We’re not talking about your grandma’s tuna salad. Canned seafood, or conservasas they’re known in Spain and Portugal, is more than a can of tuna grabbed for a quick lunch or used for a mayo-based salad of sorts. Conservas take seafood and turn it into something much more flavorful, preserved in quality, rich oils, salt, sugar and vinegar. There are also some varieties preserved in a tomato sauce, with some pimentón(paprika) mixed in or added oregano for deeper flavor — not quite the same tins you might have found in your lunchbox growing up.
These little morsels, coated in good oil as flavors meld right until the can is opened, are an easy appetizer to serve at a party, and you shouldn’t shy away from them.
Canned seafood came as a solution thanks to Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who found a way to preserve food that resulted in fewer health issues and would also feed the French army. Eventually this technique made its way to its southern neighbors, and conservas were born. Tuna, mackerel, sardines, mussels, clams, octopus, squid and more have all found themselves in latas(cans), aiding in survival during a cold winter or food shortage. And now conservas are gourmet products, lauded for their freshness, the care that goes into preserving them and of course, for how tasty they can be.
Across Spain and Portugal you’ll find plenty of bars that are either dedicated to serving up some of the best conservas out there or simply keeping a few types on hand, opening up a can and serving it to customers. Chef Jonah Miller of Huertas in New York explains that the dining culture in Spain is often very casual, and due to the modest kitchens in old buildings, “ultimately most of the food during service is prepared by a bartender.” So dishes like tortilla de patatas(Spanish omelet) might be prepared in advance, with other tapas requiring little to no prep.
“In Spain and Portugal quite literally a bartender will just hand you a can of seafood and a toothpick and that’s it,” says Miller.
Huertas, a Basque-influenced, tapas-style eatery, offers several conservas on the menu with simple, complementary accoutrement, like smoked mussels with aioli or sardines with radishes and butter. The point is to accentuate the seafood, not mask it. Since brands pack their seafood at peak freshness, the natural flavor is still there and ready to be enjoyed. You can also find recipes and guides for serving conservas in Miller’s cookbook The New Spanish: Bites, Feasts, And Drinks, along with other unique takes on classic Spanish dishes.
As simple as opening up a high-quality can of sardines or clams may seem, offering a few at your next get-together mixes it up a little bit as a departure from your standard cheese and charcuterie boards.
“It’s a great way to go,” says Miller. “They are inherently room temperature, there’s still a bit of a novelty to it, and it’s not something you’re going to see at every party.”
Chop up some fennel (and reserve the fronds for toppings!), lay out fresh herbs like parsley and chives, fill little bowls of with crunchy, coarse salt, slice some lemon and whip up an aioli. Miller also recommends serving olives and pickled peppers like guindilla or piquillo peppers. Get some crusty bread and salty potato chips to act as a base for your conservas, and let your guests go to town. Layering up a potato chip with some creamy aioli and a plump piece of octopus is the perfect bite and quickly addictive.
For brands to buy, Miller recommends Ortiz, Cabo de Peñas, Don Bocarte and Ramón Peña. He also mentioned Patagonia Provisions (yes, the outdoor brand sells food products as well) as a good option. Select five or six tins to serve, and you’re good to go. And just because the seafood is in cans, doesn’t mean it will feel or taste cheap. Some of the top brands can cost more than $10, so you can decide on the degree of luxury you want to add to the night.
And for drink pairings, go with something refreshing, like “a nice light lager they would drink in Spain” or sherry, advises Miller. White wine, beer and cider are also good choices, though Miller advises steering clear of red wine. “You don’t want something that’s going to compete too much with it.”
Your hors d'oeuvres can be just as beautiful and special as one of those fancy, Instagrammable cheese boards. Don’t get us wrong, we like cheese as much as the next person, but there is something elegant about a well-designed can, silver, yellow, or gold in color, sitting next to a full basket of bread, a mountain of fresh herbs, slices of radishes and good butter all waiting for you to get creative and craft the tapa of your dreams. It’s fun, it’s delicious and it’s a way to change things up.