Canned Sardines Were the Most Romantic Moment of My Honeymoon

October 22, 2018

It was our last night in Lisbon. We saved what everyone said would be the best dinner—Taberna da Rua das Flores—for last and, because they don’t take reservations, we arrived early.

“Two hours,” he told us. “At least.”

Another couple overheard our American accents and shared some advice: “There’s a wine bar down the road,” they said. “Like, a really good wine bar.” So we put our name on Taberna’s list and wandered that way.

It was called By The Wine, with a ceiling that was less of a ceiling, more of an archway, decorated with green olive-colored wine bottles, glowing in the light. We sat at the bar and ordered a couple glasses of very cold, very dry white wine.

That’s when we told ourselves we would not drink that much wine, nor eat that much food, because we were two hours–ish from an A+ dinner, one that was worth waiting for. Then we did the opposite.

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Top Comment:
“My brother just came back from Portugal, bearing canned sardines and tuna. Alas, he only allocated 1 can of each to me (and I'm feeling a little bitter right now). What to do with the sardines? I'm going to try to replicate the sardine sandwich that I had a little SF restaurant called Perbacco (which is one of those places where the menu is based on what looks good in the market and if you had a wonderous dish one week, you might not ever see that dish again). From what I can recall, it was sardines, housemade mayo, salt, pepper, and arugula on a light sweet baguette. There might have also been a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.”
— HalfPint

I am ashamed to admit that, at this time, Justin and I had been in Lisbon for six days and had yet to eat one canned sardine. We knew that canned (also known as tinned) fish was big. Eater already told us: “Don’t even think about leaving Lisbon without filling up your suitcase with colorful tins of fish.” As the article explains, this product has been integral to Portuguese cuisine since the mid-1800s, when the canning industry started—and these days, it’s experiencing something of a renaissance.

Even during our short trip, this was apparent. We stumbled upon entire stores devoted to canned fish (Conserveira de Lisboa is particularly famous). We wandered by hikers assembling a trail-side lunch from little more than bread rolls and sardine tins. “Why don’t we do that?” I whined.

It was like the wine bar menu heard me. On it: canned sardines, swimming in spicy olive oil, with roasted peppers, red onion slivers, and cilantro. "We must," I said. "We must," Justin replied. They were nothing like the other two canned fishes of my American lifetime: tuna (dry) and anchovies (salty). These were plump and meaty, proud of their humble origins and eager to be piled onto bread.

So we got bread. And if we got bread, we had to get more wine. And if we got more wine, we had to get the presunto ibérico, being hand cut, piece by piece, right in front of us. And if we got the ham, we had to get cheese.

Two hours goes by quickly like this.

If you asked what we talked about that night, I’d tell you I don’t remember, or nothing, or everything. Our favorite conversations are like this, when the topics smush together—one minute, we’re chatting about why Justin doesn’t like Brie but loves this Brie-like queijo alentejano, the next about why I’m unsure if I want to have kids.

We finally got to Taberna da Rua das Flores, ordered more wine, and ate what we tipsily (but confidently!) declared was the best tuna we ever had in our lives. The tuna that all tuna would be measured against, forever. The same went for the chocolate pudding that was practically ganache, shiny with olive oil and sparkly with crunchy salt.

Meals like this made me never want to leave Lisbon.

So instead of going back to our Airbnb, we went to one of those urban courtyard concerts that spring up like flowers as soon as the sun sets. The band was Portuguese but they were mostly playing songs in English, including “Hey Jude,” which we bounced around and sang along to enough to rival teenage girls at Beatles concert in the ’60s. I don’t even really like The Beatles.

There were maybe a hundred people there, but only one couple dancing in the middle of this big circle. We joined them. Then a few more people joined us. And on and on. At one point, we shouted to the band, “Play The Killers! You’ve gotta play The Killers!” I don’t even really like The Killers. Eventually, the night ended, as it does.

We brought home tinned sardines in our suitcase and, someday, we’ll eat them in spicy olive oil with roasted peppers, red onion slivers, and cilantro. Lots of bread. Lots of wine. I don’t know if they’ll taste as great, but they’ll remind me of what I never understood until I met my husband—that any situation, even if it’s as seemingly boring as a two-hour wait at a restaurant, is whatever you make of it.

