The Case for Conservas: A Guide to Iberian Canned Fish and Seafood

Serious Eats


June 30, 2020

An introduction to conservas, the canned seafood delicacies beloved by the Spanish and Portuguese alike, with suggestions for types to try and how best to serve them.
Megan Lloyd

The average American grocery store tends to be lacking in the canned seafood department. Besides shelves and shelves of tuna, one might find the odd can of clams, some salmon, some mackerel, and little else. But citizens of the Iberian peninsula—the region including Spain and Portugal—are practically swimming in canned seafood. Entire shops in Portugal and grocery aisles in Spain are dedicated to the stuff. Though fish and shellfish are eaten fresh throughout the region, canning is an often preferred method for preparing and conserving the best of their plenteous waters. In fact, the resulting range of products, called “conservas,” are considered a delicacy.

The Iberians preserve seafood by first lightly steaming or frying the product and then canning it in boiling water baths, like any other canned food. But when it comes to the liquido de cobertura (the liquid added to protect the seafood from drying out), their approach is focused on highlighting flavor and texture. Squid are often preserved in their own ink or stuffed with rice and covered in different sauces. Pricey bivalves go untampered with, and are canned in a soft natural brine to mimic the sea, while the more economical mussel usually gets the escabeche treatment—a vinegary brine of garlic, paprika, and bay leaf that was used for preservation long before canning was invented. Blue fish like tuna and mackerel have a dense texture and strong flavor that holds up to oil, and potent sardines are seasoned with every permutation of oil, spice, and tomato sauce the Iberians can imagine.

But why choose canned over fresh seafood? “The best conserva makers are canning fish caught literally the day before,” says Abel Álvarez, the chef and owner of the restaurant Güeyu Mar, and an adjacent small specialty cannery next door, in Spain’s northern coastal region of Asturias. “Why wouldn’t you maintain the freshness of that fish as long as possible?” This idea rings true with most conserva makers and consumers: canning is a way to capture the catch at its peak—a tinned time capsule of unparalleled flavor and nutrients.

The question of conservas’ sustainability isn’t black and white, but there are definitely environmental benefits to eating seafood from a can. Responsible fishing practices vary depending on the cannery, though according to Sean Barrett, co-founder of Dock to Dish, it’s easier to trace canned seafood back to its source than it is fresh seafood because of lot numbers, dates, and locations noted in labeling. He, along with Álvarez and Rafael Viguer, owner of Central de Latas in Valencia and producer of Samare Conservas, notes that canning is a more energy-efficient alternative to storing massive seasonal catches in commercial freezers. Even when considering the environmental effects of transportation, Barrett says the carbon footprint of cans is lighter. Shipping cans of seafood on slow boats across the ocean from the Iberian peninsula is preferred to sending them on a plane (the method used for sending most fresh fish around the world) or on a truck. “When considering that 90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, seeking out seafood from canneries using wild and well-regulated fisheries is an alternative worth seeking out,” says Barrett.

Today in the Iberian peninsula the appeal of conservas holds stronger than ever. “Spaniards care more about quality seafood than almost any other culture,” says Matt Goulding, author of author of Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture. “They know some of the best stuff goes in cans.”

A popular grocery or specialty shop item, as noted above, conservas also appear on restaurant menus: In fact, some bars in Spain and Portugal serve nothing but gourmet preserved seafood. The conserva naturally weaves itself into the everyday cuisine of the region, maintaining its place as an essential pantry item for home and professional cooks. When Covid-19 hit, the Portuguese Directorate of General Health put out a 37-page gourmet guide entitled “Canned Recipes: Healthy Eating in Times of Isolation Using Canned Fish and Legumes.” The reverence, and relevance, is real.

Below is a list of cans to get you started. Serving them is simple: let the conserva shine with a few other ingredients, or eat them straight from the can with crusty bread.

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