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How a South Philly grocer stacked up some of the world’s best canned seafood

Interest in artisanal canned seafood is rising worldwide for its luxurious quality and stylish packaging.

A tasting of tinned fish at Craig LaBan's house included, clockwise from top, a pan of warmed Brittany sardines in buttter and sea salt, Spanish cockles, cod poached in oil, Spanish razor clams, grilled sardines from Asturias, butter-poached lobster from Canada, and Spanish fried mussels in escabeche.
A tasting of tinned fish at Craig LaBan's house included, clockwise from top, a pan of warmed Brittany sardines in buttter and sea salt, Spanish cockles, cod poached in oil, Spanish razor clams, grilled sardines from Asturias, butter-poached lobster from Canada, and Spanish fried mussels in escabeche.Read moreCraig LaBan / Staff

The weekend blizzard was coming fast, and though the flurries were already swirling through the South Philadelphia streets, I could not be deterred from my next stop for essential provisions: Herman’s Coffee.

Yes, Herman’s roasts some excellent beans and stocks a bar’s worth of various cocktail mixers, fine chocolates, local cheeses, and an entire rack of 80 hot sauces for that cold weather stewpot of chili. But I was really coming for the ultimate commodity to survive a storm in good taste: tinned fish.

And I don’t mean Bumble Bee (my wife’s preferred brand for her very excellent tuna salad). I’m talking about charcoal-grilled sardine loins from Asturias, butter-poached Canadian lobster, meaty Spanish razor clams, tender morsels of Portuguese octopus, and Brittany sardines packed with Guérande sea salt in French butter that turns to liquid gold when you warm the tin in the oven (or by the campfire).

“I wish people appreciated tinned fish more,” mused Herman’s owner Mat Falco. “Just put it on a nice cracker with a little hot sauce. But if the fish doesn’t sell right away, it’s not the worst problem.”

That was what Falco told me in October, after he’d converted his 24-seat Pennsport cafe into a gourmet grocery and was banking on the durable shelf life of tinned fish and the pandemic’s stay-at-home cooking push to boost his prospects. At that point, he had 47 varieties, likely the largest in the area.

In the four months since, Falco has transformed Herman’s into a true paradise of seafood conservas, with over 150 cans from around the globe — and counting. And Philly’s tinned-fish devotees approve, encouraging Falco’s initiative with leads on coveted new cans to acquire.

“We got him obsessed,” said Shola Olunloyo, the Philadelphia chef behind Studiokitchen, whose love of tinned fish dates to his schoolboy days in Nigeria, when he’d spread canned mackerel with tomatoes and butter on soft agege bread daily for lunch. “I like salty fish and it was just one of those delicious things.”

» READ MORE: Where to buy and taste the best tinned fish in Philly

The childhood connection is similar for Olunloyo’s chef friend, Bruno LeMieux-Ruibal, a Spaniard who was delighted to discover his old favorite coffee shop had become a source for delights from his native Galicia, “the cradle of tinned fish.”

Ocean flavor, preserved

“I’m going for the cheap ones, unfortunately, because I’m unemployed. But [Herman’s] has some wonderful things for $6, like a can of imitation baby eels,” said LeMieux-Ruibal, who was laid off from a catering company because of the pandemic. “I haven’t had real baby eels since I was a child. But now that Mat has those, too, I had to try. ... What a treat [for $42]! They have this freshness and a very particular murky-water, bottom-of-the-river taste. And you can see their little eyes. ... Hope you get to try them! ... I spend a lot of money [at Herman’s]. It’s bad.”

Perhaps not so bad after all, as LeMieux-Ruibal is now set to cook a pop-up Spanish tapas gig on March 12 at Herman’s food cart using the store’s canned fish collection as inspiration. And it will surely be bigger by then.

“Wow, [Herman’s selection] looks like the shelf at my store!” said Matt Caputo, owner of the Salt Lake City retailer Caputo’s and importer A Priori, one of the category’s major national wholesalers, who distributes many of the most coveted tinned seafood products from Europe, including brands like Spain’s Espinaler and Conservas Ortiz, Les Mouettes d’Arvor from France, and Portugal’s José Gourmet.

Interest in such premium artisanal canned seafood brands has spiked nationally in recent years, Caputo says, and is continuing to rise during the pandemic even after other staples that saw the early rush due to food disruptions (like flour) eventually level off.

“There has just been an explosion of different products onto the market in the last two years,” says Caputo, who frequently gives seminars on the finer points of tinned fish.

