David and Renee talk to Bart van Olphen, a seafood chef and a sustainable fishing advocate, about his love of canned fish and the sustainability of our fish consumption.
A cookbook came across our desks last year that intrigued us. It wasn’t your ordinary cookbook. The photos were gorgeous. The recipes seemed easy yet seemed elevated. And perhaps most enticing was that the author’s enthusiasm and innovative way with ingredients threatened to dismiss all our childhood hangups about canned fish. The book was The Tinned Fish Cookbook: Easy-to-Make Meals From Ocean to Plate—Sustainably Canned, 100% Delicious and the author, Bart van Olphen, turned out to be an exquisitely talented chef and advocate for sustainable seafood whose concern about overfishing led him to found the canned fish company Sea Tales, which focusses on sustainability. After hearing our recipe testers rave about the restaurant-worthy recipes in the book, David and Renee talked to Bart.–Angie Zoobkoof
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What’s so special about canned fish?
David: So, let’s just start at the beginning, if you will. How did you become interested in canned fish?
Bart: That’s quite a good question. Actually, I started as a chef in a French restaurant in Paris many years ago. I think it was in ’96 or ’97. And that was actually the first moment I became aware of the fact that fish are still the only food product we catch massively out of the wild, which really fascinated me.
I worked in the restaurant business for many years. It always surprises me when I visited countries like France and Portugal and Spain that, well, canned food seemed not to be this secondary food or a secondary product but was more a delicacy. So, when I was visiting these amazing stores—big ones and small ones, because even in supermarkets you had high-quality canned fish—I was a bit surprised that there was so many different kinds. They all looked amazing.
So, I became more interested. I think it was maybe late ’90s or a bit later when I really became interested one day when I was visiting a conserverie in Brittany in France run by a lady named Marie. And when I left the building, she gave me a little gift, which was a can of sardines. So I said, “Thank you. I will enjoy it tonight when I come home.” She said, “No, no, no. Don’t do it. Not tonight. At least you should keep it for another year. And every three months you turn it around like a bottle of wine.”
David: Like a bottle of wine.
Bart: Yeah. So turn this can every few months and you will have an amazing product after a few years. So, there was much more going on in this little can than I thought before.
Bart: Yeah. It is.
Renee: So how did that end up spawning your YouTube series “Bart’s Fish Tales”?
Bart: Yeah. Well, meeting Marie in Brittany was the first stage, it was many years ago. But then we really need to take care of our oceans. Over 80% of our oceans are fished to the limit or overfished. So one thing I became really active in is trying to create awareness around sustainability and giving fishing communities, who do a great job, a platform and giving consumers access to these products.
One thing about sustainability is that it’s not just marine biology. It’s also the way how we can preserve fish. Of course, when you live on the coast, for example, in Portugal, and the sardines are swimming in front of you, you will have the opportunity to enjoy them fresh, at least in season.
The great thing about fish and seasonality is that it tastes so good when you have them in the peak of the season. But by preserving fish, freezing it and especially canning fish, you can enjoy it during the year. So that’s what was really fascinating to me, too.
So that was actually the moment that I thought, okay, if I can enthusiasm. If people enjoy canned fish more than we did before, then we might choose preserved fish more often. Which also helps the oceans but at the same time, we can enjoy seafood all of the year. Even if you’re not living at the coast. So yeah, this was the start.
And then by creating these videos and cookbooks about tinned fish, it became really a big thing, or a bigger thing, here in Europe. And now also in the U.S.
The world’s most sustainable seafood entrepreneur
David: You hit upon two interesting points. One is the sardines in Portugal. Now, I lived in Portugal when I was writing my book and in June, when they start running as fast as can be, there’s all these churroscaria, which are the grills outside, and everyone is making them. It’s an incredible experience. And then the end of the season is September or October.
You also talk about the idea of the sustainability. In 2008, you were named the world’s most sustainable seafood entrepreneur. That’s no small task and no small feat. Talk a little bit about that.
