F is for Fish

My A to Z of Portugal

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” Chinese Proverb

Portugal is believed to be ranked 4th in the world for consumption of fish – you cannot walk along any major restaurant area without seeing fish on the menu – and most traditional Portuguese houses have a small rusty barbeque sat beside the front step – so how could I cover anything other than F is for Fish for My Personal A to Z of Portugal!?

fan of fish

With nearly 600 miles of Atlantic coastline – and a history of eating and processing fish that reaches back to at least Roman times – with the proud tradition of being an historic seafaring nation – and with a genuine love of fish with recipes that are handed down from generation to generation – it should be no surprise to find that fish are firmly at the heart of the economic history of this country – and on the plates of many families.

The most important fish species landed in Portugal are sardines, mackerel and horse mackerel, together with molluscs and crustaceans. A trip to your local market – or large supermarket – will however show you the vast diversity and range of fish that are caught and sold locally. The markets are a fascinating experience, full of sights and smells, loud shouts and slippery wet fish being bagged up and sold.

unusual fish

Fishing as an industry

The Portuguese fishing sector is divided into various subsectors, which in turn are divided between industrial fishing and artisanal fishing. According to trade union sources, over 50% of fishing workers work in the small artisanal area.

The Portuguese fishing industry is fairly large and diversified. Fishing vessels are classified according to the area in which they operate, and can be divided into local fishing vessels, coastal fishing vessels and long-distance fishing vessels.

fishing trawler

The local fleet is mainly composed of small traditional vessels. In 2004, 87% of the total fishing fleet was classed as small traditional boats and yet they accounted for only 8% of the total tonnage caught.

Armacao de Pera boat

They are also responsible for providing some of the most recognisable and marketable tourist images on the Algarve – shots of the often beautifully painted and adorned fishing boats nestled in the harbour provide a great tourist postcard shot!

Portugal 365 photo 27/01/2012

Fishing is strictly controlled by a licensing system in which the acquisition, construction or modification of a vessel, and the use of certain fishing methods, requires prior authorisation. Portugal also has to abide by the requirements of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

Many fishermen seem to live a very simple uncomplicated life – I am sure that things are much tougher than they seem to an outsider – and new regulations on the amount of sardines that can be caught this year is bound to have an impact.

But this is a proud history and way of life – and Armação de Pêra is a great place to wander across the beach and walk past the many fishermen’s cottages and boats hauled up onto the shore to see this in action today – there is often a very serious game of cards or dominoes in play, with fishermen mending their nets and chatting together.


Sustainable Fish

Sonae which runs Continente and Modelo supermarkets were the first distributors in Portugal to adopt a Sustainable Fish Policy. They proudly display this information – including the ‘Working with Greenpeace’ information above their fish counters – it’s a good sign to look out for. The policy is designed to ensure that all the fish they sell is obtained in such a way as to preserve the environment and sustainability of the oceans.

Cavala fish

Unfortunately not everything has been so well preserved – the once thriving canning factories here in the Algarve now lie in ruins – these are the factories at Ferragudo – where Dave met a lovely old Portuguese lady who now lives opposite the very factories she once worked in – she spoke with fond memories of a bygone age.

Canning factories Ferragudo

For more information and to see what the factories would have been like, I can heartily recommend the Museum at Portimão – I have posted about this previously – Afternoon at the Museum.

Proibido Pescar sign

Gone fishin’

Another regular sight here are the many fishermen (and occasionally women too!) that fish from the beach or pier – having spoken to one, it would seem that a catch is often a rare thing – but as he said to me ‘Why do I care? It is quiet and beautiful here – I am happy!’

Gone fishin

There are also those who prefer their fishing to be a more extreme sport – if you can spot the fisherman in this picture he is on a ledge halfway up the cliff!

fishing on the rocks

Popular fish species

Now the fun begins – after many years of eating out here – I am often still baffled by all the different names and fish on offer.

Popular fish include the following (with an English translation where possible!)

Sardinhas – Sardines (of course!)

Cavala – (Chub) Mackerel

Carapau – Horse Mackerel

Sarda – Atlantic Mackerel

Dourada – Gilthead or Sea (or Golden) Bream

Robalo – Seabass

Atum – Tuna

Arinca – Haddock

Arinca fumada – Smoked Haddock

Pescada / Pescadinha – Hake

Linguado – Dover Sole

Polvo – Octopus

Lulas – Squid

Tamboril – Monkfish

fish at the market


Drying and salting are ancient methods of preservation of fish – and the Portuguese are well known for their salted cod – or Bacalhau.

There are rumoured to be over a 1,000 different recipes – and many locals will tell you there are as many different ways to prepare it as there are days in the year. It is also often referred to as being the ‘national dish of Portugal’.


My thanks goes to the blog Pasto for their great Bacalhau com natas recipe –  it really is very easy to make and delicious!


A staple part of the simple and healthy Portuguese diet – and on virtually every menu in the Algarve. They are usually grilled with sea salt and offered with boiled potatoes and a simple salad. Personally I have to admit that all the bones and fuss are a bit much for me – give me Carapau any day! The traditional season for sardines is July and August – we have an amazing Sardine Festival in Portimão in early August which is always worth visiting! You can try them at many of the sardine restaurants that line the waterfront – 5€ should get you half a dozen sardines (with side salad and potatoes if you shop around! – each restaurant advertises slightly different offers!)


My favourite dishes

Portuguese fish recipes are prepared in many different ways, you can boil or bake it, make a fish soup or even stew it with rice or potatoes, but the simplest way is definitely grilled – the smell of the barbecue firing up is a daily occurrence where we live and many of our neighbours seem to eat grilled fish virtually every day!

