Sardines are part of a group of teleosteos abdominai fish and acquire the scientific name “Sardinha pilchardus”. Don’t think that I will continue talking in this type of language or the technical definitions of this marvelous fish that identifies us (portugueses) in the World.

Sardines have always been associated to lower class food and recently we have seen great chefs use sardines in high profile gastronomy or signature cuisine.

Nobody, more than the Portuguese, appreciates sardines on a piece of mixed meal bread. Of course instinctively the tradition of eating sardines is associated to the season where the taste is at its best. That is why during the popular Saint celebrations in June, the sardine is transformed into the culinary emblem. The saying goes, “During Saint John, the sardine drips on the bread”. Of course it is also the culinary element during Saint Anthony. It is actually during this time that the sardine is fat, its skin comes off easily and its fat soaks the bread in a gluttonous way.

Domingos Rodrigues (1680), author of the first recipe book in Portugal, suggests the months of November and December although he does not give us any recipe. Lucas Rigaud (1780) does not even mention sardines. Now Joao da Mata (1876) honors it with three recipes: Sardines a Mata, Sardinhas em Pastelinhos a Portuguesa, and Sardinhas em Espiches.

Olleboma (1936), author of Culinaria Portuguesa recommended that sardines be eaten between the months of June to October because this was when they tasted the best and he says “sardines are the most abundant fish in the whole of the Portuguese coast… one eats it fresh, salted and preserved in olive oil” He presents various ways of cooking sardines and recipes of sardines fried, grilled or cooked on coal, stuffed and fried with tomato sauce a moda de Setúbal (Setúbal style).

I will not continue naming the presence of sardines in the classic recipes of Portuguese food. I must, however, reiterate the importance that the preserving industry has had during the twentieth century. The system of preserving food after it has been cooked and isolating the air, was discovered by a French cook called Appert in as early as 1804. However, it is in England in 1810 that the first preservation industry was established in tin. This final product was too expensive due to the way it was handled. It is curious to find a sardine recipe in the famous book that I directly translate from French to “The delicacies of the table and the best types of food”, by Ibn Tujibi, written between 1238 and 1266 and published during the dynasties of Almohade and Merinide, who reigned over Al Andalus and Maghreb. It is strange because the sardine was considered a popular or inferior fish.

It would be easy to admit that the sardine was one of the fish the Romans used to eat and was one of the elements that was part of the famous garum. This was a fish paste used as a system for preserving the fish after the boats arrived. We have information on them making this paste in Setubal and Monte Gordo which is where the first preserving industries were established.


During the Middle Ages there were up to 240 meat fasting days which made sea food the basis of food. Sardines were of primary importance. It appears that in the first “restaurant” set up in the Praca da Ribeira, o Mal Cozinhado, used to fry the fish and serve it on slices of bread.

The sardine became popular because of its price and eating it grilled on coal became the best way to savor it.

During the twentieth Century, the sardine had its time of glory and abandonment. It no longer was a dish to be served at refined or well to do tables. They were sent to the inland in barrels of salt because the Galician workers were hired to work the land and they would not abdicate from eating fish. Another way of preserving the fish led to the creation of recipes such as sardine pies or sardine bread cake.

The importance of the sardine was, and is, so great that it was adopted in many proverbs and sayings to mean different things:

“From the throat downwards, it makes no difference whether it tastes like chicken or sardine”

“At home you don’t even have sardines and when you are at someone else’s house you ask for chicken”

“Never eat only chicken or only sardine”

“Women and sardines are tasty when they are small”

“Women and sardines get feistier the bigger they are”

“There is no food worse than the sardine nor an ass worse than a donkey”

“If you have sardines, don’t go looking for turkey”

“To be packed like a can of sardines”

“To eat sardines and burp hake”

“To take the sardine with the cat’s hand”

For all occasions and all reasons.

In my opinion, grilled sardines are a differentiating element in Portuguese food. The neighboring countries that eat sardines, like Spain, France or Italy, do not make them like we do. And definitely not the way we gather around the grill and socialize while eating sardines. And the simple way in which we do it by eating with our hands and a piece of bread. Of course we always have a wonderful green pepper salad and good wine to go with it.

I remember only one place where I ate sardines and felt that I could be in Portugal. It was Essaouira, Marrocco, which is an old Portuguese square in Mogador. Close to the fish market there are types of restaurants which only have some tables in a row and we simply have to choose the fish. The bread, tomato salad and soft drinks are included (it is a Moslem state and there is a Mosque nearby). I chose three types of fish and timidly only two sardines. When the fish came I started with the sardines and immediately asked for six more. I went back there more often just to eat sardines.


Bon Apetit!


© Virgilio Nogueiro Gomes

© Photo by Adriana Freire