Catch of the Month
The Portuguese say that sardines should only be eaten in the months with no ‘r’ in their name. Even so, no other time is as synonymous with this grilled delicacy as the month of June
‘Together with the multi-coloured garlands and the pots of basil called manjericos, the sardine is the ultimate symbol of the Festas de Lisboa’
HETHER YOU love or hate the taste of this small oily fish, the smell of fresh sardines being cooked on a hot grill is as inherent to summer in Portugal as the warmth of the sun or the sound of the Atlantic lapping the shore. Often you will hear the locals ask the waiters ‘As sardinhas estão boas?’ to check if the sardines are fat and tasty, usually at their best from May until August. During the winter, the sardines that are available have generally been frozen.
But more than any other, one month in particular is associated to these oily fish, which usually grow to around 10cm and are rich in Omega 3. June is the month of the Popular Saints festivities in Lisbon, where traditional music and dancing fill the colourful backstreets of the capital and people eat freshly grilled sardines on a slice of bread, washed down with local wine and beer. Together with the multi-coloured garlands and the pots of basil called manjericos, the sardine is the ultimate symbol of the Festas de Lisboa.
In fact, according to calculations from the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA), Portugal consumes an average of 13 sardines per second in June. That equals 35 million sardines during the month of Lisbon\'s Santos Populares alone, despite the amount of fish caught along the Portuguese coast reaching historical lows this year (sardine-fishing was banned altogether during the months of January and February to sustain the species, and reopened in March with some restrictions still in place).
In the rest of the country, all along the Atlantic coastline and down to the Algarve, it is a nod to the arrival of summer. While stricter health and safety regulations mean that it’s no longer common to see sardines being cooked on makeshift grills outside traditional Portuguese restaurants (it’s an altogether more professional set-up these days), these fresh, juicy sardines are still cooked in the open-air and served with boiled potatoes, fresh salad and plenty of olive oil. This is also the time of the sardinhada – community barbecues in which the sardine is the star of the show.