Mar 15 2023

Canned Pleasures: Spanish Jewels from the Sea

The variety of canned food from Spain is overwhelming: from seafood and roe to lesser-known fish and even seaweed

Canning is somewhat magical: it allows us to enclose a high-quality product in a can while respecting its origin and qualities; then, when a consumers opens it in any other part of the world, they can enjoy its essence.

Spain is the largest exporter of canned and pre-prepared fish in the European Union, according to 2022 data from Anfaco-Cecopesca, an organization that supports companies in Galicia's marine food industry. Additionally, an Alimarket report published in February 2023 states that foreign sales continue to be the sector's main source of business. That's why internationalization of the industry has accelerated, as companies set their sights on new markets such as the United States, Asia, and Latin America.

In the case of Spanish canned food, tuna has historically been the leader in sales. However, the same Alimarket report maintains that, although tuna is still number one, it's gradually being overshadowed by other products. Beyond tuna in extra virgin olive oil and in escabeche, to give just two examples, there's a whole universe of canned foods to be discovered, where both high-quality and varied products are very much in the spotlight.

"Canned food is fashionable, and Spain is a leader in terms of tradition and quality," explains Francisco Lafuente, director of Conservas Paco and Rosa Lafuente, a Galician company with a range of specialties beyond blue fish. "Mussels in escabeche are very well-known outside Spain:" a way to serve a quality product in a traditional way.

But the company's catalog includes more products that are not as well-known by the general public. One example is canned seafood, which "attracts a lot of attention because it's less common at the market." For example, they sell razor clams from the Galician Rías "of the highest quality." Other products that consumers love include clams au naturel as well as cockles. With regard to the latter, in addition to being delicious on their own, served simply as an appetizer, they can also be included in pasta dishes, for example, where they add a wonderful flavor of the sea.

Another successful type of canned food are pre-made dishes: in these cases, all you have to do is open the can and enjoy a tasty meal. One example is Galician scallops from the Ramón Peña or Escurís canneries, stewed in a traditional (and delectable) scallop sauce; they take you on a trip to the Galician estuaries when you open a can! There are companies that even can the world-famous Galician octopus, as is the case of La Brújula. Los Peperetes also sells octopus in other styles, such as garlic.

A universe to discover

One of the rarest fish that can be found in cans is conger eel, which is common in the north of Spain but not so much in other areas. La Pureza sells this white, eel-shaped fish in cans with olive oil and encourages consumers to eat it as is, or include it in recipes like empanada.

Galicia's exclusive oysters can also be found in cans, and they're a real treat for the palate. Los Peperetes sells them in escabeche while O Submarino prepares them in an Albariño vinaigrette.

Canned congrio from La Pureza.

But not all "alternative" canned products are in the north. If you head south, the surprises continue. One company with the most interesting selection is Ubago, from Málaga. Among its delights are smoked cod liver and cod roe. And in Barbate (Cádiz) is Herpac, a factory known for its magnificent canned bluefin tuna, of which they also sell different parts, such as the morrillo—a front part of the animal, at the top of the head—and the fattier tarantelo, which is part of the back, between the belly and the tail. But it's still tuna (albeit red), so it's important to mention their mackerel roe, which comes from another blue fish that is truly a delicacy.

Speaking of delicacies from the sea, we must head north again to include those made by Porto Muiños. Spain's canning industry is not limited to just Spanish fish and seafood. This company, founded by the visionary Antonio Muiños, also sells canned seaweed. Galician seaweed such as nori, sea spaghetti, and wakame, among many others, is a luxury ingredient in recipes ranging from scrambled eggs and cannelloni to skewers and vegetable stews. Yes, there is (plenty of) life beyond tuna.