Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where to Find Your Luxury Canned Food

Is there such a thing as luxury canned food? Is it an oxymoron that can only be eaten while wearing natural make-up in a room filled with deafening silence?

A&H Gourmet and Seafood Market of Bethesda believes that you can still be posh while working the pop-top.

In fact, on their “March Specials” placard, right next to the fresh Siberian caviar, they have a picture of Conservas Ortiz Ventresca de Bonito del Norte. AKA, canned tuna.

But this isn’t your grandpa’s chicken of the sea. Imported from northern Spain, Conservas Ortiz uses the most tender part of the white tuna: the belly, or ventresca. Each tuna is line-caught by hand, which preserves the texture and flavor that are often missing from tuna that are subjected to the stressful process of net harvesting. The albacore is freshly cleaned and dressed, then hand-packed to ensure that the fillet stays in one piece.

Labor + parts + cool northern Spain cachet = $8.99 per can.

Of course, I had to try one. I also bought a can of Starkist tuna for a side-by-side comparison, and it wasn’t even close. As advertised, the most impressive trait of the Conservas Ortiz was its texture. Whereas the Starkist was predictably chalky and stuck to the mouth, the ventresca was delicate and light. The taste was slightly smoky. Usually I have to throw the Starkist in a sandwich or salad just to tolerate it, but the Conservas Ortiz satisfies by itself. I also noticed that the Starkist had a much fishier odor than the luxury model.

Two more items at A&H caught my fancy for fancy cans. One was Cofimar cockles in brine. Cofimar is a dry cargo company that is relatively unknown, and based on their cockles, I completely understand why. Imagine tiny tasteless bivalves sitting in water mixed with about four tablespoons of salt and a dash of sand. Now imagine throwing most of it away, as I did.

My third purchase was Goya’s Eelbroods of Surimi, the best of my buys at A&H. Yes, even better than the Conservas Ortiz tuna. In taste and texture, if not in appearance, the silver eelbroods reminded me of the glass noodles in chap chae bap – sweet and slightly chewy. And Goya packs them with enough garlic and cayenne for just the right amount of kick.

But when I looked at the ingredients, I realized that Goya had tricked me. These baby eels are born on a Goya assembly line. Which is to say, they aren’t eels at all. They are “surimi,” a mix of fish meat, water, white egg, vegetable flour, and, last but not least, “natural aroma of eel and ink.” Goya didn’t think the actual eel was important, but the genuine aroma of the eel – that was indispensable.

But what do you expect? It’s sold in a can.

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