Packing sardines

Remember the lithography, well today I thought I’d share a little bit on the critical stage before – the canning of the fish (bancada de enlatamento), a practice which began in France in the 1820s. It was Portugal though that was to become the leading worldwide exporter of canned fish. This was mostly I think because of the abundance of sardines off the Portuguese coast rather than innovative business practice as the majority of canneries were foreign owned, generally French or Spanish. Amazingly Portugal remains one of the leading exporters, with canned fish accounting for one third of their seafood exports.

Tools of the trade

Whilst we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the canning industry exhibition in Vila Real de Santo António it isn’t the best place to glean exactly what the canning process entails. Or maybe it is simply that Mr B and I always have additional questions!

Baskets which suggest tuna, but look more like sardines

We had known prior to our visit that in the 19th/20th century that the majority of factory workers were female, as the men were out capturing the fish. However what we were less clear about are the working hours and conditions. For example were the women in the factory throughout this process, or were some or all of them sent home at the various salting or drying stages? And how long did the process take from arrival of first fish to sealing of the last can? I have no answers to these specific questions at the moment, however we have gleaned the following;

  • After reception of fresh sardines or tuna in the town, the women were called into the factories by ‘sirens’, and immediately set to work.
  • The first step for sardines was for them to be cleaned and covered in fine salt.
  • After a few hours, the fish would be gutted and their heads removed before being cleaned again. 
  • This street art is from original picturesThe fish would then be placed on grills to dry. Apparently this step gave the fish a better shine and help avoid deterioration when it was deep fried.
  • After deep frying the fish was then allowed to cool on racks before being transferred to the ‘dobadouras’ (as pictured), from which the women would then pack them in the tins ready for oiling.
  • The best tasting sardines and tuna were those canned in olive oil, and that remains the case today.
  • The final stage was for the tins to be sealed and then passed through an ‘autoclave’ for sterilisation.

The process for tuna was very similar apart from the fact that tuna had to be sliced before cooking, and the bones removed before packing. As you can imagine all of these canning processes were incredibly labour intensive, and whilst some technology would have been brought in over the years most stages remained a manual process up until the factories closed in the mid 20th century. Their closure therefore when the tuna found a new migratory route would have had a dramatic impact on the employment opportunities for women.

Packing sardines

Sources and other Information:

  • For more historical photographs of the fishing and canning industry in the Algarve check out this fabulous Can the Can gallery
  • Some of this info is taken from “Nearly two centuries of fish canning : an historical look at European exports of canned fish”. Well worth a read if you are interested. Available here.
  • Do also take a peek at this excellent overview on the history of canned sardines, also found on the Can the Can website.
  • The black and white art can be found on the walls of two buildings in Olhao, just around the corner from the small Pingo Doce near the harbour. I have more photographs here.
  • Sardines are not just fish, it is also a children’s hide and seek game. One person hides and then everyone else has to find them. The finder then joins them in the hiding place. And as more finders discover the hiding place, it begins to feel as though everyone is packed in a small tin like sardines!

Author: BeckyB

It's a good life walking, cooking, photographing, volunteering, reading, blogging, and best of all spending time with family, friends & the cat!

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