Growing up in a land locked state, fish is not something you eat often, it isn’t even something you think about often. I never knew much about the slippery little guys. If someone ever offered me $1 million to correctly debone a whole fish on my dinner plate…well I wouldn’t have a million dollars. That is until this past week. I have learned more about fish in one week then in 29 years and I owe my crash course to Portugal.
Last week nine University of Gastronomic Science Students embarked with our fearless tutor to Porto where we were greeted by our local guide for our third study trip of the masters course. In between swigs of Port and Duoro Wines, we devoured Bacahlau in all of its many…many…many forms and admired the beautiful tile buildings adorning the streets. There was one day in particular that captured my heart. In only a few hours we followed the fish from the boat to the cannery meeting wonderful people along the way.
Starting off in the port we watched the fisherman unloading their catch from their boats. While we might have still been awakening from our sleepy haze waiting for the coffee to kick in, they had been working for over 8 hours. As the crates were hoisted off of the boat people gathered to get a closer look at the loot.
The crates were wheeled into the auction room where purveyors contemplated whether to purchase or to wait. We were with Mr. Pinhais owner of a small cannery near the port. Lucky for us, he liked what he saw and decided to purchase the silvery treasure.
As soon as Mr. Pinhais made up his mind an older woman with a beautifully embroidered apron sprang into action. Motioning for us to follow her, she quickly bee-lined to the outer edges of the auction facility. There two other woman were waiting, both wearing equally impressive clean pressed embroidered aprons. New crates were set on a pallet and a container of salt sat atop a stool just next to the pallet. As an employee from the auction brought the fish they quickly and systematically poured the fish into new containers. As the fish hit the container the two older women showered them with coarse salt to help the preservation. This was the first step to being canned.
Next stop for us and the fish was the cannery, we quickly put on our new digs and entered the doors. Several women looked up from their work laughing at our outfits, their hands never stopped moving, deboning tiny fillets for the can.
As we meandered through the cannery it was impressive to see the shear volume of product being pumped out with little machinery. We saw the cleaning station, the baking station, the deboning station, the canning station, and the quality control, all being carefully watched over with sets of hands that never stopped moving. Our Portuguese guide assuring us throughout that it was this attention to detail and hand made product that made these tins so special. We took little convincing and as we finished our tour each of us left with our own goody bag of canned sardines.
As I sit now back in my apartment in Bra, my four cans of sardines sit on the table. I stare out at the countryside of Piedmont thinking of the smell of the ocean, the smiles on the faces, and the hands that never stop moving. I now truly understand why fish is a special treat, currently I just need to come up with the perfect accompaniment for my little treasures.