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Island Creek's new cannery launches local tinned seafood line

The product line of Island Creek Oyster tinned fish. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jesse Costa
The product line of Island Creek Oyster tinned fish. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Chris Sherman remembers the first time he tried tinned fish. He was studying abroad in college and he and his friends needed something quick and affordable to eat.

“We’d get a good baguette and eat some shellfish or some sardines for lunch in between classes,” said Sherman. “And that really resonated with me. That’s kind of my first distinct memory of it. And it opened my eyes to the fact that … you can put more than tuna in a can.”

Years later, Sherman, now president of Island Creek Oysters, is bringing that realization home. Island Creek Oysters has opened a cannery in New Bedford. They say it’s the first seafood cannery to open in New England in nearly a century.

It’s a big step for the company. And, it couldn’t come at a better time: tinned fish is having a moment. During the pandemic, it was all over social media as people in the United States stocked their pantry with tinned fish and ate it during quarantine.

Chris Sherman explains the production of tinned fish at Island Creek Oysters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Chris Sherman explains the production of tinned fish at Island Creek Oysters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

That interest continued after lockdown, and even grew. But tinned fish isn’t new. It’s a secret that people around the world have known about for centuries. A staple in European diets, canning fish was invented to feed Napoleon’s armies in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars. Not only is it affordable and healthy, but Sherman says people outside the U.S. see it as a sneaky way to get the best fish all year round.

“[Europeans] see it as a way to hack around the seasonal constraints,” said Sherman. “What the cans allow you to do is capture that product at its absolute peak, when it’s the fattiest, the most delicious, and put it away to be used for the rest of the year. And done so in a format that, in many cases, really enhances the taste.”

Island Creek chef Joe Gauthier, left, pulls out trays of cooked littleneck clams. The next step is to shuck them. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Island Creek chef Joe Gauthier, left, pulls out trays of cooked littleneck clams. The next step is to shuck them. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Tinned fish has a shelf life of roughly five to seven years, depending on the variety. This means you can eat really good seafood when it’s at its prime, sometimes years after it was caught and canned. It also expands what seafood harvesters can sell. For example, Sherman says small clams aren’t the best for raw bars because of their size, but they are better for canning than large ones. So products that normally wouldn’t have been sold, can now have a market.

Latent Demand

Island Creek staff first discovered the potential of tinned fish in 2017, when they sold it atThe Shop, a seafood restaurant they run in Portland, Maine. Customers loved it. As they were researching what tins to carry and who made them, they traveled abroad to learn more about the process. It was on a trip to Spain that Sherman said he had an epiphany in a grocery store.

“I went in .. and there were four aisles of tins,” said Sherman. “So in a section that was twice the size of just the canned tuna section in an American grocery store, that was just octopus. And it went on and on and on and on, and there were hundreds of brands, and obviously that said that the Spanish ate tons and tons of canned seafood … so that sunk in to me, and I said, ‘well, if European consumers want to eat tin fish like that, certainly here in the United States, there’s a kind of latent demand.”

Tins of Island Creek littleneck clams each packed with a chile de Arbol. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Tins of Island Creek littleneck clams each packed with a chile de Arbol. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Island Creek hopes to scratch that itch. They’re currently selling tin fish canned in partnership with Conservas Mariscadora. With this new cannery, production will be moved to New Bedford. To start, they’re canning mussels, hardshell, surf and razor clams, oysters, trout and salmon. They say they’re the only single-origin cannery preserving an American product in European-style tins. Single-origin means sourcing each product from one farm or fishery. For example, all the trout will come from one fishery to the cannery, rather than from multiple sources.

But what’ll be canned from Island Creek is just a fraction of what’s on shelves, product-wise, when it comes to tinned fish.

Right now, canned seafood is a nearly $3 billion industry in the U.S. and predictions are that this number will continue to grow.

Seafood like salmon, mackerel, octopus, tuna, anchovies, sardines  are available in different flavored oils and liquids, with colorful and uniquely designed packaging, almost like playing cards. For some, this is the appeal.

Portugalia Marketplace is a Portuguese market in Fall River. They say they have the largest offering of Portuguese tinned fish in New England. Michael Benevides is the vice president of business development for the company, which was started by his father in his family’s garage in 1983, shortly after the family immigrated to Massachusetts from the Azores.

They sell hundreds of types of tinned fish. Benevides says demand has definitely increased since 2020.

“Ten years ago, if you would have asked me, ‘what category from Portugal do you think is going to be popping off in the next 10 years?’ I would have never put my money on tinned fish,” said Benevides .

