April 4, 2019 by Ellis Dixon
Fish Tales: The Story Behind our Favorite Conservas
Everyone’s seen them, most have eaten them, and every tourist buys at least one to take home as a souvenir, but what do we really know about Portugal’s famous canned fish? Aside from the contents of each can, the packaging of the various brands have stories to tell of saudade, life on the water, and family histories of the founders. Atlas went fishing for the craic behind the conservas.
Conservas Pinhais (1920)
Famous for: Nuri and Pinhais
Conservas Pinhais was founded in 1920 and Nuri became a registered trademark somewhere between 1920 and 1934. It’s held onto the same packaging design since the brand was founded. The origin of the name is uncertain, but there are two predominant theories: First, Nuri is Arabic for “my light,” and since sardines are typically bright with shining skin, it’s not improbable that the name comes from there. In fact, their bestseller to this day is the spiced sardines in olive oil.
The other theory is one of the four original founders who was responsible for exports and international events was in love with a Spanish girl named Nuria (“Nuri” in the diminutive). If you look at the logo long enough, you might imagine that the extended leg of the N is hiding an “A” at the end… or not. No one knows for sure, but it’s clear the designer had a thing for fonts as well as Spanish señoritas.
The brand’s namesake Pinhais cans have been adorned with its fisherman logo since it was created in 1922. The fisherman himself has evolved over the years, but the base elements have remained: the handwork on the net, the seagull, and the boat behind them. The fisherman represents the brand’s relationship with the sea: the strength and courage needed to overcome nature’s challenges while bringing top-notch fish to land.
According to Nuno Rocha, the company’s commercial director, throughout the decades, many details of the company history have been lost — except two things: the interior of the canning factory in Matosinhos hasn’t changed, and the production methods are exactly as they were in 1920.
“Coming to our factory is like entering a time capsule that takes you back to the 20s, [allowing you to] see how things were done back then,” Rocha says.
La Gondola (1940)
Famous for: La Gondola and Cântara
This canned fish brand was established in 1940 by several Italian brothers with the surname Lazzara who fled Mussolini’s regime in the 1920s. The dictator wanted the Lazzara family to supply the troops with food from their canned fish factory, but they were afraid that they would never be paid. Instead, they sold everything to a Greek family and set up shop in Olhão, a small fishing town in the Algarve.
Two brothers later decided to broaden the brand’s reach by setting up another factory in Matosinhos near Porto. The factory began by canning salted anchovy fillets. Today the company still runs out of Matosinhos, but they expanded to a new facility in the ’80s. La Gondola’s trademark logo is on every package it sells, even on the limited-edition packages by Porto-based artist Ana Lisa Luças. This ovular logo has a ribbon banner at the base and a city scene in the background behind a gondola. The logo was created by the Italian designer and founding brother Carlo Lazzara when the company first started operation.
The Cântara brand features a lady holding an amphora vase (presumably full of olive oil), rounding out the brand’s offerings. According to the owner of the company, Paulo Dias, the story behind the lady has to do with his family. Traditionally, factory owners used their wife’s or children’s names for new brand off-shoots, but in the case of Cântara, that’s the name of Dias’ car — while the lady holding the vase, yes, is his wife. Parabéns, Paulo, she’s quite a catch!
A Conserveira do Sul (1954)
Famous for: Manná, Good Boy, Jupiter
The Manná logo was created in 1954 though over the last decades it has gotten a few facelifts. It’s unclear whether that fin coming out from the second N is that of a dangerous beast. Perhaps that’s why their paté line is so popular with restaurants all over Portugal, as they generally come as part of the couvert.
Conserveira do Sul’s Good Boy brand was launched in 1950 for export, which is why it’s in English, and was commercialized for several years before leaving the market shortly thereafter. Recently, the brand has resurfaced because, according to Sara Costa, the great-granddaughter of Conserveira do Sul’s founder, “it’s a very important and emotional brand to the family. It’s our mission to bring it back and tell people our history.” So, inspired by the old image, Conservas do Sul created the logo now seen on the packaging.
“The Good Boy is Jorge Ferreira, the youngest son of my great-grandfather António Jacinto Ferreira (the founder of Conserveira do Sul),” Costa says. “Jorge Ferreira was a very naughty boy, so the name Good Boy is a joke between him and my great-grandfather.”
In this photo from Carnival in Olhão from the 1950s, you can see young Jorge Ferreira inside a carnival car intended to promote the brand. He seems well-behaved enough here, doesn’t he?