Food

Yes we can! How we are falling in love with tinned fish – from artisanal anchovies to vintage sardines | Fish


You could be forgiven for turning up your nose at tinned fish in the UK. Until recently, it has been more reminiscent of school lunches than restaurant menus: cheap, dry and mushy. But that is changing fast, thanks to retailers and chefs importing high-end, artisanal cans from the continent. The contents of these – think large, gleaming flakes of bonito tuna and silvery slippers of sardines bathing in olive oil – are about as far removed from sandwich fillers as a grass-fed steak is from Spam.

At Spring-to-Go, the deli version of Skye Gyngell’s fine-dining restaurant, the chef offers small-batch, limited-edition seafood from the “tin-to-table” brand Pyscis. At Prawn on the Farm, a Cornish outpost of the London fish restaurant Prawn on the Lawn, Rick and Katie Toogood offer a separate menu of tinned fish, sourced from Rockfish, a British tinned seafood brand launched in November by the Devon-based chef Mitch Tonks. Tinned fish is so in that it has featured in Vogue, which called the Los Angeles-based tinned fish brand Fishwife “the stylish, sustainably sourced tinned fish you want in your kitchen”.

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“Total [tinned] fish sales have nearly doubled over the past two years,” says James Robinson, a product training manager at Brindisa. “It has been remarkable growth.” For years, the Spanish restaurant and wholesaler was one of the only importers of premium tinned fish to the UK. “Premium tuna (rod- and line-caught bonito del norte and yellowfin) and anchovies have driven this increase, to retailers and direct-to-consumer sales.” All come from Ortiz, one of Spain’s oldest canning factories, notable for its jazzy blue, yellow and red packaging.

Sardina seafood.
Sardina seafood.

Is the trend for fish from a tin a pandemic-fuelled flash in the pan – the result of regrettable stockpiling – or a nostalgic craving for retro foodstuffs? Patrick Martinez, who started his business Tinned Fish Market in Liverpool in 2018, doesn’t think so. He says there has been a palpable shift in the public’s appreciation of the European culture of conservas, the centuries-old craft of preservation through canning. “At the beginning, people asked: ‘How can you sell this at these prices?’ It took a lot of explaining,” he recalls, recounting how he would tell customers about the fishing villages where fish is landed, carefully selected by the canning factory, cooked and canned by hand, often all within 24 hours. “Now we have the opposite: we have people with a lot more knowledge coming to the stall, asking for very specific things, like tinned squid stuffed with rice.” Last year, Martinez opened stalls in the London foodie meccas of Borough and Broadway markets, which speaks volumes.

“It’s sustainable, delicious, convenient and healthy,” says Martinez. These days, it can also be beautiful. Unlike the bland, monotonal supermarket standard, high-end tins tend to be adorned with either vintage illustrations of people or produce, or more modern, graphical designs. They could be given as gifts or used as decorative embellishments. “An interior designer told me she’d recommend people store their tins on open shelves, so people can see them,” says Lucas Gracias, the founder of Sardina, an online deli that sells tinned seafood from across the Iberian peninsula. As with natural wine, the popularity of which has also risen in recent years, the classy, vivid labels are perfect for an age in which the aesthetics of what we eat appears to matter more than ever.

In short, canned seafood is social media catnip – but that doesn’t explain the interest from chefs, nor the repeat custom reported by retailers. “The artwork does grab the attention of people, but then hopefully they eat it,” says Gracias. If the contents didn’t live up to the cover, he argues, they wouldn’t come back.

Perhaps our previous reluctance to embrace tinned fish can be explained by the almost uniquely British misconception that tinned food is worse than its fresh equivalent. “What we lack is the Spanish and Portuguese understanding that ‘fresh’ and ‘preserved’ foods are not intended to be mirrors of each other,” says Robinson. “Instinctively, people in the UK think fresh mussels or mackerel are better than tinned, whereas in Spain they understand that they are not equivalents.” Indeed, tins are often – because of the time and trouble involved in canning quality fish – more highly prized by other Europeans.

Tinned Fish Market products.
Tinned Fish Market products.

In Britons’ defence, this is unsurprising. The UK does not have a long history of canned food, unlike Portugal, France or Spain, where the warmer climate necessitated preservation. It was only when rationing was introduced during the second world war that canned food began to dominate Britain’s supermarkets. “It fitted well with a system of stockpiling and central planning, so rations of tinned products were generally more liberal than those of fresh meat and fish,” says Mark Riddaway, the author of Borough Market: Edible Histories. Even after the war, fresh food remained scarce, resulting in “an entire generation being raised on Spam and tinned pilchards. These were not premium products,” he says. “Volume and cheapness mattered much more than the quality of the products and the food-safety standards at the canning factories. Some of the canned foods inflicted upon the nation were virtually inedible.”

When Tonks wanted to launch a British brand of canned fish, he couldn’t find people with the requisite skills. “Our fish is caught and landed in Britain, in Brixham market, but then we have to ship it to Spain,” he says. This is done in small quantities alongside commonly exported products, to reduce the carbon footprint. In Spain, skilled artisans, many of whom are the third or fourth generation in their family to practise this craft, gut, fillet and cook the fish, “then lay it in the tin by hand, too, so it doesn’t all break apart”.

