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.
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!