A Love Letter to Conservas: How Lisbon’s Canned Fish Captured My Heart

This post is part of our Love Letter series: first-person accounts of what we love about Lisbon.

At first glance, the words “canned fish” may not exactly make your mouth water.

But one of Lisbon’s most delectable secrets is its stinky, salty, shelf-stable seafood. This is the story of how conservas captured my curiosity—and my heart.

If you've never tried conservas, you're missing out. Here are four reasons to fall in love with Portugal's simplest delicacy: canned fish!

When traveling in groups, I’m usually that friend. The one with the long list of must-try foods for each city we visit. The one who apologetically (or not so much) pulls out her phone to take a picture of my meal—and everyone else’s—before we eat. The one who insists on dragging us all to the secret spots and legendary eateries where I’ve heard or read that we can get authentic local specialties.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, on a recent trip to Lisbon, my equally food-obsessed friend led me to a place that I’d never even heard of. And when that place turned out to be a mecca of one of Lisbon’s most iconic, and arguably underrated, delicacies. It’s called Conserveira de Lisboa, and it’s one of the Portuguese capital’s most renowned retailers of conservas.

Experts in all things canned and fishy

When you read those last two words, what was your gut reaction? Did you start salivating at the mere thought of canned tuna, sardines, cod and clams? Did they inspire a mild sense of disgust? Or maybe just confusion; what could possibly be so special about fish in a can?

If you’re either of the latter two types, I’m guessing you’ve never been to Conserveira de Lisboa, or the other shops that peddle preserved goods throughout the city. Maybe you’re just not a big seafood fan in general. But again, if you’re like me, give it one bite and you’ll never look at those little tins in the same way again.

Conserveira de Lisboa is one of the best places in Lisbon to buy conservas.
One of the best places to buy canned fish in Lisbon—check out all those options! Photo credit: Conserveira de Lisboa

Conserveira de Lisboa is a tiny space with little more than a counter and a shelf filling an entire wall, with different iterations of the same simple concept. They all contain some kind of seafood in oil, water or sauce, spiced or flavored with fresh ingredients, then sealed away to await the moment when you peel back the lid, release that distinctive aroma, and partake in one of Portuguese cuisine’s simplest pleasures.

Learning to love the stinky stuff

To be honest, I was never a huge fan of tuna, sardines or anchovies before I moved to the Iberian peninsula. To me they were more of a second-string choice; something you eat when you don’t have access to a fridge, or can’t afford fresh seafood, or need an easy snack (all situations in which I often find myself, to be fair). I would never have thought to choose tuna, for example, over sliced deli meat or some other form of mainstream protein for lunch.

Cans of preserved fish (conservas in Portuguese) are one of Lisbon's greatest culinary delicacies.
Doesn’t look like much from the outside, right?

But oh, how all that changed when I discovered what tuna truly should be. It should be flavorful, and rich, and drenched in olive oil and garlic or salty tomato sauce. It should be savored, and enjoyed, and given a starring role. Good canned tuna, in fact, has become one of my favorite foods, thanks in no small part to Lisbon.

Memories tinged with the taste of tuna

On that first visit to Conserveira de Lisboa, I bought a few cans of fish to add to my road-trip snack bag. I ate the first—tuna mixed with sweet potatoes and spices—as part of a hastily prepared hostel lunch. I ate the second—tuna in tomato sauce—straight from the can with a plastic fork, sitting on a postcard-worthy beach in the Algarve. I ate the third—cod with giant chunks of garlic—on a windy beach in Ericeira, shielding it from flying sand and watching surfers brave the choppy sea.

I remember these three moments so clearly because each of them qualified as something special: one of those times when a food you eat is so good, so simple, so purely pleasing that it cements itself in your memory, along with whatever you were doing while eating it. Traveling, sunbathing, snacking on the beach… this is what canned fish represents for me, and probably always will.

Not to mention the fact that it’s a direct reflection of the saltwater spirit flowing through Lisbon’s veins—both literally and figuratively.

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Shelves in a Portuguese supermarket are filled with all kinds of canned fish, or conservas.
In Portugal, supermarket shelves offer a wide array of conservas for all tastes.

In case I haven’t convinced you yet…

Let me appeal to your practical side. Canned seafood doesn’t require refrigeration. It’s relatively inexpensive. It can be eaten with pretty much anything, or all by itself. It’s packed with protein, healthy fats and minerals. It even comes in its own little portable container—and it’s the perfect Lisbon souvenir to take home with you. Honestly, what more could you ask for in a snack?

All of that said, there’s really nothing I can do to make you understand the magic of conservas until you experience it for yourself. And there’s no way to fully experience it without going straight to the source. You need to wander Lisbon’s streets, dodge tourists and cable cars, feel a salty breeze blowing in from the Tagus, and find your way to an old fashioned little shop tucked away in an ancient building.

Point out which conservas you want at Conserveira de Lisboa.
It’s easy to point out your choices… but not so easy to choose. Photo credit: Conserveira de Lisboa

You need to marvel at the infinite options for how to flavor and preserve fish, and then pick a few to sample, even if you have to point for lack of the proper vocabulary. You need to take that first salty bite when you’re somewhere worth remembering: by the ocean, on a road trip, sitting on the curb… It really doesn’t matter, because if there’s one thing a good conserva can do, it’s make the mundane extraordinary.

Ready to create your own food memories like these in Lisbon? Our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Food Tour is calling your name! Join us for the perfect combination: bites of iconic Portuguese cuisine in settings you’ll never forget, prepared for you by the people who have been doing it best for generations.


4 Comment

  1. Jonhnnie says
    January 27, 2020 at 5:01 am

    I love canned fish ! I’ve lived in San Pedro, California for 25 yrs now. I’m a born NYer however (1958 ew lol !), from Long Island. San Pedro is the home of StarkistTuna ! Well I don’t think the 1000s of Portuguese, Spanish, Croatian or Italian fishermen harvest these anymore here nor do their wives process them, but this town was once BIG on that. And not just tuna. Every type of fish ! I love my “new” home. Thanks for a wonderful article ! I enjoyed it a lot ! Those immigrants REALLY made canned fish a tasty treat here in the States ! I’d love me some canned fish from Portugal just about now ! I know how to gussy them up too !

    1. Devour Tours says
      January 27, 2020 at 9:18 am

      Thanks for reading, Johnnie! Always great to hear from a fellow conservas lover!

      1. Johnnie says
        January 29, 2020 at 8:08 pm

        Forgot to add something important to the author of this article. Your knowledge of the English language makes reading it a joy and makes me jealous too ! I worked at the U.N. in Vienna for 3 years and then out of loneliness for the sea, became a MANNY in wealthy homes in NAPOLI & BARCELONA. I was in my 20s. All during the 1980s. I daresay I put the M in Manny before it was even fashionable to have a male nanny. WHY didn’t I ever visit Portugal in those days? Your extremely well written article makes me regret that mistake ! I hope your bosses appreciate your writing skills. Really superb and oftentimes hilarious ! Kept me reading I can tell you that ! And I ALWAYS ate conservas & still do ! Sorry I didn’t give you credit when I first wrote. You totally deserve it.

        1. Devour Tours says
          January 31, 2020 at 8:19 am

          Melissa definitely has a magical way with words—she makes you feel as if you’re right there in Lisbon enjoying some conservas for yourself!

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