Steve Stoner sniffs out the strange in Europe
Lisbon is currently one of the hottest cities on the planet. It’s hip, historic and bursting with terrific eating, drinking and shopping opportunities. But amongst all the cool retail spots there’s something strange lurking…and it involves tinned fish, particularly sardines!
The humble sardine is a Lisbon institution and even celebrated in June with a full-blown festival. Yep, it’s true. This sardine obsession has also led to some fantastically weird retailing. On a recent trip, I visited no less than four different stores in Lisbon that sold just one thing – tinned fish. Every one of these peculiar shops presented their wares with beauty, precision and a spectacular whimsy. I’m not sure I have ever seen such an ordinary product sold with such reverence.
The most bizarre of these stores has to be the brilliantly named ‘Mundo Fantastico Da Sardinha Portuguesa’ which literally translates as ‘The Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines’. With a wild fairground vibe including a carousel and colourfully uniformed staff, it’s a surreal wonderland dedicated to the humble fish. The can designs are gorgeous and obviously fuel a strong souvenir trade, prominently displaying a date and the significant events of that year. A perfect birthday present, if slightly weird.
Other stores present the colourful cans as if they were luxury confectionery, with elegant lighting and lavish wall displays. Comur, the leading cannery in Portugal even has a basement vault in its flagship store stacked with special edition ‘gold bullion’ sardine cans containing edible golf leaf. Simply bonkers.
Whatever you think about this seeming lunacy, there’s plenty to admire in the can designs to be found throughout the city. As a visual creative, I was constantly delighted with the contemporary, considered graphic designs that take something very ordinary and turn it into something very special.
So, if you’re ever in Lisbon, make sure to check out at least one of these stores. You’ll be hard pressed not to be impressed, even if it seems slightly baffling. The only thing preventing me being a total advocate of this wilful barminess is the fact that I’m not sure I want to actually eat any of the can’s contents! Maybe this is a food that should ONLY be eaten with the eyes.