Food & drink: Can we tempt you?

IN THE CAN PART 2: TINNED LUXURIES; Believe it or not, it isn't only cheap staples that come in cans - think of caviare, anchovies and foie gras. If you buy the right brand, even tuna can be a gourmet choice. Michael Bateman opens up a can of charms
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CANNED GOODS are the food industry's poor relations. But there is much more to them than baked beans, tinned fruits and pet food. In the second of our two-part series, we look at canned foods of a superior status - a term rarely used to describe food in tins (unless you count the current retro chic for Spam).

But canning has given us some of the glories of the food world, none so elevated as caviare, the salted roe (in ascending order of cost) of the ossetra, sevruga and beluga sturgeon.

The canning process is simplicity itself - the little grains are salted and packed in their round tins and preserved in chill conditions. Some are pasteurised, which removes the need for chilling, but at the cost of flavour.

Canned foie gras can be fine, though people feel more comfortable buying what is in effect the same product in glass jars. Canned truffles (which also come pasteurised in jars), on the other hand, promise more than they deliver. As an impulse buy at the airport, this is an impulse best resisted. Especially those which are described as the "summer truffle" (Tuber aestivum), which are not the real McCoy at all. The truffles to buy are Tuber melanosporum (the Perigord black truffle) or Tuber magnatum (the Piedmont white truffle).

But the most useful contribution the tin has made to our diet is probably via the fish-canner's art. This may surprise you if you are only familiar with the range of tinned fish available on our native supermarket shelves. Much of the so-called tuna sold here is about as tasty as cardboard pulp - cardboard in oil or brine, take your pick.

In Spain, there's a better class of tuna altogether. You have to pay more for it, of course, but look out for the tasty, delicate white bonito in olive oil. Also white, the atun claro (yellow-fin or albacore tuna). Tins of atun ventresca (strips of belly) are prized most highly - it is so soft that you can spread it like a paste.

Buy tins as big as you can afford, for the best meat goes into the largest cans. You will probably need to find a specialist delicatessen, or tell your local one that it can order white tuna from the Spanish wholesale importers Brindisa (0171 403 0282).

The anchovy is another foodstuff to which canning has conferred unique qualities (along with salmon, pilchards and sardines). In its natural state, the anchovy is a silvery, darting little fish, almost transparent when you fillet it.

But once put to the canning process, salted and preserved in oil, it becomes one of the gourmet's most desirable condiments and garnishes.

Fine anchovies come from Sicily (which has an important canned fish industry; indeed, Sicilians are credited with inventing the art of preserving fish in oil). Collioure, on the Franco-Spanish border, has a long history of this specialised craft, though this is now under the threat of Brussels intervention. The plumpest, most prized anchovies are those from Santander and Spain's Atlantic coast.

Most of us have to settle for little tins of anchovies in oil, but the connoisseur will seek out the meatier ones, those canned only in salt, without oil. Some delicatessens sell them loose from the tin: they make a vast difference to the Italian anchovy dip for raw vegetables, a warmed bowl of bagnacauda.

If possible, buy a salted tin for yourself. The smallest available are just under a kilo, a bargain at around the pounds 10 mark. Once opened, you can cover them in clingfilm and keep them in the fridge or the freezer. They need rinsing, scraping and de-boning before use, but they reward the effort.

Vongole (tinned clams) rank high among the esoteric canned ingredients that so enhance the Mediterranean kitchen. Use them to make wonderful Italian tomato seafood sauce for pasta.

Special sardines which have been aged in their cans for up to six years are a particular French passion. These are canned in Brittany around Concarneau, but you have to rely on the top Paris grocers to find them; look for the brand Gravier Aine.

The intensely-flavoured erizo de mar, or hedgehog of the sea, is one of the great secrets of inspired canning. The food writer Maria Jose Sevilla, head of the Food from Spain office in London (0171 486 0101), introduced me to it along with other native tinned delights: fat orange-coloured mussels, meaty navajas or razor-shell clams (the name refers to the shape of the old cut-throat razor).

The erizo de mar (equally prized in Italy as riccio di mare) is better known to we holidaymakers as the sea urchin, the deadly, spiny mollusc that awaits our bare feet as we gingerly step onto a submerged rocky ledge.

But scrape them from the rocks, cut off the spines, and you can dig out a clump of tiny pink roe, the size of your thumbnail. Now you have something which will impregnate a dish of scrambled eggs with the most intense shellfish essence.

