Forget Charcuterie, Cheese, and Butter Boards—The Tinned Fish Board Is the Tastiest, Trendiest Way to Entertain
These days, tin is in.
Tinned fish is being popped open everywhere these days, from the chef’s counter at fine dining restaurants to tin-fluencers on TikTok’s FYP. And in our December issue Alana Stipech of Bodega Los Alamos is serving sardines and other canned seafood to guests at Jenni Kay’s chic Santa Ynez ranch house. While it might seem like a new thing, it’s actually far from. While living in Spain, our lingering happy hours almost always included a sampling of charcuterie and delicious tinned fish, originally a wartime food created to sustain the French military in the 1700s. In my travels back to Portugal and the Azores over the years, I’ve collected brightly colored latas de conservas to share with friends stateside, initiating them to a portable delicacy that’s often at first shrugged off by skeptics.
In my experience, the best way to be introduced to the wide world of conservas (as they are referred to the Mediterranean) is by building what I like to call a seacuterie board—a beautiful, bountiful spread loaded with all the fixins that makes for the perfectly Instagrammable holiday moment. The seacuterie board is truly the quickest, easiest, and most delicious way to entertain. And the best part is you don’t have to have a lick of culinary prowess to do it.
“The tinned fish trend has really been brewing for a while. People are finally understanding that it’s actually a high quality product that’s tinned at its peak of freshness,” says David Rosoff, co-owner of Bar Moruno and Rapido, a Los Angeles bodega that features an unparalleled selection of conservas.
“The fun thing about tinned fish is that it has this interesting collectible pursuit to it, almost like trading cards,” says, Rosoff. Indeed, the modern options on the market offer a tapestry of art and design that are conversation starters all on their own, welcoming you into a world of flavor that’s a far cry from Chicken of the Sea.
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While the American perception of tinned fish often is associated with cheaply canned tuna in water, the rest of the world—especially in Portugal and Spain, where some of the best conservas hail from—sees tinned fish as a delicacy worth celebrating. Take, for instance, Jose Gourmet’s cod in olive oil and garlic. If this perfectly prepared, delicate, buttery white fish showed up on your plate at a Michelin-starred restaurant, you’d be convinced it was poached by a pro.
“Nowadays you can get squids in their own ink, or mussels in tomato or piri piri sauce. It’s almost the freshest way to eat seafood. The shellfish come out of the shell and go straight into the can,” says Chris Feldmeier, chef and partner at Bar Moruno and Rapido. “It’s a self-contained, perfect meal that you can bring anywhere. What else can you take on a hike or travel with and have a perfect, fresh meal like that?”
The seacuterie spread, as we like to call it, ratchets the gourmet element up even further, loading up a bountiful board with all the accoutrements so that guests can experiment and build the perfect bite for their palate. The basic principles of combining salt, fat, acid, heat, and freshness are all a part of the process, and make for an excellent conversation starter. (My favorite combo? A smoked mussel topped with one of Trader Joe’s hot sweet jalapeños on a plantain chip, a flavor combo not too dissimilar from sweet pickles on smokey Texas BBQ.)
“If you’ve been eating tuna your whole life and then you taste really good tuna in quality olive oil, that’s a profound experience for an adult to have. It’s like ‘Man, I’ve been on this planet for 40 years and I’ve never experienced this.’ It’s a real epiphany for people,” says Rossoff.
Our team at Sunset had a blast experimenting with combining items on our board. Sardines and dill chimichurri? Sure! Sardines with caper berries? Why yes! The best part is, with the right crackers, the spread can be both dairy- and gluten-free, making it approachable for the whole party. And the luxuriously oily omega-3s go particularly well with a glass of holiday bubbly.
In that spirit, here are some tips on building the ultimate seacuterie board this holiday season.
1. Taste the Rainbow
For a great seacuterie board, we suggest trying out a variety of tins. One smoked option, one kind of shellfish, and one containing little fishes like sardines or mackerel is a good way to start. “Sardines and/or anchovies are a great gateway,” says Feldmeier. “Mackerel is also incredibly approachable, less fishy, and more versatile.” It’s also nice to think of things in terms of high-low. While we love options like Patagonia Provisions and Jose Gourmet, that adds up. Splurge on one fancy tin, then fill in your board with options like Trader Joe’s amazing smoked mussels, a steal at $2.99 a tin.
2. Play with Pickles
You’ll want to add at least one or two pickled options for an acidic, vinegar-y crunch that cuts through the fattiness of the fish. Feldmeier suggests pickled radishes or sweet Serrano pickles, and we love the Trader Joe’s hot sweet jalapeños, a wonderfully affordable option, too. Quick pickled red onions and preserved lemons are also great DIY options that’ll add color and flavor to the spread.
3. Pass the Herb(s)
We recommend adding something fun and punchy to the board, like a ultra-dilly chimmicurri. If you’d prefer to just chop up some herbs, dill, chives, and parsley are nice to add to the mix.
4. Spice Is Nice
Add some chili crisp from XCJ to the top of your perfect bite, or even some spicy zhoug, which packs a double whammy of herbaceous heat.
5. Ace Your Base
Be sure to offer a variety of crackers and freshly baked bread for guests to experiment with. Some of our faves are Bub & Grandma’s fermented sourdough, Trader Joe’s plantain chips, sliced cucumbers for crunch, and some plain La Panzanella minis. This not only adds color and variety, but a textural base to play with.
6. Buy Sustainable
Not all tinned fish brands are created equally. “With things like mackerel, sardines, and squid, those are the things that you want fished more often because they reproduce more often, and they don’t get as overfished,” says Feldmeier. “Tinned fish also doesn’t require refrigeration so therefore there’s less energy, and it’s close to zero waste. There’s not a lot of byproduct when you’re eating sardines, mackerel, and anchovies because you eat the bones skin and all.” Check for labels like MSC and EcoCert for cues, too.
7. Consider Local
While it’s true that many heritage brands are based in Portugal, still considered the gold standard when it comes to conservas, there are some brands in the West to keep an eye out for. “A lot of the better tinned fish domestically is coming from Alaska,” says Feldmeier. “We love Scout in Canada, Ekone Oyster Company, Wild Planet, and Patagonia Provisions.”