by Giovanni PereiraClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (22763) to be taken to his personal page

First published in the UMA News Bulletin under the pen-name "Caramba"

("Hovering" the cursor over a Portuguese word will often reveal the English translation.)

Each year, in early August, a week-long celebration is held in the Algarvean coastal city of Portimão, which does its best to earn its nickname as the “Sardine Capital of the World”.

The town itself goes back many years. It once had a Roman name Portus Hannibalis, believed to have been connected with the great Carthagian general, Hannibal. But Portimão only slowly rose to regional prominence with the gradual silting up of the river Arade, which led to the decline of Silves, some eight miles upstream and formerly the Moorish capital of the Algarve.

The relatively warm and shallow waters of the continental shelf around southern Portugal teem with 200 or so species of fish. By far the most important is the humble sardine or pilchard, because it is so prolific. A female sardine at three years, or about nine inches long, is ready to lay between 50,000 to 60,000 eggs a season in the open sea! These hatch into larvae that drift with the currents till they develop into free swimming fish. After spawning, the adult sardines move to feeding grounds closer to shore. Gathering in enormous, dense shoals, they are easily lured by bright lights into encircling purse seine nets. Portugal hauls in between 60,000 to 100,000 tons a year, exceeded in Europe only by Spain. A good proportion is immediately processed and canned, whilst the rest is despatched to market, as sardines are a very important element of the local diet, being relatively cheap.

The hectic unloading of sardines in Portimão used to take place right under the noses of holiday makers on the dockside. The frantic hauling of brimming wicker baskets of fish up from the boat holds onto ice trays, generously sprinkled with coarse salt, right in front of the diners at the al fresco restaurants beneath the old access bridge over the Arade was a sight to behold. Whilst overhead the circling, noisy seagulls seem to take turns winging downwards for fleshy morsels of fish, almost reminiscent of divebombers over an enemy target at sea.

Unfortunately, progress has dictated the use of modern unloading facilities away from the old waterside, but one can still see the many brightly coloured trawlers as they come into port.

The open air restaurants are still there, accounting for the perennial, delectable aroma of sardines being grilled as one approaches the town from the coastal highway. Never is it more pronounced than during the “Festa das Sardinhas”, which is held in the town’s Fairs and Exhibition Grounds in early August. Then, four gigantic “cook outs” are set up that can cope with 800 customers in a single seating.

It’s hard to justifiably describe the combination of the heady fragrance of grilled sardines in massive open gridirons and the popping sounds of fish oil dripping onto ash-covered charcoal, producing miniature “flameouts”. Add an ambient temperature of 95°F and you have a veritable inferno under the scorching sun, relieved only by seeking shelter under a shady spot fanned by a cooling breeze off the Atlantic.

There is more than just sardines at the Festival. In parallel, more than a hundred pavilions have been set up, some featuring local handicraft, others selling the popular cakes and sweets of the Algarve, based on figs, almonds and alfarroba, the latter coming from the carob tree. There is no lack of animation either, as the evening crowds are entertained by live music and traditional dancing. All in all, a very pleasant reason to spend an August day or evening in Portimão. It is said that, unless one has had a meal of sardines, one has not visited the Algarve.

So, what is a typical meal of sardines? For most, six plump and juicy sardines will do, and they are at their very best between June and October. They should be grilled whole – head, insides and all – charred but not burnt, accompanied by pão caseiro (homestyle bread), salada mista (lettuce, tomatoes and onions), and batatas cozidas, unskinned, covered with olive oil. With its dense oily flesh, grilled sardines go well with either a chilled vinho verde or a tinto.

Here’s a recipe for the venturesome, originating from Vila do Conde near Porto, that claims to be somewhat special.

Sardinhas assadas na Caruma

Ingredients: Coarse salt and 24 sardines

Over firebricks lay out a bed of dry pine needles four inches deep. Wash the sardines, which should be large and fat, in cold water. Dry them lightly and place on the pine needles. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt and then cover the sardines with another layer of pine needles of same depth. Light the pine needles at the four corners and let them burn.

Remove the sardines when they turn black, but do not burn them. Serve with boiled potatoes fried in olive oil.

Bom Apetite!