In Spain some of the finest gourmet products come in a can
Seafood 'conservas' are something of a sybaritic cult in Spain. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Author: Tara Stevens/©ICEX
The best and most traditional tapas bars of Barcelona (Quimet i Quimet, Casa Lucio, El Xampanyet and L’Espinaler in Vilassar del Mar who are also manufacturers) all have one thing in common and it’s not what you might suppose. No. Their common denominator is a love of gourmet canned fish and seafood, both on the part of the proprietor and the client.
(This article first appeared in Barcelona Metropolitan magazine in August 2008)
In a country that prides itself on the impeccable freshness of fish and seafood this may seem something of an anomaly. Yet for many, a vintage can of navajas (razor clams) - which along with certain other types of seafood can actually improve with maturation - is a thing far more interesting than a rack of fresh ones, grilled on a plancha and drizzled in oil and parsley. So much so that people are willing to pay premium prices for them. 25 hand-selected large clöissa blanca (white clams) from L’Espinaler for example cost €103.95.
Conservas, admittedly, are to some degree a question of taste. And while most people are used to boquerones en vinagre (fresh anchovies cured in vinegar), anchoas (salted anchovies), olives, premium tuna in olive oil and sweet, roasted pimientos del Piquillo (little red peppers), the notion of canned seafood such as squid, clams, mussels and razor clams can leave folk cold. As Mark Bittman put it on the subject of tapas bars in Barcelona in the New York Times in 2007:
“Spain produces what is probably the highest quality and most expensive canned food in the world, and many tapas bars rely on it. Though much of it is good and interesting, for the most part I don't get it, since Spain also produces among the highest quality fresh food in the world.”
He’s not alone in his opinion, but the tide is turning with restaurants and chefs from London to New York starting to take up the trend. The venerable Sam and Sam Clark of Moro and more recently Morito in London have served carefully selected conservas since opening, as has José Andrés tapas bar Jaleo in Washington D.C. Customers meanwhile are becoming braver in their willingness to try new things, applauding new tastes and textures.
“Canning mellows seafood and tenderises it,” says Quim Pérez, the fourth generation owner of Quimet i Quimet in Barcelona. “It gives it a new and unexpected lusciousness, providing it’s a top-notch product in the first place.”
A centuries old tradition
The art of conserving dates back to the late eighteenth century when Napoleon Bonaparte offered a 12,000-franc reward to anyone who could come up with a method of food preservation that could keep his armies fuelled while conquering the world.
The French confectioner and entrepreneur Nicolas François Appert invented a system for the airtight conservation of food by bottling nine years later and got the prize. One year after that however, a fellow Frenchman Pierre Durrand patented his own method in England, this time using a tin can, which would become a cheap and reliable form of keeping almost anything fresh and edible in much the same way that adding large amounts of salt to food would dramatically lengthen its shelf life 2000 years earlier.
Spanish conservas are something of a sybaritic cult with the majority of the business located in Galicia, though the quality of those produced along the Cantabrian coast, the Basque Country and some parts of Andalusia are equally revered. And while the foreign market has been slow to accept them as a tapa in bars, they are doing brisk trade from the shelves of supermarkets and colmados (Spanish delicatessens).
Just look at the success of Ortiz tuna, with its striking red, gold and blue can design and superior tuna within. While a small can will set you back say €3 here in Spain, you can expect to pay more than double that in specialist stores such as Brindissa in London and the online specialist Spanish foodstuffs store tienda.com. Ortiz Tuna is caught in the Bay of Biscay, by rod and line, one at a time, so you can be sure your money is pouring into something sustainable. Of equal merit, one taste of Ortiz Tuna and you’ll never want to eat the cheap stuff again anyway. It’s also certified kosher, so apparently they’ve thought of everything.
The choice of connoisseurs
Like so many gourmet products, caviar and percebes (goose barnacles) included, conservas were traditionally relegated to the cheaper end of the market, but the drive for new and exciting ingredients from around the world has found them a whole new niche. Connoisseurs seek out tins of delicate tasting Galician zamburiñas (small scallops); aged Navajas de Finesterre 'Los Peperetes' (razor clams), which are harvested by hand by divers during five hour stints underwater; mild, purple tinged Cantabrian anchovies and slivers of octopus that takes on a meltingly tender texture as it ages in the can. Home cooks add cans of plump smoked mussels to pep up pasta dishes, and top toast with chopped tomatoes and caballa (mackerel) en escabeche (a mild, picking style sauce) to make a upper crust snack.
And a store cupboard classic
Conservas meanwhile are as purely practical today as they’ve always been: a handy standby if you’ve been out of town and have nothing in the fridge, or have a tendency to forget to shop for holidays and Sundays. Buy the best you can afford – the difference between cheap supermarket conservas and specialty brands like Espinaler make all the difference – and they will keep indefinitely in a cool, dark place.
Where to eat conservas
Quimet I Quimet, (C/Poeta Cabanyes 25, 93 442 3142) is probably the crème de la crème when it comes to conserva consumption. Go with at least €20 in your pocket.
Casa Lucio (C/Viladomat 59, 93 424 4401) is a neighbourhood gem serving pristine products under the watchful eye of Lucio himself. He’s usually got in something extra special for the connoisseurs.
El Xampanyet (C/Montcada 22, 93 319 7003) is a city classic, serving a good range of conservas as well as their vegetable counterparts, which usually come in a glass jar. Attack these with their house cava for optimum effect.
L’Espinaler (Avinguda Progrés (Pol. Ind. Garrofers) 47, Vilassar De Mar, 937 502 521 and Cami Ral 1, Vilassar De Mar, 937 591 589) has two outlets, the tavern on the beach at Cami Ral, and the warehouse where they produce, stock and much of Catalunya’s finest. Both have bars where you can sample a multitude of products washed down with L’Espinaler’s own-brand vermut.
Tara Stevens is a freelance food and travel writer based in Barcelona. She writes regularly about Spain for a number of international publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Olive magazine and Scanorama.