction in sardine quotas by the Portuguese government took its toll, and in the same year the schools began to recover. The last few years show that the presence of these fish on the Atlantic coast can be quickly restored, as they multiply massively. Females produce about 20,000 eggs per spawn. Today, the price has approached the popular calling of this fish, which, in the end, brought us here.
sardines with everyone
“The abundance of this fish, the vast coastline and the traditional attachment to fishing gear have created favorable conditions in Portugal for the widespread consumption of this food,” says Alvaro Garrido, professor of fisheries history and marine economics at the University of Coimbra. in an interview with National Geographic.
To this we can add the historical and cultural tendency of large fish to serve themselves at the rich tables of the aristocracy and nobility, and small fish to remain at the workers. A number of folk proverbs help paint a picture in which sardines are synonymous with poverty. “Eat sardines and burp hake”, “From the throat down, chicken tastes as good as sardines” or “You don’t have sardines in your house and you ask for chicken in someone else’s house,” Virgilio Gomes is quoted as saying.
In a poor diet with little variety and controlled meat, small fish, sardines would be quite present, and who has never heard a story about poverty in which one sardine fed three or four?
It seems that there are few such popular ingredients – such popular ones. pop As for the sardines. Few also with a certain common calling. In Traditional Portuguese Cuisine, a collection of recipes from all over the country compiled by Maria de Lourdes Modesto, a curious recipe appears in the chapter on Extremadura: sardinhada. It’s not just grilled sardines, and the list of ingredients is clear: “6 to 10 sardines per person (depending on sardine size and guests’ appetite)”, in addition to boiled potatoes and a roasted pepper salad. So sardines are a fixed recipe, made up, open bar for a party, the bigger the better.
Therefore, the dish is ideal for this occasion. As if all this alignment of factors wasn’t enough (which is only missing the fact, which seems to be expendable, that sardines are really fatty), eating sardines has become an event in the cycle of the year. As an equinox, it signals the arrival of warm weather, sunshine, and holidays. We celebrate “the first ones we ate this year”, as we will do with stew in a few months, and we celebrate the date of the first ones that arrived really well, as a sign that the year does not return and that since then it has always will grow in joy until the end of summer.
If we’re going to officially start this time of freedom that is summer, we don’t want to know if they were greasy, if the coals were burning, or if the cook had fulfilled his one mission: not to mess up. We understand in advance that it is impossible to find a dish with half a dozen worthy sardines on the night of Santo António. After all, the grillman sweats for hours on the sidewalk, listening to people scream, with tribute band Quim Barreiros playing in the background. Anyone who believes that love is an integral part must agree that the less noble feelings of this person will also spice up the fish. But let him hurry up with the sardines so we can officially put the cold weather behind us.