Bart: Well, this was 2008 and well, I’m not aware of the situation at that time in the U.S., but here in Europe, sustainability was really something many people spoke about but not on the subject of fish and fishing. Actually, Switzerland was the first country where people were more and more aware than in, say, Germany and the Netherlands. So when I started in the fish business, part of the work I was doing, we were really the first ones who were actually offering products certified sustainably by the Marine Stewardship Council, which is an ecolabel. For me, it’s the only ecolabel really doing well. So they set the criteria. And those fishers whose fish stock is healthy and if the way of fishing is responsible and the management is properly done, then you can become certified by the MSC.
So we actually were the first ones offering MSC-certified seafood in Europe, which for me was a logical thing. Right? I mean, if you would be asked, would you have your kids eating fish in like three years from now or the oceans are empty, what would be your choice? So it’s not a difficult choice.
But within the industry, there is so much pressure for earning money every day. So the economic goal is much more a prompt them than the environmental purpose. So yeah, we can fish and we should fish, but that should be in balance and harmony with nature. And this for me was the logical thing. And then suddenly I got prized with this award, which I didn’t know existed.
It was really the beginning. It was 2008. But the good thing is, I’m realizing now we are 12 years later and a lot has changed already. So imagine what could happen in the next 12 years. And hopefully we can say, “We saved our oceans.” Right?
Bart: Well, at least in terms of consuming fish
Bart: Yeah. And if we want to have our kids eating fish in future generations, we should take care of the oceans. That’s all I’m saying.
What exactly does it mean to fish sustainably?
Renee: And I think a tremendous amount of progress has been made just in terms of people’s awareness around sustainability.
Renee: That’s the big buzzword. But I think beyond that, people really understand fishing beyond an episode or three of “Deadliest Catch.”
David: It’s true.
Renee: Can you talk to us a little bit about commercial fishing and the difference between how much fishing is done by large corporations or companies as opposed to the little guy? The small fishing communities who are still relying on that for their livelihood.
Bart: According to some figures, 10 to 12% of the world population is directly dependent on fishing or fish farming. And 90% out of these are living in developing countries. Another figure is that 93% of the world catch is done by 2% of the vessels. Well, if you just try to imagine this.
Bart: So there are a few factories on the oceans, often sailing not within the 200 miles—what is it, nautical zone?—but outside of it, so they can fish whatever they like. If we take tuna. There are many boats or vessels catching tuna in huge amounts. These are purse seines, which means that they have nets of hundreds or kilometers or you say miles of nets. They approach a big school of tuna and they just collect everything, whatever is within this huge net. So they’re not just catching tuna, it’s everything: turtles, dolphins, anything you can imagine. The whole habitat is taken to the surface. That’s one side of it.
On the other hand, there are more and more that are catching tuna by pole-and-line, one by one. These are often existing in developing countries. For example, in the Maldives, but you also have in the U.S. an amazing fishery on the West Coast, the American Albacore Fishing Association. And where they collect fish, albacore tuna one by one, it’s amazing. It’s not that efficient, but it’s in harmony with nature. And you will pay maybe 10 cents extra in the supermarkets on the shelf, but you saved the ocean. So yeah, it’s a mysterious world.
There’s a lot of overfishing done because of, well, entrepreneurs who really don’t care about the environment but just want to make much money.
Bart: As much as they can catch in a short time. The positive thing also with pole-and-line fisheries, often the vessels are owned by the population of these different regions or islands, for example, in the Maldives, where these huge vessels are owned by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Dutch, the Portuguese. Also, the social environment for the workers on board, it’s not always ideal. So yeah, there’s a lot going on. But as long as we choose sustainability and certified, you’re already tackling a lot of these issues.
David: So you’re talking a lot about overfishing of the oceans and harvesting. What efforts are being done on the opposite end, restocking the oceans or doing something to increase the population of fish besides slowing down the harvesting?
Bart: I’m not a marine biologist. What I try to do is create awareness around the fact that there is sustainable fish and non-sustainable fish. And you can choose sustainable by looking for the ecolabel. And the longer we support these sustainable fisheries, the better our future.