And so on. But can you imagine a British publisher commissioning a book on recipes using canned food? Not this side of 1940, you couldn't. But on a brief visit to Canada's food-proud city, Vancouver last year I came across just such a book - Barbara-jo McIntosh's Tin Fish Gourmet.

A cookery book about canned fish (gourmet or not) surely flies in the face of British Columbia's aspiring West Coast cuisine (which is chic and chef-fy fusion cooking). Although it is Chinese food that you'd associate with Vancouver, with its half-million-strong Chinese population. It has the best Chinatown outside Hong Kong (so says Ken Hom, anyway). And theirs is hardly a cuisine associated with the can-opener.

So what is it about tins and a leading food authority like Barbara-jo McIntosh, herself a former restaurateur who now owns the Books to Cooks (Canada's answer to our Books for Cooks)? Home cookin', says she. Canned fish was the comfort food of her childhood, a staple on this fisherman's coastline, and none more so than tinned salmon. This is a part of the world where the salmon practically leaps into the tin. Another British Columbian author, Carol Batdorf, writes of the time, within living memory, when "the bays would turn silver and the rivers and spawning beds would be so glutted with fish you could walk across on their backs".

These Pacific salmon varieties are different from our own, but their names are not unfamiliar, having been in their time staple canned foods in the UK. Chinook is the fattiest, most intense in flavour. The sockeye is dense and velvety. The pink salmon is leaner and milder in flavour.

Barbara-jo has an unabashed love of canned salmon, and will eat it from the tin in juicy chunks. Even the bones. "Pick them out if you like," she says. "Personally, I love the bones and eat them as a reward for successfully opening the tin. The sensuous crunch is an acquired taste but the bones can easily be crushed into translucent pieces. Not only is it a rich source of calcium, much needed for the prevention of osteoporosis, but its slight crunchiness also adds texture to a recipe." Thus speaks a tin fish gourmet.

And it's not just salmon. You should see British Columbia's tinned crabs and canned clams. The North Pacific yields such monsters as the Alaskan king crab, which weighs up to 11kg (24lb 12oz) and yields 3kg (6lb 12oz) of meat. And giant clams, the largest of which is the geoduck, which can weigh up to 5kg (11lb 4oz) and live for 150 years.

I can enthusiastically endorse this stylish and passionate book, and its 75 comforting yet inventive recipes for almost every canned fish, from salmon, sardines, shrimp, tuna, crabmeat, anchovies, clams and caviare. Relish the clam chowders, crab sandwiches, tuna salads, salmon quiches, fish pie and pasta sauces. Make anchovy butter for grilled fish and meat. Use tuna and salmon in fritters and koulibiaca, crab in salads, sandwiches, omelettes and, of course, crabcakes.

Opposite, then, is a lovely winter warmer, Barbara-jo's family tuna fish and potato casserole.

! 'Tin Fish Gourmet: Great Seafood from Cupboard to Table' by Barbara- jo McIntosh (Raincoast) is available from Books for Cooks (0171 221 1992) priced pounds 8.99

TUNA FISH & POTATO CASSEROLE

I stick to the albacore species for all my recipes. I buy tuna packed in water since this maintains the true flavour of the fish better than oil or brine.

Serves 3-4

a 170g/6oz tin of tuna, drained and flaked

8 small potatoes, sliced 2mm/18in thick

8 garlic cloves, peeled

10 pearl onions, peeled

freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

112 teaspoons lemon juice

12 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary or 14 teaspoon dried rosemary

12 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme or 14 teaspoon dried thyme

12 tablespoon butter

225g/9oz mushrooms, sliced

2 tablespoons vegetable stock

250ml/8fl oz double cream

75g/212oz grated Parmesan

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Place the potatoes, garlic and onions into a 24cm (11in) casserole. Toss with pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. Cover with a lid and bake for 20 minutes.

Over high heat, melt the butter in a medium-sized pan. Lower the heat to medium, add the mushrooms and saute for five minutes. Add the stock and half the cream, reduce for a few minutes, then add the other half. Reduce the sauce so it is neither too thick nor thin.

Take the potatoes from the oven and put the flaked tuna in pieces on top. Add the mushroom sauce, then sprinkle the cheese on top. Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Test the potatoes with a fork.

When cooked, uncover for five minutes to let the casserole brown.

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