The woman I au-paired for in France many moons ago, Monique, wasn’t that interested in cooking but knew, in that French way, how to prepare food effortlessly. She rarely made a starter when friends came for dinner, just offered them an aperitif and put a selection of small plates on the table. There were rounds of saucisson, rillettes, radishes, olives, good bread and the contents of several tins of fish.
My mother would have been horrified, but I thought serving tinned fish was genius. Best of all were the sardines au piment, sardines canned with chillies. As well as chillies there were bay leaves, segments of lemon and cloves in the can so even the oil was worth dipping your bread into. This spread made the best pre-dinner picnic. Along with hard-boiled eggs, I still serve it when I can’t be bothered making anything else.
Monique loved another tinned fishy snack, which she used to eat mid-morning. It was ages before I knew what it was and I’m glad I didn’t find out sooner. It was canned cod liver. Cast aside all thoughts of cod liver oil. The liver itself is gently fishy, dissolves in your mouth and seems – because of its softness and subtlety – incredibly luxurious. When I left Monique and went to live in a cheap hotel in Paris (it was in the days when such things were possible), I more or less survived on a diet of tinned cod liver and spiced sardines. I’d buy them at the supermarket nearby and keep them in my room without the staff noticing.
These days you can spend quite a lot of money on tinned fish. The Spanish and the Portuguese regard it highly; if you go to Lisbon you can’t come back without tins of conservas (they even have shops devoted to it) and when I’m in Paris I buy French sardines to bring home. Vintage sardines from Brittany are beauties and Spanish tuna canned by Ortiz is a luscious, fatty, fishy treat (especially the belly fillet, or ventresca).
I don’t regard canned fish as a cheap fallback, but a luxurious store-cupboard ingredient. I even have a wooden box of vintage canned Norwegian sardines. They’re hard to get (and if you do find them, they can cost about £35 a tin) but they’re much loved by aficionados. Ask a Norwegian canned-fish lover what his favourite sardine is, and he might say, ‘Oh, a 1953,’ and name the cannery he prefers. For some, they’re as special as wine.
As well as being good straight from the tin, canned fish make good meals, especially when combined with beans. The Italian salad of tuna with beans and red onions is a classic (my version below is gussied up, but not just for the sake of it – I like it better) and let me give you a bonus recipe that you’ll cook forever. Whizz two drained 400g tins of haricot beans with a sautéed onion, garlic, some stock and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Mash a tin of drained tuna into this. Season. Spread in a gratin dish and top with breadcrumbs, grated Gruyère and nuggets of butter. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven preheated to 190C/180C fan/gas mark 5. Scatter with parsley. That’s Breton tuna. It’s no looker but it’s bloody delicious.
Canned salmon is the poor cousin of Mediterranean canned fish. It’s not that it’s cheap but that its uses are limited (it certainly can’t be tipped on to a plate to serve as a starter). I use it for fishcakes – I prefer it to fresh salmon in cakes – and during lockdown, when stocks were low, I made the leek and potato ‘pie’ with it. It was quicker than doing fish cakes – none of the mashing and frying – and my sons loved it. Tinned fish rules. And not just in hard times. Think of Monique.