Yes, We Can
Tinned seafood has captivated social media; does it deserve a place in your pantry?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GENEVA RICO
Until recently, most Americans viewed fish in a can as little more than a low-budget staple or emergency ration. In the first half of the 20th century, however, tinned seafood like sardines and anchovies was wildly popular, much of it originating in the Monterey Bay.
The industry came about due to the region’s abundant supply of small, pelagic fish species combined with a population of immigrants from traditional fishing cultures like China, Italy, Portugal and Japan.
In fact, tinned seafood, known collectively as conservas, has been a staple in parts of the Mediterranean nearly 200 years. Perusing the aisles in conserva shops, you’ll find shelves packed with cans and tins adorned with colorful, whimsical labels and filled with salty, savory treats like razor clams, cockles, eel and lobster, packed variously in their own juice or ink, extra virgin olive oil, tomato sauce, herbs and spices, or brine. There are pâtés, smoked and pickled offerings, fillets and bitesized morsels to be skewered on toothpicks, just the thing for a casual meal augmented by beer, cider, wine or vermouth and a hunk of crusty bread. Tinned fish is an easy, affordable treat that also makes for a nutritious, protein- and omega-3-rich snack or last-minute entertaining option.
“Tinned seafood is a long-lasting luxury food commodity and wonderful gift, particularly this time of year,” says Crista Jones, fisherwoman and owner of Dave’s Gourmet Seafood in Watsonville. “People think, tuna for Christmas? But it’s the ideal stocking stuffer and it ages in the can, becoming more mellow in flavor and texture because the oil saturates the fillet.”
In the early 20th century, Monterey’s Cannery Row was home to some of the nation’s oldest, largest canneries, including Pacific Fish Co., Bayside Fish & Flour Co. and Pacific Packers/Great Western Sardine Co. By 1918, Cannery Row was producing more than 1.4 million cases of tinned sardines a year. Following World War II, however, the local sardine fishery collapsed, the result of habitat contamination and unregulated harvests. By the late ’60s, Cannery Row was abandoned, until it was reimagined as a tourist destination in the late 1970s.
Although our regional economy of canning seafood is long gone, colorful tins of fish are trending domestically like never before, due in large part to social media optics. A recent article in Time states that “tinned fish videos have garnered 27 million views (on TikTok),” and domestic sales of tinned fish reached $2.7 billion in 2022.
In Portugal and Spain, “tinned fish packaging is an art form,” says Jones, “People eat with their eyes, and so a number of American brands have followed suit.” Here, aesthetically driven domestic brands like Tiny Fish Co., Fishwife and Scout have blown up on social media, but it’s their sustainable sourcing and processing that truly sets them apart from the competition (see “Conservation in a Can” section). These brands focus on biodiversity, traceability, transparency and fair wages, putting marine resource management, carbon footprint reduction and fishermen and fisherwomen’s welfare at the forefront.
The recently expanded import market also provides Americans access to responsibly sourced canned products (primarily from Nordic countries, the Mediterranean, Australia and New Zealand) like monkfish liver, barnacles and squid packed in its own ink.
Crista Jones (top left) took over Dave’s Gourmet Seafood when founder Dave Greenberger retired and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Pilchards is an old name for sardines, that were once a big business on Cannery Row.
There are several options for those averse to oily, assertively flavored species like mackerel. “The best way to dip your toe in if you dislike strong flavors is to experiment with pâté or milder species like garfish or cod,” says Nicolaus Balla, co-owner/chef/baker at Coast— a café, specialty food shop and gallery in Big Sur.
Balla touts tinned fish as the ideal healthy snack, camping food and last-minute entertaining ingredient. “My favorite way to use products like herring is on smørrebrød, Danish open-faced sandwiches, adding them to sourdough toast that’s been rubbed with garlic and slathered with aioli, lemon and parsley, tossing sardines into pasta puttanesca,” he says. “Canned fish is delicious, first and foremost, but it’s also economical, versatile and nutritious.”
It’s not just consumers who have embraced tinned fish; entire bar programs (like Seattle’s JarrBar, an early adopter that opened in 2014) are now built around the category because the salty, smoky, spicy flavors are a natural match for alcoholic beverages.
“Beer and wine are great with tinned fish,” says Balla. “It’s hard to go wrong, although I’d steer away from floral, light-bodied wines with oily species like mackerel. I like medium- bodied wines with some acidity for most canned fish, and light, bright, acidic still or sparkling wines help cleanse the palate. Smoked fish like sardines also goes well with light or hoppy brews; sours and higher alcohol Belgian styles also work.”
At Coast, customers can order local beer and wine to pair with a hunk of Balla’s exquisite rustic breads and the tinned seafood of their choice, with the option to include housemade pickles and spreads. And at Barceloneta in Santa Cruz, Spanish vermouth is the suggested and traditional pairing for Cantabrian boquerones (white anchovies) pickled in white wine vinegar and served with gordal olives, piparra peppers and pimentón chips.