This manual attention to detail is one of many reasons quality tins of fish are more expensive. “It is a much cheaper process to fillet the fish by machine, but it will break up into smaller pieces,” says Gracias. “It is also cheaper to just cook the fish in the tin, but the tin will [negatively] affect the flavour. Our producers steam, bake or cook the fish over charcoal first, to enhance the taste, before placing it in the can and heating it gently to seal it.”

While industrial-scale factories – largely in Asia – use brine or sunflower oil for preservation, small, traditional canneries use organic or extra-virgin olive oil. “With time, the fish absorbs more and more of the oil,” says Tonks, who, like Martinez, is introducing the concept of vintages to Rockfish customers. “The two-year-old tins are fantastic,” observes the Quo Vadis chef Jeremy Lee of the sardines he buys from Brindisa. He would happily eat them “by the fistful, just as they are”.

The merits of good olive oil (or tomato sauce) are myriad. As well as improving the quality of the fish over time, they mean you can benefit from the nutrients in the oil or sauce, as well as from the fish. The sustainability of canned fish is compelling, too. It reduces waste, while the strong, umami flavour of anchovies and sardines means a little goes a long way. “You get a lot of umami from less animal protein by using this tiny amount of fish,” says Jack Clarke, a sustainable seafood advocate at the Marine Conservation Society. “In the US, 31% of fresh fish bought by consumers is thrown away,” he adds. “Tinned fish lasts [almost] for ever, at ambient temperatures.” It is also, Tonks points out, a good way of preserving during times when there is a seasonal glut – in summer, for example, when sardines overeat because there is more plankton around.

Rockfish sardines.
Rockfish sardines.

Of course, canned fish is not carte blanche from a sustainability perspective. “Just because a tin has charming ‘olde worlde’ artwork and costs £14 doesn’t translate into being sustainable,” says Clarke. On the contrary, “some of these fancy ranges have cuttlefish and octopus, which are rated red [“fish to avoid”] in our Good Fish Guide.” That said, plenty of premium brands offer sustainable options – and, in terms of contents, coolness and cultural value, they are certainly a different kettle of fish to the pilchards that might have once been served up by your nan.

Tinned fish recipes

Anchoas y alcachofas ahumadas
Paulina Irzyk, head chef at Andanza, London
This pintxo is the perfect smoky, salty snack with a cold beer or glass of wine. Place chargrilled artichokes in alioli. Top with Cantabrian anchovy fillets in olive oil – the best you can find – and season with smoked Spanish paprika. Garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds, layer with slices of sourdough toast and finish with ajillo – olive oil, parsley and garlic – to give this little dish a truly Spanish accent.

Cornish pilchard bruschetta
Paul Ainsworth, chef and restaurateur, Cornwall

Bruschetta.
Photograph: Lateef Okunnu

Take five pilchards (I use the Pilchard Works) out of the tin and pat any excess oil off them. Make a salsa with two spring onions, ½ chilli, 10g coriander, six basil leaves and 20 cherry tomatoes, then season with salt and pepper. Drizzle four slices of sourdough bread with extra-virgin olive oil and chargrill. Spread your salsa on top of the toast, then place the pilchard fillets over the salsa and finish the dish with some chopped coriander and olive oil.

Pork with tinned tuna sauce
Anna Tobias, chef-owner at Café Deco, London
Pound one garlic clove and some thyme leaves. Add 30ml olive oil and season. Rub this over the pork loin, then place in a baking dish (fat side down) and cook for 45 minutes, turning over after 20 minutes. Leave to cool completely. Make the sauce by putting a tin of tuna, an egg yolk and the juice of ½ lemon in a food processor. Season, then blend to a puree. With the motor still running, drizzle in 250ml olive oil until the thickness of yoghurt. To serve, thinly slice the pork, slather over the sauce and scatter with capers and whole tinned anchovies.

Roasted winter tomato panzanella with tinned sardines and fresh basil
Ben Tish, chef and food writer, London

Roasted winter tomato panzanella with tinned sardines and fresh basil.
Photograph: David Cotsworth

Halve 12 ripe vine tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, sugar, thyme and chilli flakes, then drizzle with sherry vinegar and olive oil. Roast for 30-40 minutes at 180C (160C fan/350F/gas mark 4), cool, then stir in kalamata olives and chunks of two-day-old sourdough. Leave for 30 minutes, for the bread to soak up the juices. Toast 1 tsp fennel seeds in a dry pan over a medium heat. Arrange 12 tinned sardine fillets on top of the tomatoes. Scatter with parsley, mint, toasted flaked almonds, rocket, the fennel seeds and the zest and juice of ½ lemon.

Tinned mackerel shawarma
Mitch Tonks, chef and restaurateur, Devon

Tinned Mackerel Schwarma by Mitch Tonks.
Photograph: Ed Ovenden

Shred cabbage, red onion and some green chilli and mix, then grate garlic into some yoghurt and toss the lot together. Lay out a flour tortilla and spread with hummus, place the cabbage on top, then add tinned mackerel, a sprinkling of za’atar or cumin, a squeeze of lemon and some pomegranate seeds. Wrap the whole thing up like a shawarma.

The Guardian aims to publish recipes for sustainable fish. Check ratings in your region: UK; Australia; US.



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