x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Why canned fish holds a special place in my cupboard

I had my stubborn heart captured by an anchovy pizza, and the bravado with which it was offered: I like you, you like me, let's eat this smelly pizza together.

Certain things just don't get enough love. In the novel Good Omens, after the Apocalypse-inducing Famine stops at a biker bar, the patrons find that the only food left is a cold slice of anchovy and olive pizza. The mechanics of true romance are one of life's most glorious mysteries, and as with all secret sauces, the ingredients make the recipes, and no two recipes are alike. Enter the particular and elusive charm of the anchovy. I had my stubborn heart captured by an anchovy and olive pizza, and the bravado with which it was offered: I like you, you like me, let's eat this smelly pizza together.

What's with all the anchovy hate? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lived on pizza, as long as there weren't any anchovies on it. "Oh, and I want no anchovies. And I mean, no anchovies. You put anchovies on this thing and you're in big trouble, OK?" a cartoon turtle said. Not since George H W Bush famously maligned my beloved broccoli in 1990 did I feel so wronged - or so marginalised. We were alone, characters as fishy as our favoured treats; freaks doomed to odious isolation. Sonic the Hedgehog declared his hatred for them, too. Then, while watching the 1936 Laurel & Hardy classic The Bohemian Girl, I heard Stan Laurel say, "Well, blow me down with an anchovy."

I once invested in a one-kilo can of salt-packed Italian anchovies. Its contents exploded upon opening, raining hairy red fish and fishy wet salt all over my life. Yes, it smelled. No, the smell was not good. But I wouldn't want to wear most of the things I eat (although I do wear almost exclusively black, just in case), and some of my funkiest olfactory experiences have been integral to some of the most pleasurable ones: goopy old cheeses, fresh white truffles, bottarga.

We love fish - although many of us have a weird relationship with what we perceive as "fishy". Sushi? Yes. Sardine-packed lunch? Not so popular! In the hierarchy of tinned fish, anchovies are the runts of the litter. Higher up on the food chain are sardines, kipper snacks, sprats, sild, pilchards, mackerel, salmon and, finally, tuna, the king of canned fish. The term "sardine" is not specific; the WHO Codex standard for tinned sardines classifies 21 species that can be labelled as such. And there are 144 species of anchovy swimming around out there. Fish in a can is a pantry fixture for me, and it's hard to imagine life without it. It's the quickest protein available, rich in essential fatty acids, shelf-stable and, well, I think it's dang tasty. It takes about two seconds to pop open a tin of sardines or a can of tuna, and emergency meals of midnight tuna melts (with a slice of tomato, please) and sardines on hot buttered toast (with shaved onion, thank you) have saved my life. I'd like to get lost in Morocco or Turkey or the south of France and get sick on grilled fresh sardines for a week, but in the meantime, I'm happy with Spanish and lightly smoked Portuguese brands that contain nothing more than fat, silky sardines, olive oil and salt. Some, like Waitrose's sardine al limone, widely available in the UAE, have had the spiny bones removed and are layered with translucent slices of lemon, which may make them more palatable to apprehensive eaters. There are safety concerns around salmon (cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls) and tuna (mercury), but my motto for that is that eating immoderate amounts of anything is a bad idea: damaging to our bodies and our environment. Eat fish that's harvested sustainably. Wild Planet products, also available locally, are an excellent source for sustainably harvested canned fish.

A few years ago, I visited a cannery and smokehouse in Alaska that uses only wild salmon, halibut and black cod from sustainable fisheries and got a crash course in fish canning. It was an amazing sight; those adult salmon returning home up rivers to spawn. And I ate plenty of it raw. Love it or leave it, canned fish cannot be compared to fresh fish - and trying to do so is pointless because they serve totally different purposes.

I grew up thinking that solid white albacore in water was the only route to take with canned tuna, so the stuff packed in oil was a revelation. The best canned tuna, if you can find it, is from Spain or Italy, pole or line caught, packed in good olive oil in glass jars and labelled "ventresca", which is a high-grade cut from the belly of the fish (known as "toro" at your favourite sushi place). The fillets are best kept in whole pieces, rather than mashed to an unappetising paste, which seems all too often to be the fate of too much tuna. Like guacamole, I want it chunky, not puerile, not puréed and not beaten to pap. Ordinary canned tuna needs a little more help from supporting characters - mayo, mustard, onion, pickles, whatever you like. After hiring a new cook with dubious credentials, my father was presented with a light lunch of an upturned can of tuna on a plate. But he is not a tomcat, and the dinner failed to impress him.

One night, I pulled off the motorway and into a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts drive-through, where I tried to order my standard bagel with cream cheese. "We're out of plain cream cheese, ma'am," said the girl. "All we have left is salmon cream cheese or low-fat veggie." Since both sounded disgusting to me, I went with … both. The low-fat spread was watery, gummy, yellow and had nothing to do with cream cheese, from what I could tell. But to my surprise, the salmon cream cheese was divine, in spite - or perhaps because of - its convincingly meaty texture and pink homogeneity (though really, it was more of a true coral). I began ordering it obsessively for breakfast on the go, although this embarrassed me somewhat and felt like an aesthetic violation. Gentleman's Relish is a type of anchovy butter eaten like Marmite: very thinly spread on hot buttered toast. It's an acquired taste, and a "gentleman" like me can appreciate it.

 

artslife@thenational.ae