All vacations are sort of an observation of other people working while you don’t. A stay at a hotel testifies to maids and hosts; dinner sees chefs, busboys and waiters; an excursion requires an accompanying guide, a driver, a boat mechanic if you are lucky. But there’s a twist to going to a working factory to stand on a raised platform watching the locals do hard, old-fashioned work, while you escape your own labor.
Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, is the capital of one of the country’s main industries, fish canning. Canned sardines are having a moment in the food world. With exquisitely decorated boxes perceived to be of dubious durability and the decadence of being drenched in oil, they have won a devoted following among young people who love them dearly. At Conservas Pinhais e Cia in Matosinhos, a fish canning factory a few miles from central Porto, visitors are invited to see that their new favorite treat is, in fact, a very old operation.
Founded in 1920 by two brothers and two external partners, Pinhais is considered one of the best suppliers of canned fish in the saturated Portuguese market. The company’s factory is one of the few to have survived a major shift in sardine production to West Africa, where more than half of all sardines are now canned. Sardines are a favorite of diners in the fish-centric city and are a favorite across Europe, although American diners may be more familiar with the company’s international label, Nuri, which is bright yellow. and available in specialty stores and delicatessens. The fish are known for their high quality and perfect seasoning – and now, on a tour of the working factory, sardine lovers can see exactly how it’s made.
The workforce is almost entirely female, a tradition established by the fact that, historically, men went to sea while women stayed behind and took care of the catch. It is not uncommon for generations of women to work in the factory, with mothers, daughters and aunts finding stable jobs in the cannery. Indeed, the visit to the sardine factory begins with a video of a Portuguese girl, waiting for her father to weather a storm. (He does.)
“This film is dedicated to all the families of our fishermen, for the stress they endure,” said guide Olga Santos, at the start of a recent tour. Thus begins the entry into the wonderful and respectful world of canned sardines.
The 90-minute tour, which Pinhais introduced in November 2021, begins in an office originally built in 1926 and complete with rotary telephones and a pulley system, on which orders would be tied to a rope and sent to the factory, separating the office from the fish canning itself.
After the video of the fishing families and the one on the origin of the seasonings of the fish, the screen rises to reveal a window on the factory in operation. You leave the immaculately decorated exhibition area – the original founders fashioned the stairwell so that when you look down into the factory hall you see the outline of a peg – for the work area serious.
After donning protective coverings, you enter along a walkway that skirts the edge of a mostly open floor, divided only by arched windows except for a few desks where workers type on laptops. The first thing you see is a table of women cutting chili peppers, bay leaves and pickles to fill the spicy versions of the company’s four varieties of sardines, which are offered in tomato sauce or olive oil.
In the next area, the fish are bathed in salt water before having their heads and tails cut off with fish knives, which leaves some of the workers’ aprons stained with blood and guts. Any extra parts go to pet food manufacturers, Santos tells us.
After the hit, the remaining bodies are placed in a vertical container in individual slots, making it look like dozens of headless sardines are attending a conference in a small room. The auditorium is sent through a shower before entering a large oven, where fish are cooked for 15 minutes. Next comes the delicate packing of the fish in their boxes, by hand, before the boxes are filled with olive oil using machines, introduced a few years ago. In a promotional book you can buy from the gift shop, a few factory workers lament the new oil machine, fondly remembering being “really slathered” in olive oil, which comes from the valley neighbor of the Douro.
The boxes are machine sealed, which explains some of the loud floor noise. Also noisy is the constant flow of water, which echoes throughout the factory as the sardines are washed several times before being cooked. Other noises are harder to follow: the squirting of oil, pulley wheels rolling fish from station to station, and steam ovens all seem to create enough clamor for patrons to receive headphones to hear the guide when they are on the ground.
Finally, everything is wrapped at lightning speed in what amounts to wrapping paper. You have the option to try it yourself in a closed room after leaving the tour and unpacking the PPE, but there’s no matching the dexterity of the factory wrappers brandishing the yellow papers, greens and blues with astonishing ease.
Ms. Santos told us that “on a good day,” canned women often sing. And, when we entered the factory, the cannery was really in full chorus, even though the words were indistinguishable above the sound, even if you spoke Portuguese. Whether the singing is truly spontaneous is unclear, but the myth of women singing arises when speaking to locals familiar with the factory. Either way, it seems just as likely that singing is the best way to communicate over the hum of sardine canning, whether it’s a good day or not.
The tour ends with a sample of the sardines you just saw canned, accompanied by bread from a local bakery and optional wine. The sardines, it must be said, are delicious. (And the smell in the factory is of freshly caught sardines going in and out of the salt water.)
“I love sardines,” 57-year-old Sandra van Diessen from the Netherlands told me enthusiastically after the tour, as we debated the merits of deboning our free samples. (You’re not supposed to, Ms. Santos told us, but the three of us laughed that we all did anyway, out of habit more than necessity.) After opening last fall and , with approximately 70 visits offered per week, in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French, the factory has to date welcomed 2,821 sardine lovers. (Tours cost 14 euros per person for adults, with an additional 3 euros for wine; 8 euros for children.)
The city of Porto seemed proud of its global industry. Throughout the small town, everyone I spoke to about the Pinhais factory shared the same sentiments: these are good jobs, they are cherished employees, and the fact that the factory exists is a credit to the region it -same.
“They are valuable to us,” Marta Azevedo, communications director for ANCIP, Portugal’s largest canning union, said of Pinhais. “It’s the best canned fish we have, it’s the best place to work.”
But what about payment? It’s “not very good,” she admitted, estimating that the women earned around 800 euros a month, or about $832.
“But in Portugal the wages are very low,” she continued. “They are well paid, for Portugal.”
Canned sardines are a common dish served throughout Portugal, and specialty shops in town, like the immaculate Loja das Conservas on the steep slope of Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira, a few blocks from the Douro River, are dedicated to celebrating Pinhais products, as well as other local brands like Minerva. In partnership with ANCIP, Loja has yet to resume tastings since the pandemic, but the nearby Mercearia das Flores, on the quieter Rua das Flores, offers full tastings. Both stores, like the factory, are run by women, and you can accompany your sardines on toast with local wines and fine chocolates.
For a more decadent take on the classic bread and fish dish, A Sandeira Sandwich Shop pairs canned goodies with a perfect red pepper spread, all served on mismatched vintage china from a nearby hardware store. Nearby, the Aduela bar, located on Rua das Oliveiras, also serves the most classic version: sardines on toast with fresh tomatoes. Particularly perfect for people looking to spend very little in a trendy place, this is a great place to kick off a round of sardines.
There is, perhaps, a small quarrel between those who serve the sardines fresh and those who serve them canned, according to the owner of Loja das Conservas, who told me grimly that “nobody knows” why the best restaurants will not serve the city’s famous canned offering. Visitors wishing to try the fresh fish have many options, including the excellent Meia-Nau, where they are grilled to perfection. The modern restaurant, located on chic Travessa de Cedofeita, requires reservations for dinner, but lunch is more open to visitors without a plan. If you happen to ask about the fresh versus canned debate, be sure to mention Loja – the owner of Meia-Nau, it turns out, is the son of the shop’s founder. In Porto, after all, sardines are a family affair.