Yes we can: the canned fish renaissance

Yes we can: the canned fish renaissance

by Great British Chefs 21 August 2018

Fish in cans might not sound like the most exciting aspect of British food culture, but in recent years one company has upped its game and turned this seemingly budget ingredient into something to be celebrated.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

If you’ve ever been to Portugal, you’ll know that canned fish is a big deal. There are entire shops dedicated to the stuff, with brightly coloured tins featuring some beautiful designs and illustrations in a bid to stand out from the crowd. When the country’s canning industry took off in the nineteenth century it was seen as a quick and affordable meal, but over the years it became an artisanal product, with the pick of the day’s catch set aside to be preserved.

Here in the UK, there are still a lot of people that see canned fish as an outdated necessity rather than something to be admired. Multipack tins of tuna, cans of pilchards and sardines in sauce are certainly tasty, but on the whole the British mindset still regards them as inferior – rather than an equal alternative – to fresh. Combine that with the sustainability issues that come with irresponsible fishing (particularly tuna), and it’s no wonder we see these cans as something to fall back on when there’s nothing in the fridge instead of something to be championed.

However, we’re starting to see the light. With a focus on sustainability and quality above all else, Fish4Ever is a business looking to inject a bit of much-needed excitement and buzz around something that’s often dismissed in the UK. Sourcing fish only when it’s in season and from the best environmentally friendly fisheries in the world, this British producer is leading the charge when it comes to canning mackerel, tuna, sardines, anchovies and salmon. This isn’t just good for the fish – there’s an onus on avoiding by-catch, where unwanted fish are thrown back into the sea – but for the planet and the fishermen themselves too.

Fishing isn’t a catch-all term – there are many different methods each with their own pros and cons. Trawling will provide you with plenty of fish, for example, but it also causes havoc on the seabed, destroying the habitat and with it the chances of fishthriving in the same area. Smaller day boats using pole and line methods, on the other hand, might mean a more unpredictable supply, but it means the fish living in that area can continue to thrive and repopulate. It’s the latter which offers a better tasting, more sustainable can of fish.

Working with small day boats which use pole and line methods is a much more sustainable way of fishing, and ensures a thriving habitat for the years to come
It also means the fishermen themselves get a fair wage, and stops the fish from being frozen and stored for months at sea before being eventually being canned

Working with small day boats also supports the fishermen that go out and actually catch the fish. Larger industrial fishing techniques tend to reward the multinational companies that own the giant trawlers rather than the workers themselves, but dealing direct with the people who work on the day boats and those who pack the fish means fair wages and a boost for the local economy.

Of course, sustainability is all well and good, but if the taste of the product doesn’t stand up to scrutiny then the business isn’t going to work. And with canned fish sometimes treated as a commodity, it needs to stand out in terms of flavour as well as sustainability if you’re charging a premium. Fish caught by day boats and canned as soon as they’re landed means they’re as fresh as can be when packed instead of being frozen at sea for days on end, which ensures a better flavour. While this isn’t always achievable – there isn’t a single sardine canning factory in the whole of the UK, for example – the key is to get the fish from the sea to the can in as few steps as possible. Working with whole fish, rather than portions that have been cut up elsewhere before being packed, also results in a much tastier end result.

The other ingredients in the can are important too – taking the best fish and then preserving it in the cheapest olive oil or covering it in a low-quality tomato sauce doesn’t do it any justice. By ensuring they are of the highest quality and don’t overpower the taste of the fish itself, you can create something that is both a quality, artisanal ingredient and something good enough to eat on its own.

With an alternative to the mass-farmed canned fish we’re used to in the UK now available, it’s time to start treating tins of tuna, mackerel, sardines and salmon as we would their fresh counterparts. On the continent canned fish isn’t hidden away in sandwiches or treated as a mass-produced product; it’s shouted about on restaurant menus and given as gifts to keen home cooks. Good canned fish might cost a little more than its industrially processed counterparts, but in terms of flavour and sustainability, it’s something we should all be buying more of.