Tinned mussels and octopus are great

I bought and enjoyed some fantastic tins this weekend, and I'd recommend trying them out.

This week, I had a tin of squids in ink on a baguette, a tin of sardines on saltines, and a tin of mussels on rice with peppers, spring onions, and radishes; they were all delicious, and altogether cost about nine dollars. The biggest issue I had was that I bought the squids in ink and the saltines from the place around the corner, which isn’t exactly a bodega but more a place that in addition to lottery tickets and cleaning supplies sells possibly Cold War-era pantry and frozen goods, and the saltines had somehow taken on the smell of the place, so that they pretty literally tasted like a scented garbage bag, and I only realized that they were the source of the problem while finishing my last one. (No harm befell me, and if the squids weren’t the first thing I’d serve company they almost certainly won’t be the last I buy from this store.)

Today, I sought a more refined experience. After getting my first real haircut in over a year this afternoon, I took a solid two-hour walk and sat in the park for a good long while reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s fantastic new book on the Sackler family, all of which, combined with a skipped lunch, had me feeling both unusually civilized and famished. It was time to reach for the heavy artillery.

Here I’ll note that the tins under review under this week aren’t the ones I’d intended to be. Yesterday, my wife and I walked from our West Philadelphia compound to Herman’s Coffee in Pennsport—nine miles or so in lovely weather, contributing to the unusually civilized feelings—to acquire octopus. I’d initially wanted Dom Gastronom’s octopus in garlic sauce, an affordable tin my teen son enjoys, but had seen on the Herman’s website that they were out of stock, and so had my eye on Conservas Güeyu Mar’s rather less affordable chargrilled octopus. Unfortunately, when we got there, there were no tins on the shelves. (So it goes, and by pointing this out I mean no offense to Herman’s, which is one of Philadelphia’s great culinary treasures not just in its own right but because it’s adjacent to Charlie’s Roast Pork, a terrific sandwich shop, and Cake & Joe, which specializes in illegal-seeming mousses, and is set up with lawn chairs and tables so that you can drink an iced tea and gloat over your purchases.) Fortunately, the incredible depth of the stock at Herman’s just meant I had to pick some other tins to try, and so I grabbed Wildfish Cannery’s smoked octopus and Conservas de Cambados’ octopus in olive oil, along with La Brújula’s mussels in pickled sauce. Today, my intention was to pop both of those octopus tins, enjoy them with my son, and then do a sort of compare-and-contrast review; when I popped the first of them, though, my initial reaction was “Wow, this octopus looks a lot like mussels,” and then I realized that that was because I had, in my hunger, popped a tin of mussels. This was unfortunate for my reviewing plans, but, as it turned out, fortunate for me and my son and our late-afternoon snacking plans.

Octopus and mussels

Before getting into how incredible these tins were—something that will be addressed under the next subhed—I think it’s worth taking a step back and addressing a bigger-picture question that comes up with tinned seafood, which is that of sustainability. In a relative sense, my understanding is that pretty much all of it is good; your more dubiously-produced tin is likely involved in less harm to the dying cinder we live on and everyone and everything we share it with than an equivalent quantity of nominally less dubiously-produced red meat. In an absolute sense, though, there is the better and the less-better, and there are plenty of human-rights abuses involved in the canning industry, and plenty of environmental harms.

Layla Schlack of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an excellent article about this recently that got at just what a nuanced issue it is. While a lot of sardine-enthusiast propaganda touts it as a healthy and sustainable option, for instance, for the solid reason that the many distinct creatures sold as sardines are small bottom-feeding fish that can just be scooped up out of rich fisheries, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch marks the sardine as a fish to avoid right now. This isn’t, as Schlack explains, necessarily because of anything fishermen are doing wrong; these are fish that go through cycles of expansion and decline in population for reasons scientists aren’t entirely clear on, and which are also susceptible to the broader effects of climate change. And to the extent that fisherman are doing things wrong, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what people scooping sardines into their face over the sink with a bottle of hot sauce nearby are doing; most of these catches end up as animal feed or bait. And to the extent that it does, that’s not necessarily a reason to stop buying sardines. Your individual consumer-purchasing choices aren’t going to have much effect on the broader fishing economy, and to the extent they are, grabbing a tin of sardines isn’t in any way an obviously bad option; supporting the people who catch, can, and sell these fish is good, after all. Still, all of this is something to be mindful of; as in all things, moderation and diversity are virtues worth thinking about.

Where the octopus and mussels that I enjoyed so much today come in here is that they actually appear to be great options as far as sustainability goes. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates the common octopus I bought two tins of yesterday well, and mussels, generally, glowingly. (Mussels, which can be farmed by putting ropes in water and are plausibly vegan, are a basically perfect animal food, though this is a question to be gone into in more depth in future installments.) Even by the standards of tinned seafood, a sort of food that shouldn’t inspire too much guilt, this is stuff you can probably feel good about.

If you scrolled down to here to read about the tins, you can stop here

These tins were just utterly fantastic. What I did was pop them both, fish all the chunks out into little bowls we keep around, then slice up some rye bread and chunky “table bread” (a basic whole-grain loaf charred to the point where the crust has some heavy hints of coffee, cherry, and cinnamon) from Lost Bread Co. into thick chunks and brush them with the oil from the cans and then pop those under a preheated broiler in the toaster oven for five minutes or so while plating some pickled radishes and baby carrots. My son and I carried that all out to the backyard with a bottle of Cholula hot sauce and some seltzer water and dug in, just fishing the bounty of the sea out of the bowls and pressing it onto the broiled bread and vigorously chomping.

