The journey from sea to plate

Olhão fish auction

Grilled, baked or BBQ-ed. Sardines, mackerels or tuna. Freshly cooked, in a can or spread on a slice of bread. However you want your fish, the Algarve is the place to get it. But there’s a story that often remains untold: what happens with the fish between catching and eating? Enjoy the Algarve gives you a look into the current fish industry, taking you all the way from ship to auction and canning factory.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2015

The Portuguese have a long maritime history and Olhão, the largest fishing port in the Algarve, has played a big part in it. In the First World War it was the richest place in the whole of Portugal as money came from canned fish; the preserved food was eaten by all the soldiers. Houses in Olhão had high terraces, allowing the wives to keep an eye out for their husbands who were fishing at sea. Nowadays, contact with the fishermen is done by radio and both fishing and canning methods have been industrialized, but the importance of fishing and respect for the sea in this municipality still remain.

At 5am things are in full swing at Olhão’s fish auction. Two more boats have just arrived and unload their catch, mostly mackerel. This isn’t done by hand anymore, but by means of a hoover-like machine that sucks up all fish and water inside the hold of the ship and spits it out on an aluminium slide in the auction hall. There, about 20 men with rubber sweepers sort out the fish: the big ones are laid to the side in orange boxes, the rest disappears in giant blue containers. Unloading takes just over 15 minutes.



I mainly look at the eyes and the shine. A fresh fish shines, like a diamond

In total, 12 ships have arrived, not very busy for a Saturday. In the late afternoon of the previous day they have departed with a crew of 8 up to 15 persons, depending on the size of the boat. Those men (yes, it’s still only men) have four main ways to catch their fish: purse-seine nets (nets in a circle that close around the fish), trawl nets (that drag on the bottom of the sea), gill nets (netting set vertically in the water that traps the fish) or by using old fashioned hook and line. Now, back in the harbour, they aim to get a good as possible price for their catch. This, as everything in this market, depends on the sea. The fishermen are in luck though, as bad weather the previous days has made fishing impossible and this has driven up the price.



In the auction hall buyers inspect the 22,000kg fish that is laid out in boxes and containers. Price doesn’t only depend on scarcity, but also on quality and freshness. The potential buyers feel and look their way through the hall. Luis Madeira plans to buy some to sell on the market in his hometown, Vila Real de Santo António. He got up at 3.30am to drive the 41km to Olhão. “It’s the only way to ensure I get good quality,” he explains as he inspects the content of various boxes. “Seeing the fish for myself is very important. I mainly look at the eyes and the shine. A fresh fish shines, like a diamond.” Also the way of catching makes a difference. “Here, these red mullets have been caught by using the circle method. You see, they look very fresh and have a lot of scales. Now compare them to these other ones that have been caught by the dragging method. They have hardly any scales and don’t look that good: they’ve probably been dead in the nets for a few days in the sea.” He puts the fish back into their separate containers and shakes his head as he passes on to the next lot.



Soles, sea breams, gurnards and even octopus. But no sardines today

Luis has to wait for a bit, as first the fish in the industrial size containers is auctioned off. “This goes to big companies that keep them for further processing,” explains Amadeu Mateus of Docapesca. These fish are transported in giant containers filled with ice, which contains at least 90% sea water, in order to keep the fish fresher. Amadeu: “We at Docapesca are the only ones using this type of ice water. Normally, fish in ice keep good for two days, but because of the colder temperature in this salty ice-water it can take up to four days until the eyes start to show.” There are soles, sea breams, gurnards and even octopus. But no sardines today. The Algarve’s best-known fish wasn’t allowed to be caught due to quotas and regulations.



As the auction is about to start, potential buyers take their places on what looks like a small stadium. A screen in front of them shows the species, the boat, method of catching, the amount of kilos, and, most important, the price per kilo. This price steadily drops by 10 eurocents, until one of the buyers makes a deal by clicking on his remote control. There is horse mackerel going for €5,50 a kilo, but also for €4,80 a kilo. The difference might be unknown to the casual eye, but not to the buyers. Sometimes, it’s market forces, sometimes just a gut feeling. Also, the first lots usually get the highest prices. In tourist season prices are always higher, driven up by extra demand. One type of mackerel doesn’t get bought until it’s down to €0,27 a kilo. Then again, this price is for 3855 kilos, or 257 boxes.

After the industrial size, in a different part of the hall fish is auctioned off to smaller buyers who mainly sell it on markets and to restaurants. The same system, only now the boxes of fish also appear on a transporting belt in front of the crowd. See the fish, press a button, a ticket gets printed and on the end of the transporting belt the orange boxes are sorted by buyer. At the end of the auction Luis has bought 15 boxes, mainly horse mackerel and Spanish mackerel, but also some more expensive squid, red sea bream and rays, all with the intention of selling it on the market in Vila Real de Santo António.



Monday is the worst day to buy fish as most boats don’t sail out on Sunday

The salesman has been buying fish for over 19 years, and first came here with his father. “Today, Saturday, is a good day for selling on the market,” he says. “Monday is not a good day, as all people believe the fish on Monday isn’t fresh.” Isn’t this the case then? He answers very honestly: “If I don’t sell all my fish on one day, I’ll save it and try to sell it on the next, no matter what day of the week it is.” Generally though, Monday is the worst day to buy fish as most boats don’t sail out on Sunday. However, finding fresh fish (mostly caught by some local fisherman) that day is possible, just as finding not so fresh fish on any other day.