It’s not that we should stop eating fish. For example, if we take a sustainable fishing community where there is a healthy level of stock. Alaska is the most obvious one because it’s so close to you. What they do in Alaska, as soon as the salmon runs back to the rivers, they have these sensors so they can count the amount of fish swimming through to spawn on top of the river. And as soon as there are enough fish for reproduction, they allow the fishermen to start fishing. And these marine biologists, also in the Maldives, they know what the healthy stock level would be. And as soon as it is reached, we can collect fish out of the stock level until a certain point.
The most important thing is that seafood or fish is a market where we cannot demand but rather accept what is offered by the ocean. So as long as we listen to the sea, it’ll all be fine.
Renee: And until then, what should we look for when we’re at the store determining which can or jar to buy? What is the certification that you mentioned earlier?
Bart: Well, that’s for wild fish. It’s the Marine Stewardship Council and it’s the MSC, it’s a blue ecolabel.
Renee: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Bart: Yeah. It’s really popular in Europe, or it’s really growing here. And I’m really glad to see that in the U.S.
Bart: Absolutely. I mean, if you look in Whole Foods Market, for example, they’re really committed now, 100% to the MSC. Kroger, if you look at their sustainability reports, they aim to have their whole selection, well, 90% of the seafood selection, MSC-certified. So it’s becoming a thing in the U.S. right now. And the good thing is that in the U.S. and also in Canada, you have many fisheries certified by Marine Stewardship Council. So actually, locally, you do quite well, which is interesting. Alaska, the tuna on the West Coast, you have tuna in the Gulf of Mexico. Maine lobster.
David: Now, in talking about the eating of canned fish, has it been difficult in the States and also Canada to overcome this idea of canned fish is kind of like the poor relation to fresh fish?
Bart: Well, David, it’s really interesting, because sometimes people see me as an activist. That’s not the thing at all. I mean, it’s just that I know about what’s sustainable. But then that subject is done. So you’re absolutely right. We continue the joy of eating fish. Right?
David: Right. Exactly.
Bart: I hope so.
How to impress with canned fish
Bart: And I think so. My latest book, The Tinned Fish Cookbook, has done really well. What I really found nice to see is that people were… They wanted to hear the story, right? I mean, five years ago when I did my first book about canned fish, people was really like, “No, no, no. It’s a secondary thing. I don’t want to eat it. And you cannot convince me.”
Bart: And then I did this ten-course restaurant thing with tinned fish here in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, and people were really surprised.
Bart: I even got two starred Michelin chefs who have canned fish right now on their menus here in the Netherlands. So it’s interesting. But what I found really nice in America when I was doing this trip just before COVID started is that people didn’t look down on canned fish. It was more that they were maybe not inspired enough. But they didn’t get inspired because there was not much attention given to it on how to cook with it. Right?
But also what I think is that in your country, well, David, if you’ve lived in Portugal, I’m sure you know it, that 99% of the cans on shelf are not selected based on quality, but on price. Right?
Bart: And you know the difference between a sardine which is canned really properly or which is canned in a really quick way. It’s a different world.
David: It is.
Bart: So when you’re offered not the best quality fish for decades, then how can you love tinned fish? But as soon as you let people taste the true, the real good can of fish, then people are really, really happy and, well, it’s a great thing. It’s already cooked for you. It’s a different way of mindset to cook with it, but it’s affordable. You can keep it in your pantry for years. There are so many positive things about a can. And it looks amazing, right?
David: Yeah. Well, those tins from Portugal and other places, they’re just so gorgeous. You go in those stores and it’s like a wonderland of labels and packages, and it’s spectacular.
Bart: Yeah. It’s like a gift shop. Yeah.
David: It is. Like a beautiful, beautiful French gift shop. So explain something. What’s the difference between being packed in oil and packed in water beyond just being packed in oil and packed in water? And when would you use each?
Bart: Really good question. Well, it’s not like set in stone, it’s not a law, but for myself, what I do is when I would add oil to a certain recipe, so for example, I have tinned tuna. And I would add very simply a mayonnaise. I would choose water. But if I would, for example, heat up a dish, if I would make a pasta puttanesca, I would use oil because when you heat the tuna, it won’t dry out as fast. Because you need to realize that canned tuna is already cooked. And when you use pre-cooked fish, you don’t want to overcook it. So you don’t want to cook it too long. But you need to heat it up. So when you heat it up, make sure that you don’t heat it up too long and use tuna packed in oil because it won’t dry out.
