We'll be the first to admit that, until recently, our relationship with canned seafood fell somewhere between traumatic tuna noodle casserole memories from early childhood, and that moment of desperation when you resort to a dusty tin of cheap sardines that you don't even remember buying in the first place. (Even the best of us have a can of something in the darkest corner of our pantry that's been there longer than any relationship we've been in.) Unless you grew up in a country like Spain, Portugal, or France, where the traditions around quality canned seafood continue to thrive, you're likely unaware of how high the bar is set for producing many exquisite tins of seafood.
But can all the canned fish detractors be sold on the world of small European canneries producing these luxe tinned specialties? Nialls Fallon of Maiden Lane, a wine bar in New York City that specializes in European tinned seafood, sure seems to think so. "When my business partner Gareth [Maccubbin] and I were looking for spaces to open a bar, we found the space we're currently in, in the East Village. There was no room for a kitchen," he recalls. "One of us joked that we could just keep a couple cans of sardines behind the bar that the bartender could open himself, and serve with some baguette and butter."
It was that passing joke that sent the budding restaurateurs down a rabbit hole, determined to find the best canned seafood available. Now, the duo are shepherding Americans away from the industrialized canned seafood of their youth, and introducing them to the beauty of European-style seafood canning, offering nearly 60 different varieties via both their locations and booming online shop.
Nialls stresses that sustainable sourcing and seasonality—along with the often laborious packaging and cooking techniques that their small canneries uphold—are among the biggest factors in guaranteeing a high-quality product. And yes, it comes at a price. Tins at Maiden Lane can range anywhere from $9 for cod liver, all the way up to $60 for cockles, a tiny kind of clam.
"Most of the cans we sell have been cleaned and packed by hand, not by a machine, like the larger canners do. This means poor-quality fish are sorted out and not put in the cans, and that the delicate flesh is maintained since most of the seafood is packed whole, instead of minced like common tuna," explains Nialls. "The other ingredients added are also of higher quality, from the olive oil and vinegars to the herbs and spices. They're usually sourced from the region the cannery is situated in, which provides a stronger sense of place and terroir."
The duo are shepherding Americans away from the industrialized canned seafood of their youth, and introducing them to the beauty of European-style seafood canning.
While high-quality canned seafood definitely has a wide range of culinary applications—like using anchovies to enhance the umami in everything from pizza into salad dressings and sauces—we prefer enjoying these pristine tins the simple way: with some crusty bread and a drink pairing to satisfy the urge these briny bites precipitate for booze.
Now that you're officially ready for your first foray to the finer side of canned seafood, we've asked Nialls for the scoop on some of his favorite tins, and the drinks to go with them.
Santa Catarina Tuna in Olive Oil
"The cannery is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Azores islands. They fish tuna here and many of the residents either work for the cannery or in fishing. The fish are cleaned by hand and cut into beautiful little fillets that are hand-packed into the tins. Drink a crisp, white wine with it. Maybe keep it all island and have a Vermentino from the Italian island of Sardinia."
Ramón Peña Octopus with Onion and Paprika
"Ramón Peña is one of Spain's great traditional canneries. The octopus is cleaned and slow-cooked. It's then cut into medallions and hand-packed with sweet, caramelized Spanish onions, oil, vinegar, and paprika. This octopus is incredibly tender. I eat it straight from the tin with a salty Manzanilla or Fino Sherry, maybe one from Fernando de Castilla."
Don Bocarte Anchovies in Olive Oil
"Don Bocarte is a very special cannery. They catch their anchovies in the Bay of Biscay off the coast in northern Spain. They pack them in barrels in spirals, salting each layer as they go, then leave them to age for seven months. After the aging, they're soaked to remove some of the salt, then cleaned by hand, bones removed, and filleted. They're so buttery, melt in your mouth, and don't taste as salty as you would think. They're fantastic on top of a piece of toast with a lot of high-fat butter and a glass of Champagne to cut through all the fat."
Jose Gourmet Stickleback in Pickled Sauce
"Jose Gourmet is a great example of a cannery coming back to life in Portugal. It's a young company canning a range of Portuguese seafood. Stickleback is an interesting fish—it tastes a bit like a sardine but is a different species. They have multiple spines and are very small and bony and hard to eat fresh since it's very time-consuming to fillet them. Canning is perfect for this sustainable fish, though, since the bones break down during the canning process. In most bars in Portugal and Spain, you'll see tiny fish being eaten with a cold beer, something light, like a pilsner, or a lager."