Aug 27, 2023

Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardine Opens in Manhattan

A new store in Times Square looks like a glitzy two-story book shop, with rows of published works replaced by sardine tins. As soon as I walked in the door, one of the clerks stepped up to warn me, “All we sell here is fish.”

It’s the first U.S. store for the Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine, one of over 20 shops, with the rest in Portugal. It’s set up like a sardine time machine, with cans chronologically arranged by the year stamped on the top of each one, like fine bottles of wine, running from 1916 to the present.

Located at 1582 Broadway on the southeast corner of 48th Street, the shop is run by Portuguese sardine company, Comur, which signed a ten-year lease for the space. Founded in 1942, it is one of Portugal’s largest canners, still pursuing a preservation method that may seem old-fashioned to some Americans. Yet tinned fish has been on the rise, especially lately — driven by TikTok — with tinned fish garnering tens of millions of views, and companies like Fishwife having grown 9900 percent since it opened in 2020. (Back in March, ubiquitous humanitarian and chef, José Andrés, reminded followers tinned fish isn’t new and expanded on its history.)

Conmur has 23 stores using this unique method of merchandising all over Portugal.

It turns out the dates stamped on the cans are illusory; they were all canned around the same time and most cost $15 per four ounces. It’s a marketing ploy, one clerk told me; it allows customers to buy a can as a gift that marks a recipient’s birth year. Each can also highlights an important event of that year and the birth of one or more celebrities.

There are other cans beyond the dated ones, including those with colorful youthful party scenes, and other variations of sardines with tomato sauce, smoked, or with chiles; the company offers 30 varieties of canned fish.

The most prominent sardines in the store feature cans shaped like gold ingots that sell for a whopping $44 each and contain only three ounces of fish. I decided to buy a $15 can and compare it with the $44 can to find out if the price differential is worth it.

Despite the packaging, this is a standard tin of sardines packed in olive oil, a nice serving for one person to pair with sliced baguette, for example. The silvery skin shines; the four plump filets contain bones, but as you probably know, the bones are entirely edible and you probably won’t notice them. Strong sardine flavor.

These sardines have been skinned and deboned laboriously by hand, and look tiny as they crouch in the can. The flavor is more mild, the lack of skin may come as a relief to some, but I find it adds to the texture of the tiny fish. Finally, a few swatches of gold leaf dot the filets here and there, which have no flavor but add to the luxury feel of the product.

I vastly preferred the plain old sardines, although the $15 price tag already seemed a lot compared to online finds of similar-size tins in the $2 to $4 range. Still, I have questions: What tourist is willing to buy a can of sardines as a souvenir, and pay this much for it when you can get something similar in a bodega at an eighth the price?

The gold ingot of sardines is another story: As a gesture of being willing to pay an absurd mark-up for a flashy birthday present for the foodie who has everything, maybe this can will fly. But who wants mild when the whole point of eating sardines is its fishiness?

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