Bart: I would say every fish in a can is precooked except anchovies. So anchovies are different, which is the reason you often will find it also in the chilled department. So anchovies are more likely cured. So you have like 300 kilos of anchovies, 30 kilos of salt, and you will cure it for around six months in a barrel and then rinse it, oil it, and can it. But all the other fish is pre-cooked. So therefore, yeah, when you heat up a dish with tinned fish, I would advise you to use oil-packed.
Another reason to buy tuna in oil is since you can use the oil. Very simply said, you can make great dressing.
David: Yes. I agree with that. I think too many people don’t realize that. They drain it out in the sink and then there’s…
Bart: Yeah. And then the oil is gone.
David: Exactly. Missed opportunity
Renee: The oil is gone. They don’t even think about it because they’re kind of traumatized still by the tuna salads and the tuna melts of their childhood. Right?
David: Oh, absolutely.
Bart: Yeah. Yeah.
Renee: But Bart, that’s what you’re doing for us with your YouTube series and with your book. It’s really making us rethink canned fish. We put a couple of your recipes from your cookbook into testing. People were astounded.
Renee: They didn’t imagine canned fish could taste so amazing.
Renee: And what they said, which makes perfect sense, given your restaurant background in Paris, they said, “I just took a can of salmon and turned it into something that I would serve guests.” So can you talk to us a little bit about how you kind of fancy up fish?
Bart: Yeah. Well, first of all, again, you should change your mindset. So when you would use a fresh fish or you want to use a defrosted fish in your recipe, you need to also think about the cooking process of the fish itself. But with canned fish, that’s done for you. Often people also compared sashimi tuna when they open a tin of tuna, which you cannot compare it because… I mean, if you would cook that sashimi tuna on 100 degrees Celsius, which is, I don’t know in Fahrenheit…
David: I think it’s about 200 something, right Renee?
Bart: …after a few minutes it–
Renee: It’s too hot.
Bart: Also it would look white and pale and dry. And nobody can cook fish as well as the process of canning, because it’s closed. So all the nutrients, all the flavors, stay in the can. Almost all of the fish that is canned is oily fish. We call it often the pelagic fish, which means the fish not swimming on the bottom of the sea, but higher. So they’re swimming in schools, like mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, salmon, tuna, skipjack tuna. And oily fish holds really well in a can. So it’s full of flavor.
But there is no color. There is no texture. When I use tinned fish, I close my eyes, I always think, “Okay, so the color doesn’t look really nice. So when you open this tin, you’re going to create this dish. You add color, you add texture, which is crunchiness. For example, some crunchy lettuce. You add color, which could be all kinds of veggies. You as acidity, because often in a tin is oily, so if you give it a touch of acidity—it could be lemon, lime, vinegar—you really create an amazing dish because all the flavors are in this tin but then that acidity just brings everything in balance. And, again, crunchiness and color.
Then I think you can create thousands of different recipes only by thinking this way and of what you like. So just try to recreate recipes, what you often like to make with fresh fish, into a canned fish recipe. So I can give you a few examples. When I open my book, the recipes are maybe originally from a recipe I made before with fresh fish but are now translated into a canned version. And with canned fish, they’re quick to make, easy to make, and affordable to make.
David: Those recipes in your book are all of that. And that’s what, I think, our testers responded to was that it was affordable. It was easy. It was quick. And people can use that right now.
Bart: And healthy.
David: And impressive. I don’t think people are used to not compromising quality of flavor and surprise when it comes to having affordable, healthy, and sustainable.
David: There’s a paradigm shift I think that you’re a part of because the history we have in America, at least when it comes to canned fish, is we think of tuna because we all grew up eating it. And you’re changing that. You’re bringing in these other wonderful fish, like mackerel, that are canned. And that’s, I think, surprising for a lot of people to think, “Oh, I can have that in a very interesting way.” Something that really is dressed up. And I can serve it, like our tester say, to guests and be very proud of what they’re serving.
