Fish in a Tin: London’s Portuguese Love Affair

Often regarded as one of the world’s best dining destinations, London is now home to many of the most inventive and impressive chefs, with a huge variety of restaurants and eateries catering to every taste and budget.

We’re certainly used to trying something new. From #FryHard in Shoreditch to the UK’s first speciality cereal cafe in Brick Lane, us Londoners have embraced the rise of the pop-up with open mouths and last year Tincan in Soho introduced a whole new dining concept to the capital.

With no chef and no kitchen, Tincan was a six-month project set out to serve Londoners the best tinned seafood in the world. Created by AL_A architects, the combination of food and design hoped to “elevate the tin to an object of desire” and introduced ‘a super healthy menu of 30 exceptional delicacies and the extraordinary graphics of the humble tin taking centre stage’.

For something so simple, it’s only surprising that it’s taken London this long to get behind fish in a tin. Cheap, efficient and highly nutritious, this additive-free method of preserving fish has been around for nearly two hundred years and in Spain and Portugal conservas restaurantes – restaurants that specialise in tinned seafoodare as common as they are popular, with everything from octopus and razor clams to anchovy fillets, tuna and sardines all served simply with bread and a glass of something local.

The Tincan pop-up may have closed in December 2014 but that doesn’t mean London still can’t enjoy the world’s very best tinned fish. In fact, the restaurant’s sole suppliers of Portuguese tinned fish, A Portuguese Love Affair, is also one of the UK’s leading wholesale distributors of Portuguese canned fish, with their shop on East London’s Columbia Road stocking nearly 60 varieties of upscale Portuguese tinned fish.

Ranging from £3 for smoked sardines in spicy olive oil to £7 for stuffed squid with tomato and parsley, this is a very different quality of tinned fish to that stocked in the average UK supermarket. And that can be no bad thing.

In the UK, tuna is by far the most common tinned fish on our shelves. This is concerning in two ways. Firstly, tinned tuna’s light grey or tan colouring is hardly the most appetising of foods, and it’s also the only fish to lose a lot of its essential fatty acids in the canning process. Secondly, the vast majority of tuna is caught by large commercial fishing vessels using one of two methods: long-line fishing and purse seining. Both methods produce bycatch in large numbers. Of the five commercially fished species of tuna (albacore, bigeye, bluefin, skipjack and yellowfin) all them are under pressure.

Thankfully, at A Portuguese Love Affair they have a firm commitment to promoting sustainability. All their tuna is pole and line caught and dolphin safe, but customers can also be tempted by beautifully-packaged tins of sustainable, naturally gluten-free and wheat-free mussels, octopus and calamari, or the more familiar tinned sardines and mackerel.

Sardines in particular are one of the most sustainable fish around. Boasting a variety of vital nutrients such as heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, sardines are also one of the most ‘fishy’ of the fishes with a strong flavour and bones so soft they’re left intact to be eaten and enjoyed whole. In fact, so small is their size that sardines fall right to the bottom of the oceanic food chain, and therefore contain low amounts of mercury, PCBs and the other toxins that accumulate in longer-living marine predators such as salmon and tuna.

So what’s the best way to eat these fins in tins? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrated chef and long-time champion of canned fish, recommends using them as a pizza topping (‘anchovies are traditional, of course, but any canned fish can work wonders’), folding into hot pasta or, ‘One of my favourite ways to eat tinned sardines is to “bloody mary” them – that is, crushing them up with a dash of tomato ketchup, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, lemon juice and, if it’s past midday, even a splash of vodka. Spread on hot brown toast, this is a great way to put a spring in your step.’

For me, there’s no better (or easier) midweek meal than a steaming bowl of spaghetti with garlic, chilli, chopped black olives and tinned sardines in tomato sauce. Recipes this simple rely on quality ingredients and the plentiful selection of tinned sardine fillets from A Portuguese Love Affair are the best I’ve found to date.

Another recent discovery is JG’s Spiced Calamari in Ragout Sauce, available for £5.50 from A Portuguese Love Affair. Here paying more really does pay off. The calamari is so soft the cocktail sausage-sized pieces actually taste like the most sumptuous fishy sausages, encased in a silky smooth ragout that delicately clings and coats pasta (fusilli works best) with a luxurious and incredibly refined combination of tomato pulp, sunflower oil, onion, parsley, red pepper, wine and ground cloves.

While I’d always recommend buying the best tinned fish you can afford, one of the real benefits of tinned fish is their accessibility. As long as you pay attention to the packaging, you can still pick up sustainable supermarket versions for under £1 – Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer the Co-op all declared the market leaders for selling sustainable tinned tuna by Greenpeace in their 2014 Tuna League Table (with Asda quickly taking note and now only stocking sustainable tinned tuna brands).

Prices rarely vary between those preserved in tomato sauce, oil, brine or water, and personally I’d always opt for olive oil for maximum flavour on a budget. We’ve all read the memo on eating more oily fish and, for those of us not living on the coast, buying tinned fish is the most economic way to load up on that all important Omega-3. It’s also by no means inferior nutritionally-speaking, with the longer shelf-lives and best-before dates preserving the freshness of the fillets for when we’re ready to get stuck in.

So, whether it’s kedgeree for breakfast, tuna salad or sardines on toast for lunch and fishcakes or pasta for dinner, tinned fish really is the healthiest and tastiest fast food to stockpile in your cupboard and eat around the clock. What’s not to love about that?

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