Upscale foods—much like designer handbags—slide in and out of vogue. Ten years ago, chicken liver mousse was not particularly appealing to most American foodies—nor was toro, or anything infused with turmeric. Now? Turmeric has found an unlikely home in lattes, and terrines and foie gras are de rigueur, along with broccolini (sorry, brussel sprouts, your moment has passed), bone broth, and of course, uni. Tinned fish (also written as tin fish on occasion), as trendy foods go, is a bit of an outlier. In Spain and Portugal, tinned fish and tinned seafood is served on chic ceramic tasting platters, alongside crusty bread and a glass of red wine under dim lighting. In the U.S., for many years, it wasn’t afforded nearly that same level of clout. In fact, there was nothing exalted, and certainly nothing alluring, about tinned fish.
“Tinned fish in the states has really been a sad state of affairs, honestly,” said chef David Santos, a co-founding partner of New York City-based Leaves and Loaves Goods, which produces high-end European-style tinned fish, jams, and condiments. “I remember asking my mom as a child, on one of our summer trips to Portugal, why the tuna was so much better there.”
Growing up, for Santos, there was a disconnect in how canned fish was appreciated and lovingly produced abroad, but clearly looked down upon (or, rather, overlooked altogether) in the U.S., Jonathan Harris observed that same contrast, except in Spain rather than Portugal. His company, La Tienda, is the largest online retailer of Spanish foods in the U.S. “In the United States, canned fish [was] seen as a cheap grocery store item, and the products generally available [were] not very appealing in taste or texture,” said Harris, who now runs La Tienda with his brother, Tim. La Tienda was founded in his father’s basement in 1996.
“My father was a chaplain in the Navy and we were stationed in Andalucia when I was a kid in the 1970s,” explained Harris. “We loved Spain and Spanish food, but there was very little quality [Spanish] food available in the U.S. at the time.” So, the family found their own way to bring Spanish food to America, creating what is now the go-to purveyor of Spanish imports for the U.S. and Canada, and later opening a tapas bar in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“Over the last decade we have seen the perception shift among our customers,” said Harris. “They are starting to understand what the Spanish know as an obvious truth—if seafood is locally harvested, then prepared and hand-packed with care, canned seafood can actually surpass the quality of freshly cooked.”
Santos feels a distinct pride in seeing the production of tinned fish in the U.S. take a leaf out of Spain and Portugal’s book. “You see more and more cool small producers popping up,” many of whom are hand-packing seafood and fish with great care, said Santos.
And with the heightened supply, the demand really has followed. The bougie wine bars of the U.S. have found the glory in smoked mackerel submerged in rich olive oil and found room for imported sardines on their menus; small fromageries in the West Village and the equally chic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston are displaying tinned fish on the counter next to glass jars of calvestrano olives from Italy, tightly packed terrines from France, and pinot noirs from independent wineries.
“Tinned fish is a staple in Portugal. There is a lot of pride involved in the tins. The artwork and wrapping that goes into them is amazing,” said Santos. As he describes the artistic tradition around tinned fish, it’s not hard to see why the wine bar and cheese shop-frequenting crowd would be drawn to tinned fish. “When you walk into a conservaria in Lisbon or Porto, it's like walking into a candy shop with all the colors, shapes, and sizes. It's really wonderful and sometimes hard to explain to people until you show them.”
“I love seeing people really starting to appreciate the beauty of the tin,” continued Santos, who owned West Village hot spot louro and now runs Um Segredo Supper Club NYC. “I’m super proud to be a part of that movement forward.”
Harris explained that the Spanish and Portuguese, who have been canning seafood for more than a century, pride themselves not only on the presentation, as Santos alluded to, but on their ability to make seafood more flavorful and tender over time. “A tin that has been sitting for over a year is more prized than one freshly packed,” said Harris. He explained that each tinned fish and seafood has their own tradition; canned seafood (clams, razor clams, mussels, and scallops, primarily) hails from Galicia and Pais Vasca in Basque Country, and Basque is also known for their canned white tuna, Bonito del Norte. Much of the seafood canned in Galicia is bought immediately at the local seafood market, where the cannery is located. “It is cooked just hours after harvest, then placed by hand in each tin—most of it is packed in olive oil. All of this comes with a price, and Galician seafood can sometimes cost $50 or more per tin,” said Harris.
For the Americans who are just coming to this trend of luxury tinned fish, our experts offered advice on how best to serve them—just like you’d find them at your local wine bar—at home.
“You take good bread, pop a tin open, and serve it with a variety of pickles and olives,” said Santos. “Making a beautiful baby greens salad topped with anchovies, sardines, or baby mackerel is always great. In Portugal, we do these small breads stuffed with tinned sardines that are to die for when you dip them in good olive oil, garlic, and vinegar.”
At louro in the West Village, Santos used to do soft scrambled duck eggs topped with warmed tinned salt cod. For the chef, the dish, topped with a potato foam and herbed potato crisps, was “the epitome of luxury made from the simplest of ingredients.”
Like Santos, Harris likes to serve tinned shellfish or sardines as tapas with good bread, crackers, and a glass of wine. “For the Bonito del Norte tuna, I break it into chunks and serve it with bread and piquillo peppers, or add it as the main feature of a salad. This is typical in Spain.”
Harris reminded those who are broadening their tinned fish palette to not shy away from serving the fish directly from the tin. “There are tapas bars in Spain that serve gourmet tinned seafood straight from the can as their main offering, along with vermouth or wine. Anthony Bourdain in Espinaler is a famous example,” said Harris.
Of course, in conjunction with this newfound love affair with high-quality tin fish is a pandemic that has the world stocking up on canned goods. While tinned fish was seeing a luxury renaissance long before COVID-19, in wine bars across America, sales are climbing this year. Harris has seen sales of tinned seafood “growing [in] double digitals for the last several years.” But in 2020, he said sales have surged as their clientele looks for high-end foods that afford them an upscale restaurant-quality experience at home.
“A gourmet treat is just seconds away,” remarked Harris. “Just open a tin and pour a glass of wine.”