The best blog I have found so far is Pasto – Cooking from a Portuguese perspective – they have great recipes which are easy to follow with lovely photographs.

Some of the recipes I am looking forward to trying are all from the Pasto blog:

Chorizo stuffed squid/Lulas recheadas

Monkfish Skewers/Espetada de Tamboril

Grilled Sea Bream with roast red pepper butter/Dourada grelhada com molho de manteiga e pimentos

Salted Cod and Chick Pea Salad/Salada de Grão com Bacalhau

One of our favourites is Dourada – with a liberal splash of olive oil, seasoned and sprinkled with sesame seeds – then baked in the oven for about 25 minutes depending on its size. The sesame seeds make the skin taste amazing – or you could try chilli flakes instead.

And if anyone has any more recipes they can recommend – please let me know!

fish restaurant sign

A word about shopping for fish too – most supermarkets will clean and gut your fish for you if you ask them – or even fillet the larger fish. We learnt that a good phrase to know is ‘com a cabeça’ (‘with the head’) – for some reason finding out we were English usually meant the assistant immediately went to try to chop the head off the fish – if anyone knows why this is – please let me know!

fishes on ice

So next time you are in a local supermarket – or better still – a local market – why not try out a new fish? There are so many to choose from – I had fun only yesterday laughing with our local fishmonger as we bought two Carapau for our supper – the fish she selected were a lovely size – but one of them had its mouth wide open – I joked that it was a singer and was singing to us (my Portuguese can just about stretch to that!) and she replied that it was probably actually screaming as he died (!) and that wouldn’t you scream if you were drowning!?! Fair point I guess! I hope they had a more gentle end than that though!

I am always fascinated by the weird and wonderful fish on display – and I leave you with one of my favourites – there’s no way this fella would go down without a fight!!

scary fish


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29 Responses to F is for Fish

  1. sami veloso says:

    Lovely post Alyson. I love “Arroz de Tamboril” (Monkfish rice), have you ever tried it?
    Strange that with such a huge coast, in Australia fish is not that popular, and is quite pricey compared to meat.

  2. A really good post – I enjoyed reading it. When I go to Europe I love to visit a local fish market and marvel at all the choice available and then I contrast this with the minimal offerings in the UK. I live in Grimsby at the heart of the UK fishing industry but I don’t suppose that even here we can find more than 20 different choices and of course we insist it on it being fully prepared and presented in blue polystyrene trays! I envy you your fish!

  3. Great topic for F, Alyson. I’m with you on the sardines, though – far too fiddly. I’m afraid I always end up having the grilled chicken at our work’s annual Sardinhada instead of tucking into the freshly barbecued sardines. My dad would be so ashamed of me.

    • ferragudofan says:

      thanks Julie – Dave always laughs at me when I eat fish though as I don’t like bones (!) so I pick through very carefully! I am very proud that I am now proficient at sorting out my fish and de-boning it all by myself on the plate – albeit a bit slowly!! LOL 🙂

  4. restlessjo says:

    Sorry but I’m one of these sad squeamish English folk who like my fish “sem cabeca” but I usually only eat it in a restaurant. Have to bookmark this so I can check out the recipes and the museum gen. The Albacora hotel out on Shell Beach (forgotten it’s official name), Tavira has a small museum space dedicated to the old style of fishing, with water poodles and nets.

    • ferragudofan says:

      Oh Jo one of the joys of being here is being able to buy two decent sized Carapau for 2 euros (yep for both of them!) and then cooking them!!! very yummy!
      gonna have to cook some for you when you next come over 🙂
      the museum in Portimao is very interesting, it’s been very well put together. I must go back to Tavira soon…..

  5. Joseph Alsarraf says:

    I love fish and I loved this post, fish are one of my favorite things to eat, my parents get mad at me because i’m always suggesting fish. My favorite fish is cat fish which is a common fish near the Gulf of Mexico, where I live. I also just had salmon a couple of days ago, my mom wanted to try a new recipe that told her to cook it with mustard and honey, weird but, it actually tasted good. Coming in from Brenda’s Spotlight! : )

    • ferragudofan says:

      Hello and welcome to the blog! glad you liked the post and thanks for your comments
      salmon with mustard and honey does sound a bit different – might have to give that one a try – I’ve had honey and mustard sauce on chicken that was nice… so… salmon?? why not! 🙂

  6. Pingback: How many fish can you eat?! | Algarve Blog

  7. Will says:

    Wonderful. I’m back on the Algarve for a while and enjoying visiting the fish markets and eating some of the wonderful, fresh fish on offer. Out of curosity, what is a Baila? It looks like a cross between a herring and a trout but I can’t find out anything about it

  8. Can you tell me please, what are the most common fish one would find in Portimao in June?

  9. Andrew Mead says:

    What are the fish swimming round Vilamoura Marina? I couldn’t get a name from the locals but was told no-one catches them as the are not good to eat. Blunt nosed, greenish on top and up to 500mm long.

  10. Lindy Denissen says:

    Hi Aly and Dave, I just happened upon your blog while searching for information on artisanal fishing in the Algarve. I have been to your stunning part of the world – twice! I consider myself lucky, as many Americans haven’t been, nor even heard of it! I of course take the opportunity to enlighten then whenever possible!! You both are from UK? Are you now living permanently in Portugal? My husband and I are thinking of making the move to either Spain or Portugal ourselves! Your article on F is for Fish was wonderfully helpful, as I’m writing a character in my book who is from Sagres and her grandfather is an artisanal (a term I learned today) fisherman. I wonder if you’d be so kind as to let me know if you’d be interested in reading some of the portions of my book to see if you feel it’s authentic? I’d just love your feedback!! I’ll be visiting your blog dozens, if not more, times in the near future to read all you’ve got on your gorgeous little corner of the world. Well done!

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