Why You Should Be Eating More Tinned Fish
First times are important, MOB. Like your first kiss, your first heartbreak, or the first time that you squeeze on a pair of Lululemon leggings and feel the way that they cling to the contours of your body like a hungry lover, the first time that you eat a truly great tin of fish can be an experience that alters the course of your life for good.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and you’ve never tasted a sardine so appetising that you could eat it straight from the tin without even a dash of pepper, then you’re long overdue for a delicious awakening. Good tinned fish isn’t just an excellent store cupboard staple, capable of seeing you through times of financial and emotional hardship, but an underrated ingredient which can add a rich, depth of flavour to a multitude of dishes. Simply put: you should be eating more tinned fish.
The tins of Ortiz mackerel and jars of shimmering anchovy fillets that I bought in a panicked daze during the first lockdown turned out to be my personal saviours in 2020, and I’d love to take this opportunity to spread their gospel to the masses. Because, in a lot of ways, tinned fish is the ultimate fast food. All you’ve got to do to turn a tin of sardines into a banging, balanced meal is drape those fat fish over a slice of buttered toast and sprinkle them with Maldon sea salt.
While your nutritionist might recommend them because they provide “an instant hit of protein and healthy fats”, and your veterinarian may even suggest you feed them to your dog to make their coat all glossy, I’m suggesting that you should be eating more tinned fish for a far more important reason: they’re delicious. And it’s about time you stopped sleeping on them.
In Spain and Portugal, the fish and seafood that come preserved in jars and tins are known as “conservas” and considered a delicacy. Plump mussels and muscular fillets of tuna can regularly be found served in their tins at Basque tapas bars alongside rough-hewn hunks of bread and good olive oil. You’re obviously not likely to be gallivanting across the Spanish countryside any time soon but keeping things simple, and letting the ingredients be the focal point of a meal, is an integral part of conservas culture; it underlines a respect for produce and sourcing that I think we should all try and incorporate more into the way we eat. Though that’s not to say that tinned fish can’t still be used ancillary support in more elaborate dishes as well.
Anchovies, for example, are essential at providing an umami backbone to a puttanesca sauce and, thanks to their salty flavour profile, can even be used as a substitute for guanciale or pancetta in a carbonara. If you want to taste the anchovy in its purest form, however, you should try making your own gildas by spearing those ‘chovies onto a cocktail stick with some high-quality olives and hot guindilla peppers. I’m not the most experienced chef out there but I know, from personal experience, that gildas are an easy way to make yourself seem chic and sophisticated without putting in much effort at all.
Where to buy tinned fish?
Buying your oily albacore or spiced sardinillas from premium producers will also go a long way in helping you enjoy the ultimate tinned fish experience. That being said, you don’t need to break the bank to get the good stuff. Online retailers like Brindisa and Sous Chef stock a good range of high-quality brands at an affordable price while The Tinned Fish Market even offers a monthly subscription box that comes packed to the gills with interesting tins from family-run canneries. If you’re committed to going it alone – and feeling your own way through the ocean of options out there – try to stick to trusted brands like Ortiz or Fish 4 Ever and keep an eye out for independent and family-run businesses where possible.
Conservas Nardín, for example, is a small family business based in a Basque fishing port near San Sebastian; they’ve been hand-preparing, preserving, and tinning fish using traditional methods for decades and work hard to ensure that the fish they stock is sustainably sourced and preserved at peak freshness for optimal flavour. If you’re after something a bit more local then the folks at The Pilchard Works, who specialise in tinning sustainable Cornish sardine stocks, are worth a look-see. It might sound trite but supporting the people who care about the product they’re creating really does make everything taste better.
So, even if you are still slightly hesitant, and not completely at peace with the idea of eating pilchards with your bare hands just yet, I hope that I’ve at least somewhat inspired you to give tinned fish another go. I’m not saying you need to dive in the deep end straight away and buy the most abstract-looking tin of razor clams you can find. Just start off slowly with some quality sardines or tinned mackerel and take it from there. Because there’s a whole sea of tinned fish out there just waiting to be explored, MOB, and you might just end up falling in loving with them, too. Hell, you might even, like me, end up becoming the sort of person that gets wine drunk on a Friday night and orders countless tins of garlic-laced octopus tentacles and Galician mussels that come pooled in a verdant escabeche sauce. But let’s not hold our breath now.