Photo by Patricia Esteve
Food in cans
The best and most traditional tapas bars of Barcelona (Quimet i Quimet, Inopia, Casa Lucio, El Xampanyet) all have one thing in common, and it’s not what you might expect—their common denominator is a love on the part of both the proprietors and their clients for gourmet canned fish and seafood.
In a country that prides itself on the freshness of the peix and marisc it serves, this may seem something of an anomaly. But the fact remains that a vintage can of navajas (razor clams) can cost considerably more than a rack of fresh ones grilled in oil and parsley.
As Mark Bittman put it in a recent article in the New York Times on the subject of tapas bars in Barcelona: “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.”
While Bittman is certainly not alone in his opinion, the world’s wonder chefs and restaurants are starting to take notice, from the venerable Sam’s of Moro in London to the swanky new Boqueria tapas bar in New York. Customers are applauding new tastes and textures: canning mellows seafood and tenderises it, giving it a new and unexpected lusciousness, but only when it’s top-notch stuff, mind.
The art of conserving dates back to the late 18th century, when Napoleon offered a 12,000-franc reward to anyone who could come up with a method of food preservation that would keep his armies fuelled while marching. Nine years after Napolean’s decree, the French confectioner and entrepreneur Nicolas François Appert was awarded the prize for having invented a system for the airtight conservation of food by bottling it.
One year later, however, a fellow Frenchman named Pierre Durrand patented his own method in England, this time using a tin can. Durrand’s creation would become a cheap and reliable way of keeping almost anything fresh and edible in much the same way that adding large amounts of salt to food was used to dramatically lengthen its shelf life, 2,000 years earlier.
Spanish conservas (canned foods as opposed to bottled) are something of a sybaritic cult, with the majority of the businesses located in Galicia, though the quality of those produced along the Cantabrian coast, the Basque country and some parts of Andalucia are equally revered. And while the foreign market has been slow to accept them as a tapa in bars, they are doing a brisk trade from the shelves of supermarkets and colmados (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 Spanish food store, www.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. And also importantly, 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.
Ironically, 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, aged Navajas de Finesterre ‘Los Peperetes’ (which are harvested by hand by divers during five-hour stints underwater), mildly salty, purple-tinged Cantabrian anchovies and tender octopus, which takes on a meltingly tender texture as it ages in the can. Cooks use cans of plump smoked mussels to pep up pasta dishes, and top toast with chopped tomatoes and caballa (mackerel) en escabeche (a mild, pickling style sauce) to make an upper crust snack.
Food snobbery these days is as rife as that in the wine world but the bottom line is, just because it’s in a tin, don’t make it a sin.
Where to eat conservas:
Quimet i Quimet (Poeta Cabanyes 25, Tel. 93 442 3142) is probably the crème de la crème when it comes to conserva consumption. Go with at least €20 in your pocket.
Inopia Clàssic Bar (Tamarit 104, Tel. 93 424 5231) is where it’s fun. If you’re nervous about canned seafood you can always hide it under something safe like patatas bravas.
Casa Lucio (Viladomat 59, Tel. 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 (Montcada 22, Tel. 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.
First published January 2008