Canned fish is most widely known in the US in the form of tuna, bomb shelter sardines and bland canned pink salmon. Yes, you may have had smoked oysters from a can but in general, this country treats canned seafood as an afterthought, a food to take camping or use during an apocalypse. To paint a broad stroke, Americans do not equate canned fish with quality, artisan production or great flavor. Yet in much of Europe (and many other places), canned fish or Conservas as they are called in Spain, are not only popular, but they are considered a delicacy.
If you doubt this, just look at some of the variety and prices of canned fish coming from Spain. Sure you can find some stellar sardines for a few bucks a tin, but the spectrum ranges from there to canned baby eels costing north of $40! These prices are not a gimmick, people buy these things and for good reason. Much of the Spanish, French and Portuguese tinned seafood is hand-packed and sourced from some of the best catches available. The products are canned within a day or two of harvest to preserve their flavor at its peak. We can taste the difference and so can you. As a comparison, try a can of sardines from trader joes, costco or kroger that is a couple dollars and compare it to some hand packed Spanish or Portuguese sardines, especially the extra small ones that come 20-30 to a can rather than 3-4. Everything is different, from the quality of the oil to the taste of the fish. The flavor is better, more engaging and less reminiscent of food related to the Cold War. So let’s dive in and explore this subject in a bit more depth!
Many of the foods we sell at Mongers’ provisions were originally an outgrowth of the need for preservation. Cheese is a way to cure milk, wine a way to wax grapes, charcuterie a means to maintain meat, and jam, a journey to fortify fruit. Conservas are no exception to this. Canned fish was first and foremost a way to provide for troops and sailors. War is hell, but sometimes it leads to things like radar, air travel, and from the razor wire, rises brined razor clams.
The first conservas were developed during the Napoleonic Wars. The French government needed to feed soldiers and was happy to find that by 1806, Nicolas Appert, a confectioner by trade, had figured out that cooking glass jars of fish in boiling water seemed to prevent the food from spoiling and would not make people sick. At the time, they did not know that the boiling water was killing microbes because this was happening well before the acceptance of germ theory and Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurization. Yet it took a Brit to develop the can. Glass as many of us (especially my breakage-prone wife) is fragile. Soon after the canning process was developed by Appert using glass vessels, Peter Durand actually patented the idea of preserving food in metal cans.
So how do we get from war-time staple to bourgeois delicacy? In the 1840’s a French boat shipwrecked and the Spanish plundered the canned fish stored aboard. Shortly after, they had built their first canning factories. The Spanish came to value conservas as a related but altogether different product from fresh seafood. While fresh seafood is highly valued in Spain, the conservas are akin to a preserved ham. The product has been, aged, transformed in a manner that creates a very different end result. This is part of the reason why canned products are often significantly more expensive than their fresh counterparts. It is in many ways the difference between buying fish from the market and getting it prepared at a restaurant. High end conservas are ready to eat and have been “cooked” by expert chefs. Thus we might pay way more for a 4 oz tin of mussels than a pound bag of fresh ones.
Let’s dive into a few of the different types of Conservas and their origins.
The most popular types of fish to can are:
- Tuna (bonito,
- Squid (calamares)
- Octopus (pulpo)
- Razor clams (navajas)
- Mussels (mejillones)
- Cockles (berberechos)
- White Clams (almejas)
Many varieties of these products are canned throughout Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. Among the different varieties of fish, there are numerous seasoning styles and mediums. Razor clams are often canned in a simple brine, while sardines might be seasoned with peppers or canned in high-quality olive oil. Spanish flavors often revolve around escabeche, a sauce punctuated by vinegar, paprika and bay leaves though simple unadorned products are quite common as well.
The French often dress-up their conservas with other flavors. A good example of this are the Les Mouettes D’arvour tins of mackerel or sardines. They make mackerel in mustard and creme fraiche, a delightful mackerel in muscadet with herbs, and sardines in parsley and butter. The latter being one of my favorite secret ingredients recently.
Take a can of those sardines in garlic, parsley and butter then throw them into any sauteed vegetables for the last couple minutes of cooking. Sauteed asparagus or green beans work especially well. If you don’t have the chance to use them in a recipe, a few chunks of these deens will make a superb topping for any salad.
Want to learn even more? Join us for our upcoming Conservas events in September!
Here are some of the brands we are working with currently and a run-down of their stories.
Conservas De Cambados (Spain) - Conservas De Cambados or CDC has a great lineup of products. They have had their own cannery in Galicia since 1985. We love their octopus and mussels!
Espinaler (Spain) - Originally started as a tavern in Barcelona, Espinaler has been around since 1896. They eventually began making their own sauce and soon after, began canning seafood. The tavern had featured conservas for many years but as they expanded into carrying specialty goods, they contracted their own production. Today, Espinaler is one of the premier specialty shops in Spain and their conservas are second to none.