Have you ever tried canned sardines before? How did you eat ’em? Share your serving suggestions below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cathy
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    Janet Mowery
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    Maggie Slover
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    Valerie Charbonneau
  • Mia
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Cathy August 4, 2021
What a great story! Thanks for sharing! My husband and I are obsessed with conservas, which got us thru the pandemic in an epically delicious way. For people in SLC, Caputo's almost ALWAYS has conservas in their 50% off rack! The cans are pristine, it's just sometimes the boxes get ripped/doused in oil during transport, so...
Janet M. February 12, 2019
Very entertaining article...which reminded me that my husband gave me a can of stuffed calamari (lulas recheadas) for Christmas (yes, I know, weird gift, but it was in my stocking), also a product of Portugal. We haven't yet opened it. Now I'm thinking we'll pop it open on Valentine's Day. Thanks for the idea!
BonnieC. February 12, 2019
Now that's a man after my own heart - lol!! My husband gifts me with the same sort of stuff. I think the last one, which I also haven't opened yet, was a can of Greek-style marinated octopus. Isn't it wonderful when - even though it might seem weird to others - that husbands are willing to accommodate the weirdness? - lol!
Emma L. February 12, 2019
Yay, thanks!
Maggie S. October 31, 2018
This is so d r e a m y Emma! Eating while you wait to eat is brilliant—I'm convinced you never make good ordering choices when you're delirious with hunger. Also, after a terrible night dancing in Brooklyn with a friend we stumbled into a classy little hotel bar and ordered the fanciest sardines—there was a tiny wooden bowl of flakey salt, a meyer lemon wedge, very spicy dijon, and the most tender sardines in a beautiful can (with saltines to layer everything on). Maybe it was that everything was deconstructed, but it was the most incredible thing and I've made it a hundred times since.
Emma L. October 31, 2018
Thanks, Maggie! Do you remember the name of the hotel? I'd love to check it out!
Maggie S. October 31, 2018
Yes! It's Hotel Delmano—heartily recommend.
Valerie C. October 30, 2018
When I was growing up, sardines were always associated with breakfast or brunch. My mom served sardines floating on top of baked beans (tomato, molasses or maple syrup), with sunny side-up eggs on the side and some toast. Nowadays, when I eat the same I remember my mother.
BonnieC. October 30, 2018
Who would have thought that tinned fish would remind one of family? Lol! I also always think of my mother whenever I crack open a can of sardines.
Mia October 29, 2018
I also honeymooned in Portugal! In 14 days I'm fairly certain we consumed our bodyweight in sardines and ginjinha. All it takes is a crusty baguette and a tin of fish to take us back on days when we need a pick-me-up.
samuel J. October 29, 2018
I have always loved sardines.I grew up eating sardines in mustard sauce on toast with peanut butter.I know that sounds odd,but it is good.It wasn't till I met my wife who is from Spain that I learn what a good tin of Sardines tasted like.I tried sardines in a picante sauce in Spain with crackers.It is hard to eat American tins of sardines now.I also had Iberica Jamon as well,and love it very much.
Emma L. October 29, 2018
Wow to mustardy sardines on peanut butter toast! Makes me think of this article, "10 Things You Should (or Shouldn't) Eat With Peanut Butter":
BonnieC. October 29, 2018
Take a look online & in your local supermarkets &/or ethnic markets. There are several brands of tinned sardines in picante sauce available. I tried them last year & they were quite good. Most likely not as good as what you enjoyed in Spain, but quite good nonetheless. Of course I can't remember the brand I tried, so am utterly worthless in that department (lol!), but they are out there.
Vickster October 28, 2018
In the U.S. are there any particular brands of sardines that are recommended or are they all good?
BonnieC. October 28, 2018
While all foodstuffs pretty much boil down to personal preference, I've found that water-packed sardines always taste a bit harsh & fishy to me. Those packed in cottonseed oil also aren't a big favorite of mine. For regular use, I've never had a problem with any brand packed in olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil, & I've also enjoyed the sardines that are packed in different sauces &/or seasonings - mustard, Mediterranean, tomato, spicy hot, etc.

But again - everyone's tastes are different, so just pick up a few cans & give them a try.
BonnieC. October 28, 2018
Canned sardines are a blast from the past that have followed me from my childhood well into the senior citizen I am now - lol! Growing up, my mom loved nothing better than canned sardines placed atop a mayo-spread lettuce-lined roll with a thin slice or two of red onion. Sometimes she'd crush the sardines with the mayo into a sort of sardine salad. Heaven for both of us! She did, however, have the foresight never to pack anything like that for my school-day lunches, as I was already considered a serious weirdo in the cafeteria. Bologna & cheese or PB&J never darkened my lunchbox - I had olive loaf, pickle loaf, Lebanon bologna, head cheese, liverwurst & Swiss cheese - all with good hot mustard - salami & cream cheese, leftover meatloaf w/ ketchup. I think a sardine sandwich would have sent my little peers over the edge.

These days still enjoy sardine sandwiches the way my mom made them, but also enjoy all the new canned sardines with different sauces - hot sauce, olive oil with different seasonings, Mediterranean-style, mustard, etc.

