Clare Finney on the cultural significance of tinned food and how it can be so much more than a cheap way of filling a hole
Words: Clare Finney
Image: Lauren Mclean
‘Can it’.’ ‘Tin ear’. ‘Put the tin lid on it.’ There are many expressions referring to canning and tins in English—but the positive one rarely applies to the sort of tinned food we’re familiar with. In fact, it doesn’t refer to food at all, in its original conception: ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’ was first coined in 1996 by a wood stain and dye manufacturer. For a long time, it was truer of wood dye than it was for tins containing edibles: for Brits, tinned food was spaghetti hoops, corned beef and soup, all laced with preservatives, refined sugar and stabilisers. It was not nutritious, nor was it a delicacy. It existed because it was cheap, easily transported, convenient and—that most depressing of all culinary expressions—filled a hole.
Inside the supermarket—well, not much has changed. These products still exist. People still buy them. Browse Borough Market or your local deli or grocer however, and you’ll find food tins are sat not on the bottom shelf, but in pride of place. They’re having a moment. British people are slowly waking up to the idea that, like pickles and ferments (both of which we largely rejected until recently), tinned food is just another form of preservation. It is provenance, not packaging, which determines the quality of what’s inside.
“It’s down to perception,” says James Robinson at Brindisa. “The Spanish view is that canning preserves the best of the harvest for the future. They deliberately put high quality products in tins so they have access to it for an extended period.” It isn’t poorer for having been steeped in brine or olive oil. It is different, James continues, and the Spanish appreciate that. “In this country we believe fresh is always better. We don’t even think about preservation. We just assume tinned food is about cost and convenience.”
Gluts and rituals
The issue is largely historical. Industrialisation took place earlier and was far more widespread in Britain than it was in the rest of Europe. The result, James observes, is that “we have been divorced from the production of food for a very long time. Spain, France and even Germany still have roots in agriculture. But we’ve lived in cities for so much longer, and that separation until recently corrupted our ability to make judgements according to quality.” Back when we were more agricultural, gluts and the ensuing ritual of making chutney or jam were familiar occurrences. Then urbanisation took hold and the post war era, during which “horrible, cheap stuff was thrown into tins as a means of transporting it. It wasn’t about preservation, it was about logistics, really,” says James. “People just needed to be fed.”
Ekaterina, manager of Le Marché du Quartier, tells a similar story. “I’m from Russia and there, tinned food is really seen as ration food. It is not very nice,” she smiles. Working at Le Marché du Quartier, she has been bowled over by the quality and the style of the dishes French people put into cans. “In France there is no such stigma. A lot of the products we sell in cans we sell in glass jars as well, so people who are not familiar with it can see what’s inside.” Those wary customers purchase the jars; the French, meanwhile, stockpile the tinned cassoulet, safe in the knowledge of its provenance and quality. “The label, Lafitte, is very recognisable. This company is famous for not using artificial preservatives,” says Ekaterina. “What preserves it is simply the fat.”
She shows me a jar of lentil cassoulet, sat next to the canned version. Goose fat surrounds it, keeping out the oxygen bacteria needs to reproduce in the same way the olive oil does in a can of sardines or anchovies. “The temperature is higher in the process of canning than vacuum packing so admittedly some of the flavour is lost, but it is such rich food to start with, it doesn’t matter.” For the cassoulet and confit duck, what’s lost is more than made up for by the rich fat content; for the snails (yes, you can buy tinned snails) the liberal quantities of butter, garlic and parsley added to the traditional escargots à l’ail easily makes up the difference between fresh and tinned.
Canning as a craft
For Brindisa, Le Marché du Quartier, Spice Mountain and Fitz Fine Foods, two further purveyors of quality tinned food in Borough Market, the answer is customer education. Of course you’re going to be wary of tinned tuna if you’ve grown up with trawler-caught fish in poor quality sunflower oil mashed in sandwiches with mayonnaise. In Spain, France and Italy, “people are better at making qualitative judgements, because they recognise certain brand names. There are brands in these countries selling poor quality produce in tins, but there are also those selling high quality vegetables and fish in tins. Ortiz is an excellent example. The method of preservation, the standard of the fish, the olive oil—all these things are factors. Canning is a craft in itself.”
Take Ortiz’s anchovies for example. When the anchovies reach the port, having been sustainably fished by certified fishermen, the heads are removed and they are salted in wooden casks—a technique that has been passed down through centuries. They remain in the casks for the time needed to macerate (around six months), then they’re taken out, washed and individually dried and boned. Back to back they are laid into tins which are filled with olive oil, then sealed. “The olive oil is carefully selected so as not to overpower the fish,” says James. It’s sourced from Spain, and organic. Indeed, so prized is this olive oil “some people ‘lay down’ sardines for years, so the fish absorbs more of the oil and develops a rich and luscious texture”—just like you or I might lay down a red wine or champagne.
The same goes for vegetables. The thought of tinned veg might make Brits recoil, but in Spain, “you get all forms of plant life preserved by canning. In my opinion it is the cooking,” James says when I ask why Spanish Navarrico tinned white asparagus is so much better. “They source good vegetables or pulses—you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—cook them without quite finishing them, then tin them and put that into the autoclave, which sterilises and finishes them so they aren’t soggy or soft inside.”
Real fast food
While we rarely think of our friends on the continent eating anything pre-prepared, there are ready meals and there are ready meals, he points out. “You can prepare our dried judión beans yourself, of course, but it is a long, slow process. These ones can be warmed through or served cold in a salad. Our piquillo peppers just need stuffing.” Fry up an onion, chuck in some chorizo, a jar of tomato sauce and the beans, “and you have yourself a good, heathy meal in 15 minutes,” he continues. “I don’t much like the expression, but this is real fast food.”
Spanish food can take a long time to prepare, but it is nothing compared to French cuisine. One of the most popular ranges stocked by Le Marché du Quartier is its sauces: sauce au poivre, béarnaise sauce, sauce lyonnaise and more. “These sauces take a long time to prepare. Some of them are very particular and require ingredients which aren’t commonly found.” Of course you can make your own, but if time is short and you can buy something of a similar (if not better) quality than homemade, why wouldn’t you? “Likewise with the duck confit. You can buy that, buy the lentils cooked in goose fat, put it in the oven for 15 minutes and you have a very traditional dish which would otherwise take a day to prepare.”
For French and Spanish customers visiting Brindisa, Fitz Fine Foods or Le Marché du Quartier, this is as much about getting a taste of home as it is speed and ease of preparation. For the novice, delving for the first time into quality tinned goods territory, it is a means of discovering new flavours, or ones you may only have experienced in restaurants or on holiday. It is about investing in flavour and appreciating the effects of time, while simultaneously saving it. It is about treating all good produce with reverence.
Grand can designs
“I do suspect that many people who buy Ortiz and Navarrico do so the first time for the stunning packaging,” James acknowledges. “But the number of repeat sales suggests people then discover what’s inside is delicious—that the contents match the beautiful exterior.” In short, if you want a food that does what it says on the tin, it has to be Borough Market, and their grand can designs.