Jose Gourmet (Portugal) - based in Portugal, Jose Gourmet has been a game changer for the conservas offerings in the USA. Dedicated to preserving “memory and tradition” they feature classic Portuguese products along with a few Spanish options. Their packaging is all conceived by Luís Mendonça, a Poruguese artist. Their lineup of cephalopods, mollusks, and more is truly unique.
Les Mouettes d’Arvour (France) - These guys have been in business since 1959, not as long as some of the folks on the list, but trust us, they are old school. So old school, that I cannot find their website. Yet, despite the lack of internet info, they put out superb canned fish. Their sardines and mackerel are top notch and their anchovies are not to be missed. They use excellent fish canned fresh, sometimes on its own and sometimes with added elements.
Ortiz (Spain) - Hand packed tuna, sardines and anchovies are the specialty of Ortiz. You may have seen their products in the past as they are the most popular producer we carry. That said, their quality is excellent and you can't go wrong with cracking an Ortiz tin.
Olasagasti (Spain) - A story of how two cultures combined can become something special. Olasagasti was founded by a Sicilia immigrant to Basque country in Spain. Today, Matteo, the grandson of the founders, is running the factory of Olasagasti continuing the tradition started over 100 years ago by his ancestors.
Ramón Peña (Spain) - Hand-packed seafood is what this company is all about. From their sardines to shellfish, we are always impressed by the quality Ramón Peña offers. One of our favorite items from them is their sardines in Padron peppers. Their squid in ink is also a must try!
- Wildfish Cannery (Alaska) - Canned and smoked wild Alaska seafood is the basis of this company. Carrying on the craft and time-honored traditions of the region in the small seaside town of Klawock, home to Alaska’s very first salmon cannery more than a century ago. Products ranging from a variety of canned salmons to smoked herring allow you to understand why Alaska seafood is great.
Want to learn even more? Join us for our upcoming Conservas events in September!
Below are a few recipes that work well with conservas, or as an addition to them.
Gribiche (Hard-Boiled Egg) Dressing From Bon Appetit
A great way to serve conservas! Put this on top of them or serve on the side, and go to town with some bread!
Picture from Bon Appetit
- 6 cornichons, chopped
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chopped drained capers
- 1 tablespoon whole grain mustard Kosher salt,
- freshly ground pepper
- 3 Hard-Boiled Eggs, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped herbs (such as tarragon and parsley)
Recipe Preparation: Whisk cornichons, oil, vinegar, capers, and mustard in a small bowl to emulsify; season with salt and pepper. Gently mix eggs and herbs into dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Do Ahead: Dressing can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before using.
Nutritional Content Calories (kcal) 230 Fat (g) 22 Saturated Fat (g) 3.5 Cholesterol (mg) 140 Carbohydrates (g) 3 Dietary Fiber (g) 0 Total Sugars (g) 2 Protein (g) 5 Sodium (mg)
Sauteed Vegetables with Sardines
- 1 lb of asparagus, green beans or other fresh green vegetables
- 1 can of Les Mouettes d’Arvour Sardines with butter, parsley and garlic or olive oil basil and thyme
- ½ lemon, juiced
Recipe Preparation: Open sardines and break up gently with a fork. Saute vegetables in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over high heat for 2-5 minutes or until tender but not soft. Just before finishing, add in sardines and mix until vegetables are coated well. Remove from heat and add lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve immediately or cold for a simple side.
Bagels with french sardines and garden tomatoes "The French Deli"
I made this the other day and it was a nice change from bagels with lox. The sardines are surprisingly less assertive than salmon and give a fresh taste to a breakfast classic. My wife at first was hesitant to try them, (though she loves sardines, she wasn’t keen on them for breakfast), but after a bite, she was hooked!
- 2-4 great bagels (quality bread works well too). If you haven’t tried them the new bagels from The Ferndale Project on Livernois are superb! We used New York Bagel for this though.
- 1 can of Les Mouettes d’Arvour Sardines with Basil and Thyme
- Cream cheese
- Chopped fresh tomatoes
- Fresh herbs (basil, thyme, oregano, chives and parsley are all good bets in combination or on their own. Herbs are personal and while I might love oregano on this, you might prefer just chives. This is a recipe not a commandment)
- High quality olive oil to finish
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Recipe Preparation: Slice bagels and toast if desired. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese on the bagels. Add a few pieces of the sardines to each bagel and top with the chopped tomatoes. Sweet cherry tomatoes work well, but if you have some great heirlooms, they will work great too. Sprinkle with chopped herbs and drizzle with olive oil. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.