Whenever I bring up my love of canned fish, my friends and colleagues morph into picky children.
Canned seafood has a bad reputation in the United States, and it’s not just anecdotal: On an annual basis, the average American consumes about 3.5 pounds of canned seafood, a number that’s been steadily falling over the last three decades. Meanwhile, the average Spaniard polishes off nearly three times that.
I wasn’t always a canned fish lover. A friend of mine recommended sardines during one of my sporadic efforts to work out often and eat well. He raved about the health benefits, cost-effectiveness, and convenience of these protein-packed little cans. I tried them out, and, well, I liked them. I didn’t love them, but I liked them enough that they became part of my diet.
It wasn’t until I went on a trip through Southern Europe that my love story began.
People in Spain and Portugal love canned seafood, or conservas. I knew this prior to visiting, but I didn’t quite understand the extent to which conservas were appreciated. At a tiny tapas bar in Barcelona called Quimet & Quimet, it all began to make sense. The only options for food and drink were wine, spirits, and canned seafood.
It wasn’t just sardines and anchovies, but razor clams, stuffed baby squid, mussels, and more. Each fish and mollusk was handled and plated with expert care. I was hooked.
Feel free to make fun of me for being a stereotypical millennial, but one of my favorite preparations is drained sardines or mackerel on top avocado toast with lemon, cracked black pepper, and pickled red onions.
For nearly two centuries, canned seafood has been viewed as a delicacy in Southern Europe. Rather than processing low-quality fish parts (i.e., some of the canned tuna you’d find in a U.S. grocery store), artisan producers use their highest-quality yields, carefully clean the product, cook them to perfection, and preserve them at peak freshness. In these regions, conservas are often seen as a gourmet preparation that is of even higher…