Saturday, August 13, 2022 | Muharram 14, 1444 H
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In Portugal, Taking a Dive Into Sardines

Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, is the capital of one of the country’s major industries, fish canning. Canned sardines are having a moment in the food world. With exquisitely decorated tins, perceived if questionable sustainability and the decadence of being drenched in oil, they’ve earned a devoted following among youngish people who love them with their whole heart. At Conservas Pinhais e Cia in Matosinhos, a fish-canning factory just a few miles from the center of Porto, visitors are invited to see that their new favorite treat is, in fact, a very old operation.

The workforce is almost all female, a tradition set by the fact that, historically, men went to sea while women stayed behind and dealt with the catch. It is not uncommon for generations of women to work in the factory, with mothers, daughters and aunts finding steady jobs canning. ​​Indeed, the tour of the sardine factory begins with a video of a Portuguese daughter, waiting for her father to make it through a storm. (He does.)

“That film is dedicated to all the families of our fishermen, for the stress they endure,” said the guide Olga Santos, at the start of a recent tour. Thus begins the entry to the wonderful, reverent world of canned sardines.

The 90-minute tour, which Pinhais introduced in November 2021, starts in an office originally built in 1926 and complete with rotary phones and a pulley system, on which orders would be attached to a rope and sent down to the factory floor, separating the office from the fish canning itself.

After the video of the fishermen’s families and one about how the fish’s seasonings are sourced, the screen rises to reveal a window on the working factory. You leave the impeccably decorated display area — the original founders shaped the stairwell so that when you look up in the factory foyer you see the outline of a sardine — for the nitty-gritty work area.

After donning protective coverings, you enter along a walkway that runs around the edge of a mostly open floor, divided only by arched windows, save for a few offices where workers are typing 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 either 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. All extra parts go to animal food manufacturers, Santos tells us.

After the whacking, the remaining bodies are placed in a vertical container in individual slots that makes it look as though dozens of headless sardines are attending a lecture in a small hall. The auditorium is sent through a shower before entering a large oven, where the fish are cooked for 15 minutes. Then comes the delicate packing of the fish into their tins, by hand, before the tins are filled with olive oil using machinery, introduced a few years ago. In a promotional book you can purchase in the gift store, a few factory workers lament the new oil machine, remembering fondly getting “really covered” with the olive oil, which comes from the nearby Douro Valley.

The tins are sealed by machine, which accounts for some of the loud noise on the floor. Also loud is the constant flow of water, which rings throughout the factory as the sardines are washed several times before they’re cooked. Other noises are harder to track: the oil spray, the wheels of pulleys rolling the fish from station to station, and the steam ovens all seem to create enough clamor that guests are given headphones to hear the guide while on the floor.

Finally, everything is packaged with lightning speed in what amounts to wrapping paper. You’re given a chance to try this yourself in a closed-off room after exiting the tour and unwrapping yourself from the PPE, but it’s impossible to match the dexterity of the wrappers on the factory floor who wield the yellow, green and blue papers with astonishing ease.--nyt

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