Rethinking Canned Tuna

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Photo by Biskuit/Flickr CC


In order to understand why I'd recommend tinned tuna, you have to get out of the canned tuna mindset that most all of us were raised with here in the States. While in this country it's at the bottom of the purchasable prepared food list in terms of prestige, in Spain tinned tuna is pretty much the cat's meow in a good way--a good grocery will have an entire aisle of the stuff!

All of these terrific tunas are coming to us courtesy of the Ortiz family, whose offices are in the town of Ondarroa on the Cantabrian Coast of the Basque Country. They're a fifth-generation fishing family that's tinning some of the best tuna and anchovies around. There really is a difference--the quality may not be immediately noticeable based on visuals alone, but it's very much apparent when you to get to eating. As with all fish, freshness is huge. The Ortiz folks are on the docks daily in season to buy from the best boats. All the tuna are line-caught. All are excellent. The cooking, the packing, and the entire operation are done with high attention to detail and very flavorful results. Here's the rundown:

Tuna actually gets better as it sits in tins or jars--the oil gradually penetrates the flesh of the fish further and further as it ages, making for ever richer tuna inside.

Bonito is the top pick of almost every Basque I've ever asked. It's albacore, white in color, mellow in flavor. Yellowfin is less highly prized in Spain, but I actually like it better because the flavor is bigger.

The "red" and the "blue" are actually one and the same. It's a special, one-time-only, Ortiz-family-offering of bluefin tuna, which is known in Italian as tonno rosso (or literally "red tuna"). Bluefin is almost completely unknown in Spanish tuna tinning. This stuff is available really only because two years ago this past summer a couple big bluefins seem to have wandered out of the Mediterranean into the Cantabrian Sea. Local fisherman caught one, brought it in to the docks, and the folks at Ortiz smartly snapped it up. If you like tuna, you'll definitely want to check this one out. To me, tonno rosso is the top of the top of tinned tunas, the one that you want to eat when you want to eat something superbly special. It's richer, meatier, mavelouser. It's particularly good because it's actually been aged for two years, meaning it's even richer and better now than when it was first released. We liked it so much we bought everything they had.

Speaking of aging, we've also got hold of a special Vintage Bonito. Few folks realize it, but tuna (and sardines, but not anchovies) actually gets better as it sits in tins or jars--the oil gradually penetrates the flesh of the fish further and further as it ages, making for ever richer tuna inside. After a series of pep talks--as in, "we really want to buy this from you!"--the Ortiz family started to pack for sale what they'd previously just done for themselves and put up some of the best Bonito tuna each year to mature. We got the first batch in this past winter, and it's already excellent. The cool thing is though that it continues to get better. Jacopo Magica, who's worked for the Ortiz family for a long time now, says it will continue to improve in flavor for 14 or 15 years so if you like it buy it now and set it aside for special occasions down the road.

Lastly, but definitely not least, we also have ventresca, which is a cut of the tuna--in fact it's the richest part of the fish, the belly, a big delicacy in Spain, something most American have no idea even exists. But it does and it's good and... put it on toast--skip the celery and the mayo.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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