Several of those brands are rooted in venerable cannery traditions, while other relatively new players, like Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear manufacturer that entered the tinned seafood market in 2008, as well as Canada’s Scout, showcase sustainability missions and charitable initiatives to appeal to a younger, environmentally aware demographic. It’s a challenge, according to Mintel analyst Dasha Shor, who says most Gen Zers and millennials consider tinned fish to be “boring” and Americans in general are more than twice as likely to buy frozen fish.

Educating the public on the virtues of these artisanal products may be the key. There’s a huge difference in quality between these seafood conservas and the 99-cent cans of mass-produced fish commonly found in most supermarkets, says Caputo, from the quality and sustainable sourcing of the seafood to the processing, packaging, and prices.

A buttery, rich, and dauntingly expensive slice of ventresca tuna belly from Ortiz, one of the early pioneers in the U.S. market, has been a gateway bite for many fancy-fish first-timers — including Caputo 15 years ago.

“I found out that what I had grown accustomed to [with tuna] was essentially what the modern-day food industry had done to something to make it cheap,” he said. “Americans tend to think of canned fish as a convenient substitute for something fresh that’s better. But Europeans see the same transformation [of processing] high-quality tinned seafood as they do when they take a leg of pork and turn it into prosciutto. The value has actually been increased.”

Herman’s is hardly the only Philadelphia venue to showcase them. Di Bruno Bros. and Claudio’s have long been major sources for quality canned seafood. Riverwards Produce in Fishtown sells over 35 varieties, including a vintage-style tin of La Molènaise sardines from Les Mouettes d’Arvor in France that owner Vincent Finazzo prizes for its beautiful packaging.

Artwork in can

“It’s like buying a tiny piece of artwork,” he said. “And when you get them home and open it, these fillets are so neatly packed in olive oil and they’re gorgeous.”

Beverage-focused restaurants have seen the appeal, as well. Bloomsday Cafe sells tinned-fish platters to go with its trove of natural and fortified wines.

Jennifer Sabatino, manager of Manatawny Still Works’ tasting room on East Passyunk, found that tinned fish not only offered an appealing food solution for a space with a limited kitchen and staffing, but also had bold enough flavors to pair well with the assertive character of the distillery’s spirits.

“From that first tin of sardines, I was hooked,” says Sabatino, who serves José Gourmet’s fish with Grandma Utz potato chips (”because lard”) and chimichurri. She also pairs the distillery’s mezcal barrel-aged whiskey with smoked mussels from Patagonia Provisions or briny Espinaler razor clams.

For Zach Morris, whose Bloomsday Cafe has 30 varieties for sale in its bottle shop, ranging from the relatively affordable Porthos line of sardines at under $10 per can to a quarter pound of tuna necks char-grilled over oak at Conservas Braseadas Güeyu Mar in Asturias for $46, tinned fish has become another means of substitute travel during the pandemic.

“My heart is in Catalunya,” says Morris, who usually visits Spain annually. “And Güeyu Mar is magical. Their sardines are the freshest sardines I’ve ever had. The notion of fish so fresh that’s preserved captures a moment in time and takes me to a place I want to be.”

There are some exceptional examples of canned seafood from North America, but according to Caputo, the continent has few artisans left due to consolidation. The alder-smoked king salmon from Wildlfish Cannery in Alaska was hauntingly good from the moment I opened the can, took a whiff of its smokehouse, and spread the brick-colored flakes across a bagel. I was also pleasantly surprised by the little tin of lobster from Scout Canning, whose knuckle meat was tender enough, but also came inside a deep orange pool of lobster butter that was ready made to enrich a serving of pasta. Or, more creatively, a lobster-flavored mayo for lobster bao, like the ones that Di Bruno’s e-commerce manager Rocco Rainone made for New Year’s Eve.

Ultimately, good tinned seafood is a ready-made snack with little more than a stack of crackers and a wedge of lemon needed. But simple preparations like pasta are also easily enhanced with a can of razor clams and their brine, sardines, or a few fillets of anchovies melted into hot oil.

And, as Olunloyo notes, high-quality tinned seafood doesn’t have to be expensive. Two of his favorites — Sapori di Mare’s grilled fillets of branzino and salmon — cost $6.99 a can at Claudio’s, which imports them: “Just put them on toast and they’re fantastic.”

Olunloyo, now an avid tinned-fish collector who has brought back as many as 30 cans a trip from his travels, does not limit his local search to Western European sources. Maido! in Ardmore offers Japanese canned fish like soy-marinated pike mackerel. Lately, Olunloyo has been searching the Russian markets of Northeast Philly to find the canned Serbian cod liver that he likened to an oceanic foie gras: “I mixed the cod liver with butter and make a maitre d’ butter for steak-frites. So good.”

Olunloyo’s tinned fish hookup in Philly, Falco, is also intrigued: “Oh ... cod liver?! I’m definitely going to look that up.”