Sea Tales sustainable canned fish
David: And you go one step beyond just having the cookbook. You also have your own line of canned fish called Sea Tales.
David: Now tell us more about that because I’ve eaten it. It is wonderful. But not a lot of people know about it yet.
Bart: No. We only started like a few weeks, maybe two months ago in the U.S. First, I’d like to tell you, Renee and David, that the reason why it started, for my books, I traveled the world to cook and fish with all these amazing fishing communities, sustainable fishing communities. I wanted to just create awareness with the public, with the audience, by telling these stories by books and my TV programs here in Europe. But at a certain point, these fishing communities, these fishermen, told me, “We can’t get this extra value market to fish more sustainably. We fish in a small scale. But we will just end up in the same commodity. We cannot earn more money because of the way we fish.”
So yeah, there was a challenge for them. And then we decided to create a platform which was called, in Europe, it’s called Fish Tales. In the U.S. it’s called Sea Tales.
And with this platform, we offer fish and seafood products from sustainable fisheries around the globe. We make this fish accessible for consumers. So that’s the philosophy behind the brand. We emphasize, again, the fact that we love to eat fish. But we would love also that we can eat it in future centuries. So that’s Sea Tales.
And also we work in a different sequence than most other fish companies. We work the opposite. We work in the way that we choose fisheries. And with the fish they catch, we make products. And that’s also the reason that you will find this in different categories within the supermarket: fresh, frozen, and tinned. So it could happen, for example, that you would have from the same fishing community, for example, a tin of tuna or a frozen loin of tuna in the freezer or a fresh smoked product on the fresh department.
Let’s go back to your question. That’s the reason that we started Sea Tales. And one of the reasons we stepped into the U.S. market is, first, I really love the U.S. I’ve been there many times. My books have been published there since 2009. And I was always excited by the fact that people really love to jump into subjects and nice dialogues. But then at a certain point within one of these dialogues, I realized that canned tuna’s the most consumed fish product in the U.S.
Bart: And then I visited the U.S. with my son one and a half years ago, and we did a little survey and I counted that 98 or 99% of the products in supermarkets were non-sustainable.
Bart: And I thought, okay. There are some amazing brands doing really well in volume, but it will be the other brands who really will win all the way. The reason why, again, is price and quality. And people are maybe not used to the best quality now, but we hope to change that, at least to offer or to give excess to sustainable products for a perfect quality product.
That’s tuna but also sardines. I didn’t find a lot of great sardines in the U.S. market. And we work with an amazing sardine cannery in Portugal in Matosinhos, just above Porto.
Bart: We love to bring them into the U.S. Well, yeah, I’m really proud that we started there. And really excited, hopefully, that I can travel within the next few months to see my own products on the shelves in the U.S. I haven’t seen them yet. Just in photos..
David: Well, I hope you do. I hope you do.
Renee: And I know that you’ll bring that enthusiasm that you exhibit on your show!
Bart: I hope to move to the U.S. for a year to live there and to see what we can…
Renee: Very good.
Bart: We’d love to be there and to work on sustainable fish products. And to bring the enjoyment of, well, this cooking thing. I would love to show people how easy it is and how much fun it is to cook tinned fish.
Renee: We’re ready. Bring it.
David: We are ready. Yes.
Renee: Bart, thanks so much for sharing your recipes and your enthusiasm with us and our readers. We really appreciate it.
David: Thanks Bart.
Bart: Well, thank you for having me, Renee and David. Yeah. It’s a pleasure and yeah. Well, thank you. And hope to see you in the U.S. one day.
David: That would be wonderful. We would welcome you.
Renee: We’d love that.
David: Maybe you can do a video in my kitchen and teach us more about how you make canned fish.
Bart: That would be great. We can do it on YouTube.
David: Great. Thank you, Bart.
Bart: Thank you for having me. Thank you a lot.
What an article! Being responsible with our canned fish purchase, not being wasteful utilizing the oils, and shelf stable food for a meal in a moment or a pandemic, creates a very flavorful and satisfying dish. Keep getting the word out!
We couldn’t agree more, Penny! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
What a terrific interview, so informative and inspiring.