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Why Sardines are the Symbol of Portugal’s Culture and Cuisine

blog image of Portuguese sardines on a plate with lemon

If we had to choose just one symbol to represent Portugal, there is an excellent chance that the Sardine would be it. This little fish has become a traditional, and emblematic symbol of Portuguese cuisine and culture.

The history of Sardines in Portugal is closely tied to the fishing industry and the coastal communities. Portugal mainly lives open on the sea and most of its culture is related to the Atlantic Ocean where fishing, exploring, and trading have been, for the country, their gold mine for centuries.

Portuguese have been fishing Sardines for edges from the northern cities of Viana do Castelo or Porto to the south of the Algarve. On the Alentejo coastline, some fisherman villages from the stone’s edge are still visible.

Portugal’s canned Sardine factories

Using boats and fish nets, the Sardine industry boomed in the 19th and early 20th centuries when canning factories were established along the coast, allowing Sardines to be preserved and exported worldwide. Rapidly, techniques and fishing boats evolved to modernity and the excellent location of Portugal created fortunes in Sardine cans.

In Portugal, Sardine is a staple part of the cuisine. The tradition of grilling Sardines over charcoal is an integral part of Portuguese cuisine, particularly during the summer months. The aroma of freshly grilled Sardines fills the air, attracting locals and tourists alike. 

sardines in a can on a table next to a fork and salt and pepper

Sardines of Santo Antonio, Lisbon

Popular festivals such as the “Festival of Santo Antonio” in Lisbon, or the “Festival of Saint Peter” in Porto, feature Sardines as the center of the celebrations. Streets are adorned with Sardine decorations, and people come together to enjoy grilled Sardines, often accompanied by traditional Portuguese bread and wine.

Sardines hold a significant place in Portuguese culture and gastronomy. The simplest fish Portugal has to offer has also grown in popularity outside local markets and ports within the canned goods industry. Sardines contribute to the local economy and employment, as the fishing industry and canning factories provide livelihoods to many coastal communities.

When is Sardine Season in Portugal?

The annual Sardine season, typically from May to October, brings an economic boost through tourism, local markets, and the sale of canned Sardines. With over a century dedicated to the Sardine industry, Portugal has learned how to benefit fully from this resource.

The Sardine: A Symbol of art & authenticity

Sardines have also become a cultural symbol in Portugal. Given its strong history related to the oceanic identity of the country, the symbol of Sardine got stronger throughout the 20th century, representing national identity and resilience. 

Associated with simplicity, authenticity, and the country’s coastal heritage, the Sardine has also now started to feature in artwork. Numerous representations of the fish have turned the Sardine into a symbolic figure, which has been a positive development for both Portuguese locals and tourists alike.

Nowadays, Sardines are depicted in various forms of art, including ceramics, paintings, and sculptures, serving as a visual representation of Portuguese culture alongside the rooster, a more traditional symbolic animal for Portugal.

So now you’ve discovered why the Sardine is such an important figure in Portuguese culture and cuisine, why not try this popular fish for yourself? Click on the links to find out more about local food tours in Lisbon or Porto.