There are an untold number of articles online telling me that tinned seafood is where it’s at. I don’t mean your typical can of tuna, but the tins with the peel back top that contain anything from sardines to baby octopus. Many of these species are plentiful and sustainably harvested, and due to being smaller and lower on the food chain, have little to none of the methylmercury found in larger fish.
Tinned seafood, or “conservas” have always been more popular in Europe, especially Southern Europe, than the US. Growing up Sicilian-American there were always tins of tuna, mackerel, and shellfish in various oils or sauces. Some of it was good, like the tuna in oil, some were way too “fishy” tasting for me, some tasted like the can, and some were never opened at all.
Over time my tastes have changed, I used to eat sardines when I was younger, now I don’t. I also used to hate anchovies but now I consider good quality anchovies on a traditional pizza to be divine. But overall, like many of you I find the tinned and canned seafood section of the supermarket a little intimidating, if not scary. Who knows what’s in there until you peel back that lid!
During the height of the Covid pandemic food shopping became a dystopian nightmare of empty shelves, scared customers and staff. Toilet paper, milk, eggs, flour, meat were subject to shortages for various reasons. It was nigh-impossible to find an un-dented can of solid white albacore. It seemed like the right time to take a closer look at tinned seafood.
The views expressed below are just my opinion and probably say more about my tastes than the products themselves. Considering most of these products are very affordable, and are long lasting sources of protein, I recommend trying these or other brands for yourself.
My Tinned Tuna Experience
The tin of Ortiz brand ventresca de bonito that The Fish Society sent me a while back is still my gold standard for tinned seafood. That tuna belly in olive oil was silky smooth. Since I did that post I’ve noticed the Ortiz brand in various local shops and supermarkets. If you are new to tinned seafood this is a good choice: a familiar tuna taste but so much better.
I recently got a tin of light tuna (skipjack) in oil by a company called A Taste of Portugal for about $2 at the supermarket. With a large Portuguese population in Gloucester there are usually lots of tinned options in the specialty aisle.
When I opened the tin I was greeted with a strong aroma of tuna and four small loin pieces in olive oil. I ate them out of the tin with a piece of my wife’s home baked bread. Overall, it was OK but I think next time I want to try another brand so I can compare.
My Tinned Smoked Seafood Experience
Someone I know recommended I try smoked oysters, which many people seem to eat right from the tin. This seemed the least gross option compared to some of the flavor combos I’ve seen suggested online. I picked up a tin of Crown Prince Naturally Smoked Oysters in olive oil.
I discovered after opening the oysters were small, with a greenish tinge, which apparently is normal for this species. These oysters are raised in China, but not all Crown Prince products are Chinese imports. Other than that, all I can say about the oysters is they tasted like metal and I will never try them again.
My Tinned Sardine Experience
Next I tried some Season brand European sardines in olive oil. Unlike many domestic brands, these were true sardines (Sardina pilchardus) aka “pilchards” instead of juvenile herring or a Pacific species. This brand is very popular among sardine lovers and is also very affordable.
Upon opening the tin I immediately understood the phrase “packed like sardines” – the tin was completely stuffed with the fish. Packed so tightly I couldn’t get a whole sardine out of the tin, they kept breaking apart with my fork.
That said, it did nothing to make these more appealing – it looked like cat food. A couple of bites alone and then some more atop sourdough toast and I had enough. Oily, mushy, and just fishy enough that I did not enjoy the experience. For a little bit more I could have had a can of Italian bigeye or yellowfin tuna in oil.
A Look At Shelf-Stable Smoked Salmon
Not sure this counts as tinned seafood, but it\’s close enough. I had this box of shelf-stable Copper River Seafoods smoked sockeye salmon in my cabinet for a few months, seemed like a good time to open it up and see what’s inside.
Based on the reviews I read about this smoked salmon, it sounded like a good product. The salmon was in a sealed foil pouch that oozed lots of oil when opened – make sure you do this over the sink.
The piece of smoked wild sockeye looked and smelled good, but when I tried to remove it from the pouch it fell apart. I made a big mess getting the fish out and in hindsight, should have cut away the whole bag with scissors.
To be fair, it was good tasting smoked salmon but shelf-stable smoked fish apparently is very delicate, and not what I look for in a hot smoked fish.
I ended up taking advice from the back of the box and made a type of spread/mousse with mayonnaise, sour cream, dill, lemon and capers. I let it chill before making a sandwich, which was tasty, but a lot of work. I probably won’t buy it again, but would keep in mind for an ingredient in a crowd-pleasing dip or on canapés.
A Reliable Can of Tuna as a Control
When in doubt I can always rely on a can of albacore tuna in water, or yellowfin in oil. On my last trip to the supermarket I got a can of Genova brand yellowfin tuna in oil as well as two cans of Bumblebee brand Prime Fillet solid albacore. Bumblebee seemed to be selling plenty of cans of tuna during the pandemic, they were in short supply for months.
Bumblebee is my go-to brand and I find the Prime Fillet is worth paying a bit more for the quality and consistency. I had the good fortune to be invited out to visit the Bumblebee cannery in California last fall and after an impressive tour by VP Kevin McClain I stand by my choice in canned tuna. The quality and price of the Prime Fillet fit my budget, plus their product tracing and testing programs are impressive.
Last week I opened both cans of tuna, added celery, lemon juice, spicy mustard, mayo, salt, pepper and some dill to make enough tuna salad for days worth of lunches. Usually I just opt for a blob of mayo but tuna fish sandwiches are always better when you make the extra effort and go for tuna salad.
Impressions of Conservas After First Trial
Although I’m not done trying various tinned seafoods, I think I’ve learned a bit more about what I will like to try next. It’s obvious that tuna, in many forms, is my favorite canned or tinned fish but admittedly that’s a bit tame. For the sake of research I’m going to have to try to get out of my comfort zone. Maybe I’ll finally open up that tin of smoked kippers in the cabinet…