Hans Haveman, a fisherman and the co-owner and fish buyer of Santa Cruz’s H&H Fresh Fish, likes to use canned wild-caught salmon in salade Niçoise or pasta. Keeping your pantry stocked with tinned fish, capers, jarred olives, chile flakes, garlic, pasta, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt will ensure you’re never without the makings of a delicious meal or cocktail snack.
“If they’re harvested responsibly from fully certified fishermen and well-managed fisheries, it ensures there are plenty of fish left to spawn. The United States is among the most well-managed fisheries on earth, right up there with Australia and New Zealand.” —Hans Haveman, H&H Fresh Fish
CONSERVATION IN A CAN
Consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprint are also embracing tinned fish. “There’s literally no more sustainable food on earth than small, pelagic finfish species like sardines, mackerel, herring and anchovies,” says Haveman. “Most tinned seafood comes from species that are low on the food chain. They’re abundant and short-lived so the risk for contamination like mercury is also extremely low.”
Country of origin is critical when it comes to sustainability because fisheries in many parts of the world aren’t well-regulated. Confusingly, the country-of-origin labeling on cans pertains to where fish are processed, not caught. Haveman’s advice is to purchase American wildcaught and American processed seafood, especially when it comes from a can. The exception? Most fresh and canned bivalves (clams, mussels and their ilk) are farmed. It’s a domestic industry with a low impact on habitat and other species.
To parse the options without doing extensive research, look for cans with certifications from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) on their label, which ensures they contain wild species sourced from independently assessed fisheries that meet strict sustainability requirements, including catch method.
Coast carries Portuguese brands Jose Gourmet and ABC+, as well as American names like Ekone and Patagonia Provisions. Balla says he thoroughly researches a company before placing an order.
“Our decisions are based on quality, sustainability as well as ensuring that seafood is processed without unhealthy additives.”
Jones sells her own line of products, which are canned fresh and cooked in their own juices. The offerings include Pacific Northwest wild-caught sockeye, king salmon, Dungeness crab, Oregon pink shrimp, sardines and Northern Pacific albacore. “The North Pacific salmon and albacore fishery set the bar for zero bycatch by using jigging (a single hook and line). The fish are bled and quick-chilled offshore for maximum freshness before being processed at canneries in the Pacific Northwest.
While Jones and Haveman no longer fish vocationally, they’re rigorous in vetting their sources. “I require all of our fishermen to be fully permitted and ensure that they only source from well-regulated fisheries,” says Haveman. “Every species I carry has been researched to the hilt.”
Adds Jones, “It’s hard for consumers to trust their food supply, so we encourage them to ask questions. As fishermen and purveyors, it’s really important for us to be able to tell customers where their food is coming from, and how it’s caught and processed.”
WHERE TO BUY
Coast Big Sur: Hit this café with a view for lunch, but don’t forget to pick up some sustainable domestic and imported brands of tinned fish to pair with housemade picnic provisions, regional wines and rustic breads. coastbigsur.com
Dave’s Gourmet Seafood: Dave’s selection of canned alderwood- smoked king salmon, garlic albacore, sampler packs and more make for easy holiday shopping; find them online or at the Del Monte Farmers Market in Monterey or the Aptos Farmers Market. davesgourmetseafood.com
Elroy’s Fine Foods: Monterey’s favorite specialty food store provides one-stop shopping for tinned seafood and all the fixings. elroysfinefoods.com
H&H Fresh Fish: Find an array of pristine fresh, prepared and cured and canned seafood at its harbor shop and Santa Cruz farmers markets. hhfreshfish.com
Shopper’s Corner: Stock up on canned seafood and pantry staples at this Santa Cruz institution. shopperscorner.com
Bucatini With Sardines & Caramelized Fennel
This is sort of a simplified version of pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian dish that blends fennel and sardines with a flurry of other pantry ingredients, spinning any old tin of sardines into a pasta that would be worth traveling for. Some versions include pine nuts, capers and currants. I personally like the sweetness of yellow raisins, and if you chop them before adding, their subtle sweetness will be distributed throughout the dish. I also like to double down on the flavors and textures of fennel, mincing some to cook with the onions and garlic, caramelizing a few wedges and topping the whole thing with fennel seed-flavored breadcrumbs and plenty of lacy green fronds.
Check out this recipe
Green Anchovy Butter
Packing a massive amount of umami, anchovies have some pretty big star power straight out of the can. But when they’re suspended in butter—all the better with a smattering of fresh herbs and garlic—the sky’s the limit. Use this butter to baste a seared steak as it finishes cooking in the skillet. Melt the butter and pour it over popcorn, or cook an egg in it. You can add equal parts flour and transform the flavor bomb into savory shortbreads, or you can slather it onto some great bread with some juicy slices of tomato.
Check out this recipe
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laurel Miller is a food, spirits and travel writer and the former editor of Edible Aspen. She grew up on a California ranch and has been writing about regenerative agriculture for over 20 years. When she’s not tethered to her laptop, Miller enjoys farmers markets and any trip that requires a passport. She’ll take a Mission burrito over a Michelin star, any day.