We both preferred the La Brújula mussels, which surprised us; we’re both serious octopus enthusiasts and this was tremendous octopus, but these mussels were something else. What struck me was their sheer freshness. The box claims these are “in pickled sauce”—olive oil, vinegar, “spices” and salt—but they had the pure flavor of the sea, a brininess that tastes of life the same way something just plucked out of the water does, just with a bit of added depth. I generally advocate for tinned seafood on the grounds that it’s not better than the fresh stuff and doesn’t have to be, but these would more than stand up to any fresh steamed mussel I’ve ever had, with a similar texture but a more purely concentrated flavor. They were fine with hot sauce and fine without it; I’m pretty sure you could add any garnish you like to these and they’d benefit from it, and you could certainly leave them alone because they don’t need it, and you’d be fine either way. Sitting in my tiny backyard in West Philadelphia, I was at the seashore; you don’t need a transporting experience out of food, but if you get it, it’s not a bad thing.

The octopus from Wildfish Cannery was just about as good. My son liked it a whole lot, but wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about it as I was, and I suspect this might have been because it presented a flavor and texture akin to one he’s unfamiliar with but that I deeply enjoy once in a while: that of really, really good ham.

Octopus is, at least to an American palate, a slightly weird food, and I understand why it might seem off-putting. (There are plenty of ways to serve it that I’m not a bold enough eater to eat.) Good grilled octopus like you might get as an appetizer at a restaurant is the tip of the tentacle of a nine-brained creature, with suction cups attached to it, with a texture maybe somewhat comparable to that of pork but not really like that of any land creature; it’s a thing in itself that you just have to brave to see if you’ll like it. Tinned octopus is like that but with some other vectors of unfamiliarity removing it from a meat an uncle might pull off the grill—it isn’t charred; it has a slightly different and sometimes chewier texture—but this one reminded me, absolutely and more than anything else, and without tasting all that much like it, of leftovers from the hams my grandmother would cook during the holidays (one of my favorite childhood food memories) but without the odd chewy or overly fatty bits I wasn’t fond of. That’s probably largely because of the smokiness of what was after all a tin of smoked octopus, but it certainly wasn’t all that; it was also about the basic texture and the way the fattier bits were interlaced with the more muscular ones. What was very different from those hams of my memory was the delicacy of the flavor and of the octopus chunks themselves. These were substantial chunks of tentacle that needed to be sliced in half to fit on the broiled bread, but in the process of applying pressure, the little suction cups would just pop off onto the plate; these perfectly nipple-sized bits had none of the meatiness of the main bit and just dissolved in my mouth. That I have more to say about them doesn’t mean I enjoyed them more than the almost perfectly pure mussels, but I enjoyed them tremendously, and alternating between bites of them with bread and picked radish I felt perfectly relaxed, for one of the first times in a long while.

This stuff is expensive

I enjoyed the Wildfish Cannery smoked octopus a lot more than the Dom Gastronom’s octopus in garlic sauce I’d initially intended to review here; my son enjoyed it less. I enjoyed the La Brújula mussels on par with or even above many other fresh and tinned mussels I’ve had; my son took them as a revelation. One thing that struck me in thinking about this was how little correlation there is between cost and enjoyment. The Dom Gastronom octopus is $7 for a four-ish ounce tin; the Wildfish Cannery octopus is $18 for same; the Conservas Güeyu Mar I set out to acquire is $25; I don’t know what fresh octopus costs at the store because I never cook it. The perfectly fine tinned smoked mussels I bought from the deli earlier this week cost $5 for a four-ish ounce tin; the La Brújula ones my son I lost our minds over cost $11 per tin; I’ve paid anywhere between I think $3 and $15 per pound for fresh mussels that I’ve then subjected to various processes involving butter and steam and aromatics that neither of us have liked as much as we liked these.

Is a wildly expensive tin of seafood worth the money? Is the difference between it and a much less expensive but still pretty expensive tin that big? Where’s the point of diminishing returns? These are questions I ponder and will be seeking to address in this newsletter, and I don’t know that there are obvious answers. Of course it depends on what your income and obligations are—I’m square with those in ways right now I haven’t always been and don’t always expect to be, so that I can stomach $100-per-pound seafood as an occasional treat—but saying that is a bit of a copout. The real question is, Yes, assuming I’m not putting my descendants in debt to get them, are these really fancy tins worth splurging on? I’d say these two are, though I’d definitely try out some less-fancy octopus and mussels first to see if they’re in the universe of things you like, and along with the fancy tins those less-fancy tins will be a persistent focus here. If you know you like this stuff, try these tins out; you’re going to like them.

If you’re interested in fancy tinned seafood, I’d recommend going to Herman’s Coffee, but if you happen not to live in Philadelphia and want to order using the Internet, I’d recommend Rainbow Tomatoes Garden; I haven’t ordered from them but they have an incredible array of tinned seafood on offer and their owner is a consistent and well-regarded presence on the Canned Seafood subreddit, where I lurk. I don’t think people get into the tinned seafood importing and promotion game to get rich or to run scams, and I’m pretty sure if he was doing so he would be called out for doing it by the subreddit’s users, so I don’t see any reason not to shop over there, and personally, now that the world is opening up a bit, I’m interested in getting over to their Montgomery County headquarters to check out some tins and some tomatoes. This summer is going to be great!

I’m not sure what will be reviewed in the next edition of this newsletter, but I’m thinking of writing about modestly-priced tins and some good preparations like broiling tinned seafood under eggs and mixing it with Greek yogurt and aromatics. If you’d like to read about anything in particular please feel free to shoot an email at tlmarchman@gmail.com, and you can subscribe below if you’re inclined to to get this in your inbox whenever I send it out. Hope everything’s cool with you!