Walk into a wine bar. You know, one that specializes in funky natural wines, bottles wrapped in striking hand drawn labels. The food menu is concise and stretches down an elongated index card. There’s a section dedicated to conservas, or tinned fish. Maybe the price catches you off guard at first. Sardines dressed up at $12, a tin of cockles for $30. Much like the not-quite-pink-not-quite-orange pét-nat sparkling in your glass, you look at the origins of the little sea creatures.
Spain, Spain, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Denmark, Portugal...Latvia.
What about Canada? The U.S.? Mexico? There’s so much ocean around North America, isn’t there?
Growing up in America’s rust belt, roughly eight hours from the nearest coastline, you’d think I would’ve been well situated for a tinned fish loving culture. If you can’t regularly enjoy the ocean’s wonders, why not preserve the flavors and bring them inland? But that’s not quite how it worked.
I probably ate a hundred cans of tuna before I even knew what the animal looked like. I had narrowly perceived the grayish-pink hockey puck of a lunch as something that tasted great when mixed with mayonnaise and slapped between sliced bread, rather than the big beautiful fish that it is.
North America doesn’t have the same cultural connection to seafood as much of Europe and Asia. Yet whether it’s the cold waters of Nova Scotia, the steamy Gulf coast of Florida, or the dramatic depths of the Baja Peninsula, you’ll find bounties of beautiful fish and skilled fishing communities along this continent’s whopping 231,334 kilometer coastline. But it’s not about fish, it’s about access and knowledge.
Unlike much of Europe, whose countries’ inlands are only a short drive from the scent of the sea, many North Americans live far from the oceans. This disconnect drives consumers to rely heavily on the trust of retailers and producers - but buying fish can be confusing.
Should it be wild caught or farm raised? I thought farm raised was bad? But I eat farm raised animals, why is farm raised fish bad? Aren’t wild populations in danger? Aren’t our oceans polluted with plastic? Is the fish from Norway better than the stuff from Chile? Is tilapia really going to kill me?!
We deserve better. Knowing where your fish comes from and how it was caught doesn’t need to be a far flung luxury enjoyed by the privileged foodie class of metropolitan cities. Fresh, healthy, and local seafood needs to be demanded by the consumer, and canning provides a valuable option in delivering just that.
Tinned fish tells the stories of our oceans. Like a bottle of wine or mezcal, the tins offer a sample of the earth, its tastes and terroir, with the convenient ability to be shipped around the world. Suddenly you’re giving thought to the cold, brackish waters of the Baltic Sea, the sun-kissed fishing villages of Morocco, and the tumultuous coastlines of Galicia. That lazy lunch in Portugal of oil soaked sardines and vinho verde can actually come home with you, simply by filling your suitcase with the colorful little tins. The souvenir of all souvenirs
Storytelling presents the opportunity to teach consumers about our oceans and waterways, what’s being done to protect it, and how we can all help. It recruits allies of the ocean.
“We work with producers that have been using sustainable fishing practices for decades,” says Halley Chambers, co-founder of Rhodora, Brooklyn’s zero-waste natural wine bar, when discussing their conservas selection. In addition to the infinitely recyclable nature of aluminum, Chambers notes that, “tinned seafood is among the most sustainable food options and the single-serving tins are portioned to minimize leftover food.”
One of the biggest contributors to food waste in the United States is seafood. Lack of a steady seafood culture, commoditized food supplies, and the poor preservation techniques are the leading culprits. Not only does canned fishing in America have the potential to reduce the hemisphere’s carbon footprint, but it provides a valuable opportunity for local fishing.
“I call it the ‘point of least resistance cuisine,’” says Chef Charlotte Langley, chief culinary officer for Scout, North America’s first B Corp certified (Pending) and 1% for the Planet canned fishery. “When you’re opening a can you are learning about sustainably, ethically sourced seafood.”
It begins with understanding that canned seafood can be special. In countries where it’s most commonly consumed, canned fish isn’t an alternative to fresh fish, rather a complement. Artisan fishermen seek out the highest quality yields, expertly preserve the catch, and create a gourmet preparation that is often of higher quality than the fresh version.
The average Spaniard consumes upwards of 8.5 kilograms of canned seafood in a given year, leading the way in canned fish consumption. This represents about 20 percent of the country's seafood consumption, which is significant given the abundant access to fresh varieties. For perspective the average American only throws back about 1.6 kilograms of canned seafood per year, representing about 7 percent of total seafood consumption.
Beyond the health benefits, sustainability factors, and knack for pairing with wine and beer, it’s important to bring conservas to the table to teach one another about the planet. Terms like seacuterie and oceanic charcuterie get thrown around, and for good reason: charcuterie boards have stories to tell. It’s not uncommon for a person who has never stepped foot in Italy to be able to sit back and rattle off five different varieties of cured meats from the country - a testament to the influence of high quality preserved foods.
“By canning we can bring the best flavors in season to you at home,” says Langley. “As soon as you enjoy Scout products, you're learning, and you're making a positive impact on how we consume seafood.”
As the tinned fish culture continues to spill outside the bounds of trendy wine bars, domestic fishing communities will get the chance to share their stories through canning. This serves as an opportunity to better understand our own heritage and connections to the oceans, but also gives those convening in the tiny conservas bars of Lisbon and Barcelona a chance to taste the impossibly vast Great Lakes, the Basque influenced Gulf of St. Lawrence, and California’s endless coastline.
Seafood has a long history in North America. It’s time that we share the stories of our oceans and waterways.