In the 6th arrondissement of Paris, Brasserie Lipp has a curated menu of aged sardines, canned fish and seafood that are presented and served similarly to wines, and are a favorite amongst regular patrons. This establishment has been open since 1880 and and has been consistently frequented by writers, artists and politicians over the decades. You can order aged sardines on the menu according to vintage year, the wine director is in charge of preserving them: he calls them the ‘treasures of the cellar’ and every few months he flips the cans over to ensure a slow percolation of the oil through the sardines, a key part of the aging process that takes place over several years. With time, the tiny bones and the main spine melt into the fillets and new aromas/flavors develop. We can hear one customer describing this in this short video, and you’ll get a glimpse of the canned fish tins themselves in the restaurant’s cellar:
I’m writing this story because I keep sharing it in discussions amongst other canned fish and seafood aficionados, and it’s my north star when I think about creating a US homegrown gourmet line of conservas. I grew up in France eating canned sardines, cod liver, mackerel, mussels and clams without questioning their culinary value because the cultural tradition comes from a collective appreciation of this food category, and manufacturers hold themselves to high standards of quality originating from a craft that started back in the early 1950s. This culture is shared in the rest of Europe, notably places like Spain, Portugal and Italy developed a reputation for producing some of the more gastronomic tinned seafood (although canning is a preservation technique that is used in many countries worldwide). On the high end of the market, consumers place tinned fish in the same category as caviar or gourmet charcuterie and small tins can sell for up to 60 euros. When I moved to the US as a young adult I realized that the perception of this specialty food was different, and certainly not seen as “gourmet”. I’d wait for family visits back home to gorge on my favorite foods which also include mouthwatering canned duck confit which retails at around 10 euros for two servings. I actually enjoy that one more than duck confit dishes served in most US restaurants, but maybe I have an emotional bias. I’d encourage anyone to validate this theory.
Back to our Parisian brasserie, I hope to go back soon and order a 10-year old can of sardines, served ceremoniously by the sommelier and paired with an even older wine. Maybe some escargots and steak tartare on the side.