Vital Choice visits the fishermen who catch our Portuguese Sardines… and the people who hand-prepare and custom-pack them for us
by Dave Hamburg, Vital Choice COO
Sardines are a bit of a mystery to many Americans… including longtime fishermen like myself and Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell.
So I invite you to read my brief account of a tour of Portugal’s sardine scene… and click the screen below to view the video I shot on the boat and in the cannery.
Before we decided to offer sardines, Randy traveled to Portugal in 2005 to scope out the scene and find the very best provider.
He selected the Portuguese sardines we offer both for their quality, and because it was so clear that the fishery supplying them was abundant and well-managed (It was independently certified sustainable earlier this year by the Marine Stewardship Council).
We’ve been eager to return and document the fishing and packing processes in photo and video, to give our customers an insider’s view. So last October, I traveled to northwest Portugal with two goals in mind.
I wanted to see the sardine harvest up close, and tour their cannery with the family that selects and packs our sardines.
See our video at YouTube.
My Portuguese sardine sojourn starts at sea
I arrived in Porto, Portugal in mid-October, just in time to see sardines harvested at their peak of fat and flavor.
This is the harvest period during which our cannery's buyers can select the plumpest, fattiest sardines for Vital Choice.
The sardine harvest happens at night, so I left my hotel at 10:30 p.m. and was brought out to a large pier in Matosinhos, north of Porto, where the fleet was preparing to depart.
What are sardines?
The term sardine actually covers some 20 small species of saltwater fish, most belonging to the herring family.
Sardines used to school in great numbers off the island of Sardinia (just west of Italy)… hence the name “sardine”.
Like wild salmon, sardines are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, and appear on every “purest fish” list.
Sardines are also rich in protein, phosphorus, iron, potassium, vitamin B6, and niacin.
This is why, early in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted the first sardine canning industry, to provide his people with cheap, plentiful protein.
There, I met the captain/owner of the Deus Nao Falta—meaning “God Does not Lack”—who my hosts described as one of the best skippers in the fleet.
The captain spoke very little English and my Portuguese ends after about 10 words, but we managed to communicate well enough.
He was gruff guy, very much in charge, and clearly ran a tight ship where the organization and camaraderie of the crew was obvious.
There were 17 crew members… but despite the crowd, everyone knew where to be and worked with minimal shouting.
We left port and steamed for about two hours to the fishing grounds. As soon as we arrived, the captain saw a school of sardines on his sonar and set his net with lights off (presumably so wouldn’t spook the fish).
The crew set the net, then spilled baskets of writhing sardines into insulated totes, layered with ice, before heading back for port.
I saw virtually no “by-catch”, which simply means that almost nothing but sardines were netted.
(Our Portuguese Mackerel are harvested the same way in the same area, but schools of sardines and mackerel don’t intermingle to a significant extent.)
At 5 a.m., I joined the captain for a Portuguese fisherman's breakfast of sandwiches and beer, while the boat was being offloaded and then thoroughly scrubbed clean.
After talking awhile about his boat, the fishing routine, and family, he smiled and said “esta é a melhor vida,” meaning “this is the best life.”
I sure couldn’t see any reason to disagree!
The rapid-fire dockside auction
The sardines are kept on ice and sold soon after landing, in a fascinating, fast-moving auction.
Our cannery sends several experienced buyers, who meet the fleet every day to inspect the catch.
They also know which fishermen consistently bring in the highest quality, which makes their selection task easier.
The sardines are then transferred into iced crates and loaded into refrigerated trucks for a short ride to the cannery.
A sparkling clean, quality-conscious cannery
At the cannery, the fish are placed into brine (water and salt) bins and then sent on to be cleaned and hand-packed into cans.
The cans are steamed and rinsed, the olive oil (organic and extra virgin for Vital Choice), tomato sauce (organic for Vital Choice), or purified water is added, and the lids are attached. The cans are then cleaned, sterilized and readied for boxing.
Everywhere I looked, I saw a spotless scene that spoke to their commitment to cleanliness and quality at every stage. The plant dated back many decades, but has clearly been well maintained and uses very modern equipment.
They've been at it for more than 150 years, and have cleary perfected the art and skill of picking the very best and preparing them with care to yield an excellent eating experience.
Many of the employees come from families that have worked there for multiple generations, and the cannery even has what they called a “creche” where workers' children are cared for.
I'm sure that the exceptional quality of Vital Choice Sardines has more than a little to do with the family feeling and quiet, steady skill and confidence I encountered in Portugal.