A sardine festival

Writing about sardines got my mouth watering, but it’s too early in the year to satisfy that craving. As a substitute, I thought I’d revisit the sardine festival held by the mountain town of Alte.

It starts with a pile of sardines, provided to both residents and visitors by the Town Hall. Volunteers pull them out of the ice and pack them in styrofoam boxes, with copious amounts of rock salt.

The rock salt acts as both a preservative and a spice. The only spice, actually. Above all other things, the Portuguese love their salt.

(Continued after the jump.)

Other than providing grilling supplies, packing the sardines is the extent of the Town Hall’s involvement. After that, it’s all up to the festival participants.

Here, a participant is filling up a grilling rack with salted sardines. In the background, you can see the volunteer with a bag of rock salt in hand, preparing to scatter salt on the layer of sardines he has just placed in the other styrofoam box.

Once the sardines are racked, it’s time to head over to the giant grill and get to work. This is a social moment, with people chatting as they watch their fish and make sure the coals don’t flame up. A bottle of water is passed back and forth, which the grillers will sprinkle on the coals near their sardines to keep them from getting too hot. It’s also desirable to have a certain amount of smoke, as this provides additional flavor.

It isn’t just the grillers who gather around the grill. Other participants do as well, drawn to the action and the conversation. For many, this is an opportunity to dress up a bit, despite the near-certainty of leaving the festival smelling like burnt wood.

Grilling is an art form. Too little heat and your fish are mushy, too much and they dry out. The fish on the left are not quite done, while the ones in the back might be a wee bit crispy. Those on the right have just been laid on the grill.

And when the work is all done, the feasting begins. Some families bring piles of side dishes, others bring just the basics: beer and bread. Sardines must be eaten with a beer at hand; it’s simply a requirement.

Fresh bread adds to the flavor (and soaks up the juices), and has the additional benefit of providing a convenient means of getting the meat from the plate to one’s mouth. Most people use a fork only during the process of separating the sardine meat from the bones and skin. The waste products go onto a community trash plate, while the piping hot meat goes onto the bread. Fingers get burned, and that’s part of the tradition too. And I can attest that for a newcomer to the concept, separating out the meat is a definite learning process. But all of that is forgotten the moment the first bite of hot, fresh sardine and bread hits one’s tastebuds. There’s nothing else like it.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, Portugal. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to A sardine festival

  1. Citizen Pete says:

    Great post!! Aaaaah, that juicy bread is heaven! I’m so happy to see an expat creating awareness for the good things we’ve got in Portugal. Really, great job, thank you and congrats for bringing this one to the WP frontpage. Great photos as well. AtΓ© breve!

  2. Ana says:

    Now my mouth is watering too. Wonderful description and pictures.

  3. ZuMie says:

    its fiesta! damn sardine!

  4. Kugai says:


    Wish I hadn’t read this before I had eaten this morning! *Mutters and wanders off to scare up some food*


  5. pyrit says:

    Oooh, sardeeeens! I got my beer, and it is in hand!
    Feeding time.

    Where in the world is Alte? This festival reminds me of Portugal.

    Greatly delish post.

  6. Sounds cool, but sardines are nasty to me!

    P.S. Cool blog by the way. πŸ˜‰

  7. Jorge says:

    you should come to Porto in the 23rd of June for Saint John…excellent “sardinhadas” everywhere you look! i’d be more than happy to eat a few with you! πŸ™‚

  8. Lakia says:

    Ok, I’m seriously sick, I’m not fond of sardines lol..

  9. Mari says:

    Looks inviting…yummy

  10. Carla says:

    This looks fantastic! I love sardines!Some people don’t know what they’re missing. πŸ™‚

  11. geekproposal says:

    Americans have yet to embrace sardines as anything but a punchline to a pizza delivery order. But I love this post. Really has me hungry!

    • pyrit says:

      Let’s not generalize, and let’s not confuse sardines with anchovies.

      • geekproposal says:

        You’re right sardines aren’t stereotypically pizza toppings, but I’ve made a wonderful pizza with white beans, parsley, avocado, olive oil, and mashed sardines. Delicious!

        However, I have to stick with my statement that as a whole Americans have not embraced sardines. Certainly not everyone is included in this statement. I’m not included (and I’m guessing you’re not either) but the demand is low in this country. In my opinion, when it comes to buying fish, a lot of people stick with what their comfortable cooking. And sardines haven’t quite entered the comfort level of “American” cooking.

        Just my opinion, but glad I’m not the only one out there who loves sardines.

  12. oasis says:

    I like sardines.It’s lokk yummy.

  13. Thaddeus Dombrowski says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, a great way to separate hot fish flesh from bones is to use chop sticks. The Chinese have definitely mastered the art of eating bony fish with those simple implements.

  14. Cyra Miles says:

    wow.. that’s very interesting…

  15. Sara says:

    Great Post! Love Sardines!

  16. jokerbook says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.
    Fish Lovers!
    Amarah Krisdayanti mp3 download

  17. prospectnyc says:

    Delicious! Looks so much better than the canned ones that come soaked in oil.

  18. really nice post πŸ™‚

    Wasn’t there some traditional bread too ?

  19. Slamdunk says:

    I never tried them, but your post makes it look like a worthwhile experience.

  20. antondewantoro says:

    It makes me remember the movie “cloudy with a chance of meatball”, It just like sardines rainfall. Awesome!

  21. George says:

    i like sardines too, fishes could be very delicious! and may i have the honor to make a friend with you? my msn is: ssliuyu@hotmail.com, thanks!

  22. teeneefree says:

    that’s very interesting.

  23. zegor says:

    Mmmm, yummy!

    Hehe, “…providing a convenient means of getting the meat from the plate to one’s mouth.” πŸ™‚

    We have a mussel festival near us. These events are always pretty awesome!

  24. dan tepper says:

    i want deenz so bad. i love canned deenz almost everyday. smokin and deenin forever

    DT the deeeeeen maaaaan


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