COMUR

On the northern edge of the central region of Portugal there is a tiny town called Murtosa.  A tiny speck that does not make it on most maps of Portugal but whose influence in the canning industry is world renowned.  At just under 46 square miles and with a population of 10,585 it is no wonder it doesn’t exactly make it on most cartographers rendering of Portugal.  It wasn’t even a town until 1926 when the then Interior Minister of Portugal (Jaime Afreixo) led the effort to formally annex it from the larger city of Estarreja.  Murtosa has 4 areas (freguesias): Bunheiro, Monte, Murtosa and Torreira.  Murtosa is also the home of my ancestors and I spent some wonderful summers there growing up.  Its two main industries are fishing and agriculture and one of its biggest employers was the COMUR cannery which produces some of the most delicious canned fish in the world.  Founded in 1942 COMUR (the name is a combination of Conservas da Murtosa) took advantage of one of the most abundant resources Murtosa had to offer: eels.  Murtosa, and the adjacent towns of the district of Aveiro, are largely influenced by the Aveiro River.  The “Ria de Aveiro” is really a lagoon fed from the west by the Atlantic Ocean creating one of the world’s last remaining untouched marshlands.  Within the inlets it carved in the landscape eels thrive in the muddy shallow waters.  Eels are mostly salt-water fish, but some inhabit fresh water inlets returning to the sea to breed.  They utilize fresh water inlets to burrow into the mud and sand where they can elude larger predatory fish that cannot survive in shallow fresh water.  The Aveiro lagoon forms many such inlets in the town of Murtosa especially at high tide and during the winter rainy season.  The city of Aveiro even features navigable canals much like Venice.  In fact, Aveiro is often referred to as the “Venice of Portugal”.  So, with all these inlets and marshes eels thrived and became a staple protein in the Murtoseiro diet. Catching eels is easy and does not require elaborate tools.  The two most popular ways to catch eels is to lay out a long fishing line with various smaller hooked and baited lines attached.  The eels are attracted to the bait and once on the hook their writhing attempts to escape further ensnares it.  Another popular way to catch them is to go out in a small boat at night by shining a light or lantern over the water.  The curious eels come to the surface to inspect and when they do the fisherman stab at them with a pitchfork.  The two most popular ways of cooking eels is in a caldeirada (stew) and escabeche (fired and pickled).  Eels are particularly challenging to prepare because they are slimy and earthy not unlike catfish.  The earthy muddy flavor comes about because eels live in the mud and its preparation involves complex ways to mask that muddy flavor.  Stewing it in a caldeirada utilizes saffron and mint while the escabeche utilizes vinegar and time to enhance the flavor.  The latter is what COMUR specializes in.  Since 1942 they have harvested eels in and around Murtosa and preparing them escabeche style.  The canning process involves a very important preservative: salt.  The Aveiro district is also known for its sea salt.  All those inlets of the Aveiro Lagoon are fed from the Atlantic Ocean and in certain areas the salt content is high enough for salt production.  Many “salinhas” (salt production areas) popped up over the years and COMUR was uniquely situated to utilize this ingredient for canning eels.  The idea to industrialize canning eels came about when inhabitants of the nearby Beira region ordered fried preserved eels from people living in Murtosa.  Fritadeiras da Murtosa (women of Murtosa who prepared fried eels) prepared eels escabeche style for order but it got to a point where they couldn’t keep up with the demand.  A few entrepreneurial gentlemen from the Estarreja had the idea of industrializing the process but it was the women of Murtosa that truly made COMUR a success.   COMUR became the only manufacturing in town and the largest private sector employer.  COMUR eventually began canning ocean fish like sardine and mackerel and during World War II it even supplied Italian troops with canned fish. Today the award winning COMUR is recognized the world over for its quality artisanal seafood preservation and canning excellence.  You can order COMUR products online and visit their museum if you are travelling through Murtosa.  As I mentioned above they have expanded to canning other fish and seafood and they are known for their flavor, quality and preservation techniques.