For years, canned sardines have been a bit of a joke, but that's not how they're thought of in places like Spain and Portugal, where "fish in a can" is something they proudly serve in restaurants, as Becca Millstein found out: "I had lived abroad in Spain in college," she said, "and had gone into these beautiful conservarías, and saw rows and rows of beautiful tins of fish. And nothing like that exists in the U.S."
Millstein wants to change that with her company, Fishwife, just one of a number of outfits (like Espinaler, La Curiosa, Alalunga, ABC+, and Ar de Arte) hoping to convince people to spend serious money on – not "canned fish," but "tinned fish."
Anna Hezel wrote an entire cookbook about, well, pre-cooked fish, called "Tin to Table." "It's a little more delicate, a little more special, and a little more premium," she said.
According to the market research company Euromonitor International, last year tinned fish sales rose to $2.7 billion, driven largely by younger consumers.
Hezel said, "The #tinnedfish hashtag on TikTok now has, like, more than 91 million views. It is a very social, very visual hobby. But there's also kind of this a-ha moment when you pull back the tin and you get to see the actual handiwork that went into packing all of those mussels or anchovies or sardines."
That's Wes Taylor's handiwork you might be looking at, or at least the people who work in his cannery in Bay Center, Washington. "The facility like ours is unique," he said, "because it's crafty, it's artisanal, it's small. We're not using heavy equipment. What we're doing is focusing on highest quality, and not necessarily a high volume."
Millstein reached out to Taylor, desperate to find someone who could put the relatively small amounts of sustainably harvested seafood that she sells into cans.
Burbank said of Fishwife's sardines, "It smells very fresh. It doesn't smell overly fishy."
"It's very simple – just sardines and some preserved lemon," Millstein said. "It's packed fresh and preserved in the canning process."
Tinned fish can be pricey, compared to fresh fish you'd find at a grocery store's seafood section. But Hezel noted, "There's so much tinned seafood now that you can buy that, ironically, is almost a fresher way of experiencing that seafood, because sardines are fished out of the water and, in some cases, canned within hours."
With their long shelf-life, Hezel said one way to think about tinned fish is like a nice bottle of wine you save for a special occasion: "I am very excited about a tin that I just got of barnacles," she said. "They look like dinosaur legs!"
But is tinned fish just a fad? Becca Millstein says no. She named her company Fishwife for the industrious, tough women who've sold fish in the past – something she's hoping to do, long into the future. "It's something that people have been eating for hundreds of years," she said. "So, the trend that we're experiencing right now is the beginning of the new era of tinned fish."
For more info:
- Fishwife Tinned Seafood Company
- "Tin to Table: Fancy, Snacky Recipes for Tin-thusiasts and A-fish-ionados" by Anna Hezel (Chronicle Books), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org
Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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