In with the old, in with the new

Who’s responsible for the ring-pull on cans of tinned fish? Partly clumsy customers from the UK. And mainly Ramirez, the Portuguese cannery behind Berthe, Cocagne and La Rose. In the early 70s, customers here kept losing their can-opener keys or breaking the lids with them, prompting an English importer – whom they were forever complaining to – to issue Ramirez with a challenge to come up with an alternative. Three years and a lot of precision work later – the incision in the lid had to be measured to the micrometer to ensure the right flexibility – Ramirez grafted the already-invented ring-pull onto its tins - an innovation soon nabbed by the rest of the fish canning industry.

Nelson Soares, whose first job when he began working for Ramirez in 2002 was only to research and edit Ramirez, Memories of Five Generations - a book marking the cannery’s then 150th year. He’s the font of the above info, and all the below. In the book’s foreword, Manuel Guerreiro Ramirez, the former president of the cannery who sadly died in March this year, points out that this is the oldest operating cannery in the world, along with Chancerelle in France.

Manuel Guerreiro Ramirez was the great grandson of the Andalusian entrepreneur Sebastian Ramirez, who founded the cannery behind Berthe, Cocagne and La Rose in 1853. He established it in Vila Real de Santo António, setting up vast, labyrinthine tuna traps along the nearby Algarve coast - there’s a scale model of one in the foyer of the Matosinhos cannery. The traps caught the fatty, egg-laden, highly-prized Atun de Direito on its migratory route around the Portuguese coast, and the leaner Atun de Reves on its return journey. The business was, in fact, two businesses to begin with: a salt conservation plant and a textile business making the jute bags that the salted tuna was exported in. Cans replaced jute in 1865, propelled by improving techniques and Pasteur’s scientific explanation of earlier discoveries that food could be preserved in air-tight jars and cans.

It made sense to put down roots in Vila Real de Santo António. There was already a salting tradition there dating back to the Romans. In nearby Castro Marim you can still see the remnants of ancient salting tanks where tuna was preserved and garum, the Romans’ fermented fish sauce of choice, was prepared. And you can soak in one of its salt ponds on a spa break even today. There are Roman tuna tanks in Lavra, close to the cannery’s current Matosinhos headquarters, too.

Back in the day, whistles would alert workers in the Algarve cannery when there was a catch; different coloured smoke signals was another way that workers got the heads up. When the whistles blew, the workers made their way to ‘the forest’, their byword for the room in the cannery where the tuna would be left, hanging vertically and looking like so many trees.

Through the 1920s to 60s, groceries in Portugal, Spain and Italy portioned out tuna to customers from 10kg tins, wrapping it in papel mata borrão – an absorbent brown paper. The Atun di Corso were the loins from tuna similar to the sought after Atun de Direito. The whopping tins - on display at today’s cannery - took four hours to sterilise compared to the paltry 40 minutes the small ones needed. The small tins edged ahead in popularity in the 60s, as family sizes shrunk and supermarkets took hold.

By the 1920s, sardines were all the rage and production was rocketing. The company took heed and opened a small outpost in Matosinhos in 1928.

After the success of the 1928 cannery, bigger canneries followed in Matosinhos in 1945 and 1959, shuttering in 2015 to make way for the current one. Whilst mindful of tradition, Ramirez has always been future-facing too. The way it rose to the English importer’s challenge in the 70s and pioneered the ring-pull innovation proves it. And the current HQ in Matosinhos is a good example of all this. It fuses artisanal techniques like preparing and filleting sardines by hand with new technology such as cocooning tuna in a microscopic layer of ice, harvesting rainwater for use in the cannery and powering its plant with solar energy. The oldest operational cannery in the world, it turns out, is kind of the newest too.

The stories behind the brands:

Ramirez is a master at tailoring its tins to different countries and markets. Cocagne was the first, launched in 1906 for the Belgian market. The tin depicts the medieval game of Portuguese origin pau de sebo or tallow stick, where game Belgians and Central Europeans literally climbed the greasy (tallow or animal-fat smeared) pole and tried to seize a prize at the top. Cocagne – which means happiness or plenty – was the euphoric feeling you got when you finally got your mitts on the prize. Sardines in this case.

Berthe and La Rose have different backstories. Berthe was launched in 1902 by a cannery in Setúbal, Portugal. One of the partners was French, and the impact of this has endured. The girl on the front of the tins is an icon of the Lyon region, appearing in literature from the region. And a French importer later took over the company. For the past 20 years Ramirez has produced the Berthe line, and for the past five has owned it.


Stephen Lucas

La Rose was produced in Portugal by a Spanish cannery, Feu Hermanos – now the meticulously preserved Portimão Museum. The company stopped production in the late 70s, but Antonio Feu – a family member who had inherited the brand - thought this was a pity. In the summer of 2013, he decided to give the brand to his good friend—Manuel Guerreiro Ramirez. Three years later La Rose was back on shelves. Vasco Encarnação, a Porto design company, studied the original La Rose designs and recreated the packaging, the red border inspired by ads from the 50s.