Picture it: a romantic dinner at home with your beloved. Subdued lighting, mood-setting Spotify playlist and, on the table ... tinned fish. That’s what you’ll find in the dining room of San Francisco-based chef Ali Hooke and her husband, who, last summer, posted their weekly ritual of using a few tins of fish to make a special meal at home. A viral trend was born: As of press time, the hashtag “tin fish date night” on TikTok had nearly 27 million views.
Like its fellow viral foodie star, the “butter board,” it involves little more than using any kind of tinned fish as the centerpiece of a neat, photo-ready charcuterie-like spread. Katherine Lewin, founder of Big Night, a store in Brooklyn that specializes in dinner party accoutrements, confirms that tinned fish has become an entertaining go-to (whether it’s for a party of two or more). “We see lots of customers creating beautiful tinned-fish boards and spreads with lots of different cans and fixings, and letting their guests choose their own adventure,” she says.
But what has become date night and dinner party fodder had more solitary beginnings during the pandemic, when tinned fish in its myriad varieties experienced a sudden surge in popularity. “I imagine many people were drawn to tinned fish for the same reason I was,” says Becca Millstein, one half with Caroline Goldfarb of Fishwife, the tinned-fish brand that has helped define the renaissance.
“At the height of the pandemic I was living with Caroline and we found ourselves eating a bunch of tinned fish because it was consistent with our quarantine lifestyle, and our eating and shopping habits when we were trying to limit grocery visits, looking for food products that were shelf stable but also satiating and nutritious. Basically, only canned beans and tinned fish fit the bill,” says Millstein.
“We wanted things we could stock and eat and not have to leave our houses and tinned fish was ideally suited for this bizarre moment in time,” adds restaurateur Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl, a seafood restaurant with locations in Boston, London and Los Angeles.
A desire for shelf stability was what led fish to first be canned in the late 1700s in France. During the Napoleonic wars, the French government, desperate to find a way to safely preserve food for lengthy periods for their armies, put out a public call (and offered a substantial prize) looking for solutions. A few years later Parisian chef Nicolas Appert, after much experimentation boiling jars of fish, would present his method, earning him a place in food history as the so-called father of canning.
In the centuries since, myriad versions of tinned fish have been adopted in cuisines from South America to Asia and, perhaps most famously, in Spain and Portugal, where conservas culture is huge. Carlos Fernandes and Ben Silverstein, co-founders of Canadian tinned-fish brand Lata, think a sense of wanderlust also fuelled the pandemic interest. “Tinned fish can transport someone to a memory or place they have travelled to,” says Fernandes. “We saw its popularity also as a huge interest in tourism to Portugal.”
Tinned fish became a form of armchair travel. “Without the ability to actually travel for so long, this was something that could easily transport you to a place in Spain,” adds chef Shaun Layton, a partner at Como Taperia in Vancouver.
Spain and Portugal continue to be purveyors of some of the most excellent tinned-fish options: You can’t leave Lisbon without a stack of the colourful hand-wrapped tins from Conserveira de Lisboa. And Ramon Pena, a family-run Spanish brand, has developed a new wave of fans outside Europe thanks to its availability at places such as online retailer Food52 and, in Canada, Tinmonger and Lola & Miguel.
There has also been a surge of newer brands such as Fishwife, Scout and Fernandes and Silverstein’s Lata, which are dramatically evolving the sector by prioritizing style and substance – fish quality, responsible sourcing and sustainability practices matter more than ever with Aquaculture Stewardship and Marine Stewardship certifications holding new weight.
“Parallel to the timing of the pandemic the world of conservas was evolving, changing and captivating a new audience with newly minted products and design,” says Saltie Girl’s Sidell. For her customers at Big Night, Lewin says, newer brands such as Fishwife – which she dubs as the gateway tinned fish for newbies – have breathed fresh life into the category. Sidell points also to Jose Gourmet, the Portuguese brand that hired inventive artists to reimagine its packaging, and Gueyu Mar, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Asturias, Spain, which, in a stroke of genius, tinned high-quality grilled fish before tucking it into technicolour packaging.
They are a crowd favourite at Como – ”Gueyu Mar is another level,” says Layton – where Ramon Pena’s sardines are a regular sell-out, too. “The expanse of these diverse offerings coupled with the original designs has helped market the product,” says Sidell. “It’s attracted attention in a new way to a very old-world product.”
But it’s for home cooks that tinned fish offers a world of possibilities. Sidell loves quickly sautéing cockles in their brine with really good butter, garlic and bacon, or throwing them atop toast in a creation akin to New Haven clam pizza. Layton will add a tin of mussels in escabeche to pasta or toss squid in ink over rice with some kimchi and pickles.
Chef Charlotte Langley, co-founder and chief culinary officer of Scout (she’s also a chef ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council in Canada), loves a shakshuka loaded with smoky mussels or stuffing a pita pocket with trout, a handful of dill and as many crunchy toppings as you can find. Or, go basic; there’s a lot to be said for the simple pleasure of good tuna on a nice piece of bread with butter or olive oil or a smoked oyster with a smear of cream cheese on saltines.
The global canned seafood market, valued in 2021 at US$30-billion, is projected to reach US$42-billion by 2028. “Tinned fish will not only remain relevant but I imagine it will only increase in popularity because of its shelf life, accessibility, nutritional density, flavour and species variety,” says Langley. “As prices increase across the globe, we need to look towards sustainable, affordable ways to feed ourselves and our families.”
Beyond the vast swath of culinary possibilities tinned fish offers, its popularity in the present moment has to do in great part with practicality. As we find ourselves amidst a sharp economic downturn with prices of many items in the grocery aisle on an upswing, tinned fish (even as its prices have experienced a moderate increase, too) is more sensible than ever.
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