As you browse the imported tinned seafood on display at local specialty food stores, you can’t help but notice the emphasis these mostly Spanish and Portuguese brands place on snazzy packaging.

Most of the tins are oval or rectangular with rounded edges and colorful designs on their pop-tops, unlike the plainer round cans American usually associate with cannery-processed fish. Some tins come wrapped in ornamental paper featuring festive illustrations of the particular seafood within, while others are swaddled in mesh netting.

But the luxe packaging can be seen as less a marketing ploy than an indication of how seriously the tinned seafood companies take the contents, and their reverence for the caliber of the wild-caught sardines, mackerel, octopus, squid, razor clams and more.

“It’s the best seafood that a country (like Portugal or Spain) has to offer,” explained Vince Maniaci, owner of The Cheese Iron in Scarborough. “Expect quality when you open the tin.”

“I think even the word ‘tinned’ gives them the gourmet respect they deserve,” said Rachel Lapp, online sales manager at Browne Trading Company in Portland.

Called conservas in their homeland on the Iberian Peninsula, tinned seafood is a delicacy that tends to cause cognitive dissonance for American shoppers, because on our shores, the best fish gets cooked fresh – or eaten raw. The idea of canning top-quality seafood might seem almost perverse to people in this country, since for years, we’ve considered canned fish a meal of last resort.

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Gourmet tinned seafood, including squids in ink, tuna belly in vegetable oil, sardines in tomato sauce, grilled albacore tuna in olive oil, razor clams in brine, and Spanish white anchovies with roasted garlic in extra-virgin olive oil. Tinned seafood has moved beyond simple sardines, with many gourmet offerings now available in the United States. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Taking care with conservas

“The old-school can of sardines isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when you think of that, it won’t align with the price of tinned seafood,” said Kit Paschal, director of operations for The Shop by Island Creek Oysters in Portland. “That’s what turns people off.”

Those lovely tins do come with hefty price tags, selling for around $8 to $20 or more per item, while $20 could buy a big haul of canned seafood at the supermarket. Don’t blame the packaging, though. What you’re paying for is the quality of the fish or shellfish, and the care taken to preserve its pristine condition.

Seafood for conservas is wild-caught on day boats, then brought to shore the same day for preparation. The catch is then lightly steamed – sometimes even grilled or fried, as some brands do with octopus and mussels – and packed into tins.

“Sourcing and preparation make the difference with the good stuff,” Paschal said. “You can tell the tins are hand-packed, with the fish being layered very nicely in there. They’re putting more thought into the process.”

The day after being caught and prepped, the conservas are sealed in tins, which locks in peak flavor and nutrients. The tins contain added liquid to keep contents moist, and the choice of liquid depends on the seafood itself. Milder-tasting items like tuna are often packed simply in olive oil, while stronger, oilier fish like sardines and mackerel sometimes come covered in boldly flavored tomato sauces or marinades with spicy fresh chiles like piri-piri.

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“The sauces are there specifically to complement and bring out the flavor of the fish itself, not to mask it,” explained Maniaci.

Grilled albacore tuna in olive oil, imported from Spain. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Smaller, sustainable fish

Sustainable fishing practices differ from company to company in the conservas world. But because conservas rely mostly on smaller, less overfished finfish like sardines, mackerel and anchovies, along with shellfish like clams, mussels, oysters and cockles, they tend to be ecologically sustainable.

And while Iberian seafood tends to attract the most lavish praise, Spain and Portugal aren’t the only players in the gourmet tinned fish market. Japan has plenty of quality canned seafood. Scandinavia and Canada boast brands of their own, and new canneries have launched in America as well.

“Eating tinned fish is something I grew up with,” said Briana Volk, co-owner of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, who comes from a Scandinavian background. The restaurant’s menu includes a “Tinned Fish Börd” that features a revolving seafood selection including offerings from Iceland and the Gulf of Maine, too.

“People have this idea of mackerel being really oily and fishy-tasting. Even adventurous seafood eaters say, ‘Nope, mackerel is the line I draw,'” Volk said. “But we have a mackerel that’s new from Gulf of Maine Conservas (based in New Hampshire). It’s the one I put in front of people and say, ‘This is going to change your mind about mackerel.'”

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Volk said they pair the fish tins with little more than potato chips and spicy aioli. “We do the börd very simply, because the fish is the star, and you want it to shine, not cover it up with a lot of other things,” she said.

The Shop also has tinned fish on its menu. Paschal said their offerings are listed in order of familiarity, with items like bonito (tuna) in oil at the top, moving on to oilier, full-flavored small fish, ending with something like Jose Gourmet squid in ragout sauce.

When The Shop first opened in 2017, Paschal said they didn’t sell much tinned fish. “Now, everyday we get orders for dine-in,” he said. “A lot of people come equally excited for the tinned fish plates as for fresh-shucked oysters.” The Shop also keeps the plates simple, including typical charcuterie board items bread, pickles and perhaps mustard to pair with the seafood.

Paschal also believed the pandemic may have led more people to embrace tinned fish for its stable shelf life and elegant convenience. Pull a tin of smoked mussels, grilled octopus or choice mackerel filets from the pantry, pair it with some crusty bread and maybe a green salad, and you’ve got a memorable meal in minutes.

“People have been eating at home so much more during the pandemic, and you can get cooking fatigue,” he said. “But if you have a sleeve of crackers and a tin of fish, you’re good to go.”

Rachel Lapp of Browne Trading Company stands next to shelves of tinned seafood at the Commercial Street store in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Keep it simple

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Lapp said another consumer benefit is that tinned fish takes the fear out of buying and cooking fresh seafood, particularly the less popular species. “To buy or prepare fresh razor clams, for instance, can be very intimidating for most people,” she said. “And fish like fresh sardines will go bad in two days.

“Tinned fish is such an easy, fun product,” Lapp continued. “They’re perfect to pack for a picnic, or just to eat right out of the can, and also great for entertaining. Just open a few tins and set them out for guests like hors d’oeuvres. Or warm them and mix them into pasta.”

Lapp added that her own tinned fish obsession right now is Briosa brand sardine pâté on lightly toasted bread topped with a squeeze of lemon and some parsley.

Maniaci’s favorite at the moment is Matiz brand sardines in piri piri sauce. “Though nothing beats the Ortiz anchovies. They’re so tender, when you’re making a sauce, they just melt in the pan,” he said.

With immaculate ingredients, the best approach is usually the simplest. Maniaci said he advises customers to eat tinned fish meals with little more than some pickled shallots and Calabrese olives on the side, kind of a high-end snack dinner.

“You really should just have fun with it. Nothing about this is supposed to be complicated or a cerebral experience.”


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