At 6.30am the hall is empty. Luis and the other buyers have paid for their purchases. Crushed ice gets put on top of the boxes before they get loaded in the trucks, ready for transport. The nearby Olhão fish market, usually a popular tourist destination on Saturdays, is still empty at this time of the morning. One by one the buyers drop in, set up their stalls and lay out the fish which later that day will end up on a grill or BBQ.




The paste

In the Faro Peixe factory, 500m from Olhão’s auction hall, the arrival of the fish is just the beginning. Faro Peixe, which exists since November 1981, doesn’t only produce canned fish, it’s also one of the two fish processing factories in the Algarve that turns fresh mackerel and sardines into paste. Although canned fish has been around a long time, fish paste has only been invented about 30 years ago, by an Italian. Before that, the Portuguese would just grill their sardines with some sea salt and eat them straight away. Nowadays, the paste is served in many restaurants in the Algarve as an appetizer, together with some bread, butter and olives. Current methods ensure both cans and paste will keep for four years. Non-Portuguese might frown upon tinned food, but in the Algarve fish is appreciated in any shape or form, and considered a delicacy either fresh, canned or as paste.



The mackerels get cleaned the old fashioned way, by hand

Every week about 1000kg of sardines and 1000kg of mackerel get processed at Faro Peixe. Chef Bruno Marsal, who was born in Faro but lives in Olhão, has personally inspected the fish at the auction, paying close attention to smell, colour, texture and particularly the gills. He oversees the weighing of the catch in big yellow containers, and then ensures all sardines are cleaned. This happens by putting them into little slots of a machine that automatically pulls off the heads and pulls out the intestines. This waste will be recycled into animal food.

The cooked mackerels get cleaned the old fashioned way, by hand. A small group of women take out the bones, their movements almost too quick for the eye to follow. The fastest one can do a tin, which contains three mackerels, in about two minutes. Yes, it’s time consuming work, but according to company director Jorge Farinha it’s worth doing it the traditional way. “Some people tell me I’m wasting time, and thus money, cleaning the fish by hand. They offered to sell me cheaper filets, frozen and imported from China, which could be put directly into the tins. We tried a sample, but it just wasn’t the same quality,” he explains. “Instead of only thinking about the profit, I also think about my product. Yes, I’ll cut costs and take the cheaper option when it comes to things like electricity or security alarms, but not when it comes to the fish. Sometimes it’s difficult, for example during the reproductive season of the sardines, from September to March, when sardine fishing isn’t allowed anywhere in Portugal. That time, we use frozen ones, as we have to respect the sea.”



Different etiquettes, same contents. What can I say, people like pretty boxes

The cleaned sardines are put in giant salty hot water baths and cooked for 15 minutes. Just like you would at home, albeit on a bigger scale. After cooking, the fish will spend one day in the fridge. In the meantime, carrots, from the Alentejo region, are cleaned – Faro Peixe gets through 500kg a week. Together with water, oil, onion flakes, potato flakes, margarine, soya flour and some tomato puree, the carrots form the other ingredients for the sardine or mackerel paste. Once the fish are cooled off, they’re milled into little pieces and, together with the other ingredients, poured into an industrial size mixer. The paste gets put in a machine and goes through a metal detector (yes, you read that right. It’s required by Portuguese law as knives are used in the factory). The machine squirts out the paste in small cups, three at a time, and even adds a lid and a sticker on top afterwards. “This fast one can fill 8000 cups per hour, it’s the Mercedes of the machines,” says a proud Bruno. For the conserves it’s even simpler: just add oil to the fish.

All tins get sterilized for 90 minutes. Scalding water is poured over the crates in a 120˚C hot tunnel. They’re left on their side to dry and then off to the packing area. There, various shapes of tins are sorted by hand, then packed by machine, whether it’s in supermarket size of four or restaurant portion of 120 pieces. Different etiquettes look confusing – weren’t all these cans filled with the same paste? Bruno confesses: “Our own make is Fides, which can be found in certain supermarkets. But there are also stores who want their own packaging on the shelves. For example Aldi, with their Delicato brand, or Intermarche who sells Boa Pesca. Sometimes these brands are more expensive, but the contents are the same. What can I say? People like pretty boxes nowadays. An arty design takes them back to the good old days, when they knew where their food came from.”



But in order to know the origin of the paste, a nice-looking package isn’t necessary. A mere look out of the factory window suffices, as the main ingredient comes from the sea nearby. Here in the Algarve the process has always been the same ever since first paste was produced 30 years ago, machines have merely improved the speed. The paste is high in Omega-3 oils and quite healthy, seeing as no sugar or any other additives have been used in the making. It may look like cat food to sceptics, but tastes like, well, a sardine or mackerel does.

“Strangely, some kids refuse to eat fish, claiming they don’t like the taste, but they’ll eat the pate with spoon straight from the cup, like they’d do with a pot of Nutella,” Jorge and Bruno laugh. The men themselves prefer to richly spread it on a chunky slice of bread. “Get some friends over, open a bottle of wine and spread the paste on some bread or toast: to us it’s the recipe for a good night in.” More than a delicacy, it seems that in the Algarve fish is considered not only part of the cultural heritage, but of life.


Pictures by Marijke Verschuren and Roald van Baarsen


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2015

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