Have never had sardines fresh because I've yet to come across any that looked quite fresh enough to splurge on, but perhaps some day.
Emma L. October 28, 2018
Mmmm to that sandwich! And your school lunches sound divine to me :) Reminds me of this wonderful article my coworker Hana just wrote, all about her daughter's school lunches:
BonnieC. October 28, 2018
Yes - one thing I never had to worry about growing up was having to deal with any pesky requests to trade lunches with anyone - lol!

And thanks for the article link. I don't have to pack any lunches, but the ideas were interesting to me anyway.
Melissa October 28, 2018
I'm Filipino and have always loved sardines, especially the ones that were imported from Portugal. Now that I'm raising a family of my own, and we practice Fish Fridays (Catholic), my 4 and 2 year old know that Fridays mean we eat sardines for breakfast. Although my husband first thought I was crazy, he now knows that sardines on toast are such a simple yet delicious way to start the day...or just snack! But I do have to say, sardines from other countries (Spain, Portugal, Morocco., etc) are my favorites. The ones I buy from the store here just taste a little more...fishy...and plain...
Jan October 28, 2018
I’m surprised to see that no one mentioned the simple way we enjoyed them in our mostly German kitchen as a child. Give me a tin of sardines, I’ll remove the fish carefully and let the oil mostly drip off. I’ll have a couple of slices of black bread (black rye?) coated liberally with butter to receive the sardines whole between them. It’s wonderful, but my Norwegian husband can’t stand the smell of them.
Emma L. October 28, 2018
Love how something so simple can be so special. Thanks for sharing this, Jan!
sue October 28, 2018
Sardines packed in olive oil - 1 can per person. Open carefully and place in a bowl. Add minced garlic, fresh lemon juice, and fresh chopped parsley and let them all mingle for a minute. Mix cornstarch or arrowroot powder with some salt, pepper, a bit of cumin and a bit of cayenne pepper. Carefully lift the sardines out of the live oil mixture (but hang on the olive oil), carefully roll the sardines in the seasoned cornstarch or arrowroot. Pan fry the coated sardines in some fat or choice until nicely browned and crispy. Chop up a head or two of lettuce and toss it with the olive oil/garlic/lemon/parsley sauce. Serve the pan fried sardines on top. Yum.
Billie L. October 28, 2018
I was given some tins of mackeral, can I treat it the same way as a tinned sardine?
Emma L. October 28, 2018
Whoa! Such a great mini recipe—thanks for sharing, Sue.
sue October 28, 2018
I think it depends on how the mackerel is canned. I've mixed a can of Jack Mackerel, with nasty bones and skin discarded, with mashed potatoes, Old Bay, and other seasons to make one veery nice fish cake.
Hubby just likes to et the ones canned with tomato sauce right out of the can.
sue October 28, 2018
My favorite lunch, :-)
Kathleen D. October 28, 2018
Been eating sardines since I was a kid (my gypsy mother loved them). Now I take a tin and mash them, add some dijon, chopped red onion and spread spread on crusty bread with sliced fresh tomatoes--HEAVEN
Emma L. October 28, 2018
Yes, please! Sounds so good.
Lexie H. October 28, 2018
Love sardines! Sardines on bread, in pasta, salads! But my go-to is just sardines, saltines, and a dash of tabasco!
KarenLyons October 23, 2018
You don't like the Beatles??
Emma L. October 23, 2018
Ha! I don't *dislike* The Beatles—you just wouldn't find me listening to them that often (or like, ever). Don't worry: My brother has given me a lot of grief about this, for many years.
pnoeric October 23, 2018
Ha! By the Wine is one of my FAVORITE restaurants in Lisbon. What a hoot to see it mentioned here. Glad you had such a good time.
Emma L. October 23, 2018
Whoa, so cool! My only regret is that we didn't go earlier in the trip—so we could go back again.
Nancy October 23, 2018
Emma - lovely article :)
How I serve sardines:
Grilled or griddled, with a cucumber mint relish (idea from Chris Schlesinger & John Willoughby recipe in NYT 1999)
Open-face sandwich on rye bread (not Portuguese style, I know, but the earthiness of the rye contrasts nicely with the savory fish and cool unsalted butter).
Emma L. October 23, 2018
Thank you, Nancy! "Open-faced on rye bread" is the start to many of my favorite sandwiches. Can't wait to try.
HalfPint October 22, 2018
My brother just came back from Portugal, bearing canned sardines and tuna. Alas, he only allocated 1 can of each to me (and I'm feeling a little bitter right now). What to do with the sardines? I'm going to try to replicate the sardine sandwich that I had a little SF restaurant called Perbacco (which is one of those places where the menu is based on what looks good in the market and if you had a wonderous dish one week, you might not ever see that dish again). From what I can recall, it was sardines, housemade mayo, salt, pepper, and arugula on a light sweet baguette. There might have also been a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Emma L. October 22, 2018
Mmmm! Now I want to replicate that sandwich, too. Especially if the mayo is garlicky!