 

Benevides says part of the reason he would have lost that bet is how the Portuguese — at home and in the states — regard tinned fish.

“You have it in your house, it’s commonplace,” said Benevides. “Where[as] here it’s a lot more elevated. So you create a whole thing around it. You create a board and you have friends over … so it’s a lot more glamorized in a way than it is in Portugal.”

But today, as a leader of the market, he’s seeing a shift. He says second generation parents who never ate tinned fish will come in looking for tins for their kids.

“There were generations of Portuguese who associated canned sardines with their grandparents, like ‘oh my grandfather ate that’ … they want to evolve from that,” said Benevides. “It’s interesting to now see everyone come back to that … I see people in the market who tell me their kids now eat tin fish.”

Changing the Mentality

In New England, restaurants haley.henry and Saltie Girl are pioneers in bringing it to the masses. They both made tinned fish a star of their menus in 2016 when they opened.

Haley Fortier, owner and operator of haley.henry, says she fell in love with tinned fish after a trip abroad. But when she wanted to bring that love stateside, it required some re-thinking for a U.S. audience.

This meant thinking about the reasons people would say no to tinned fish, and finding small ways to help them be more open minded to trying it. One way? Serving the fish with butter and chips.

“The chips add saltiness to it. The butter, I mean, who doesn’t like butter?  And then the chip aspect of it, you’re crunching on that. You’re not crunching on the bone, because you don’t feel the bone at that point. So you’re taking away that uncomfortable part of tin fish that people really associate with.”

 

Kathy Sidell, founder and owner of Saltie Girl, also had to change minds about tinned fish, starting after a trip abroad with those closest to her.

“When I came back and I told my staff that this was going to be part of the concept [for Saltie Girl] I think they were like, ‘are you crazy? ’” said Sidell. “And I said, ‘Guys, you don’t understand at what level this is happening. Just go on the journey with me and let’s taste some tin fish.’”

Today, there are roughly 160 tins on her menu in Boston, and she sells between 300 and 350 a week. Sidell says she’s always loved seafood, so tinned fish was a natural evolution. She says it’s a perfect way to eat in season, when it’s off season.

“I’m always shocked by the quality. I mean, it’s every bit as good as some fresh fish and fresh seafood that you get, and particularly the really high end brands, you couldn’t tell the difference.  It’s wild.”

New converts, and the next generation

It was trips to places like haley.henry and Saltie Girl that inspired Nick Pontacoloni and his wife Anastasia to start theTinned Fish Club. Each month, their club sends samples of different tinned fish to subscribers.

One afternoon in Newton, Nick and Anatasia give a tour of their packing space. Surrounding them are 800 boxes ready to go out to subscribers.

Anatasia’s mother Oksana Mashtaler leads the packing of the boxes each month. For her, in Ukraine, tinned fish was just a part of life. She remembers making meatballs with them.

“If you go camping outdoors, you catch the fish and make a soup of it,” said Mashtaler. “So, if they [the men] wouldn’t catch the fish, you would have extra sardines just to make a soup from it.”

Anastasia also grew up eating tin fish. She introduced Nick to the food when they started dating right at the beginning of the pandemic. The club was born from a shared love of tinned fish and a desire to destigmatize it for others.

 

They work with a distributor, Portugalia in Fall River, to get their stock. They also work with smaller canneries around the country. Each box comes with three different cans, and a card that tells the origin stories of each of the canneries in the box, written by Anatasia. The box also includes some recipe suggestions for the fish, and some snacks that might pair well with the cans.

“What we’re trying to do is tell the stories of the canneries and the fishers,” said Nick.

Production started small, but today, Nick says the club has shipped over 15,000 Tinned Fish Club boxes, with nearly 50,000 tins.

“It’s surprising how much tinned fish we’re actually getting out to market from my mother-in-law’s basement,” said Nick.

Of the cans sent out to the club, only a few have been from New England. Nick and Anastasia said they’re excited about the possibility of having a local cannery to highlight.

Back at the Island Creek cannery in New Bedford, production is intentionally being kept small, for now, with direct plans to grow in the future.

“I’ve been trying to get enough tins to sell just through our existing kind of direct to consumer channel and then to the chefs that we work with around the country,” said Sherman. “And then the hope is that after we do a bigger production run this fall, we have some better equipment, but also that’s the next big season for us to kind of capture shellfish at their peak. Then we would have enough inventory to go into grocery [stores].”


Visit Island Creek for more information about their tinned fish.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 WBUR

Amanda Beland