The fish passes from hand to hand, in a journey of wisdom and taste that’s as old as the process of food preservation itself, discovered by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in the early 19th century. The technique requires the hands of many people—mostly women, and on the production line we usually find several generations from the same family. Machines also assist in the canning process. Often, in the final stage of canning, experienced hands are brought in to wrap each can, with a mastery that time and repetition has helped perfect.
Portugal’s canning industry carries the most weight on the scale of national exports. About 70% of production leaves the country and each can takes more than just fish with it. It requires the art of preparation which is anchored in experience and more recently, it takes our extraordinary ability to turn difficult situations around.
It was at the beginning of the 20th century, with the outbreak of the First World War, that the Portuguese canning industry reached its peak. Each can represented nourishment for soldiers on both sides of the conflict that ravaged the world. By 1920, more than 400 factories spanned the country.
After World War II, with no troops to feed, sales fell sharply. Other problems such as overfishing and the entry of North African competitors caused many companies to fail. According to the National Association of Canned Fish Industry, only 20 canning factories remain in Portugal today.
Innovation and communication. This would be the key to success.
Spreading the message of its health benefits was a decisive step. Raising the Omega-3 flag and the flag of other healthy components that nobody really remembers by name, (… vaguely) but we all know that we need, is a very important detail. Realizing the growing appetite for healthier products, the industry adapted, offering products preserved in water and featuring low salt content.
Innovating recipes and demonstrating the simple fact that in order for you to become a true Gourmet Chef, you need a few fundamental ingredients in your pantry—canned sardines, marinated eel, squid in tomato sauce and maybe a spicy tuna.
Since we also eat with our eyes, innovation in packaging design was crucial. Be it the revival of vintage designs, commissioning visual artists who have their art printed on cans or with social inclusion projects such as “Miúdos especiais com muita lata” (which loosely translates to “Special kids with moxy”), where Comur, one of Portugal’s oldest canning companies challenged a group of autistic children to illustrate a special edition of cans. All this has led to the opening of boutiques that look less like stores and more like rooms displaying a sliver of Portugal’s history.
Innovation and communication helped this sector of the economy rise from the ashes and transform itself into something highly profitable, dynamic and quite beautiful.
These pieces of us have taken on the role of ambassador for Portuguese culture, of excellence in terms of fish and now more than ever, of innovativion.