Monday, February 24, 2014

Do cheese and tuna have anything in common? What happened when I selected tinned tuna at Ortiz.

Decades ago chefs used to select their preferred tuna batches from the factory at Ortiz, Spain's highly esteemed fifth generation tinned fish titan. Cheesemongers do this with cheese, in fact it's a specialty of some exporters like Neal's Yard Dairy and Essex Street Cheese. But it's something that hasn't been done for decades with tinned fish. Last fall I visited with my colleague Brad to see if we could revive the practice.

We landed in Barcelona on a sunny November Sunday, a couple weeks after the six month tuna season had ended. It was a four hour drive northwest to Getaria, a small town on the Bay of Biscay, where the weather got progressively more Irish along the way: wetter, mistier, greener. Tasting was 9am Monday, a fifteen foot table in the break room set up with twenty-six batches of tuna and sardines. We had a round of Nespresso pod coffees and went to work.

The first question on all of our minds—including the folks from Ortiz, who, being in their 30s and 40s, had never batch tasted either—was "Can we taste a difference?" That got answered quickly. The second tin we tasted was very different than the first. That continued throughout the morning with some batches being good, some excellent, and a couple extraordinary. There is a big difference between batches of tinned fish.

The main differences in flavor were complexity, balance between sweetness and brine, and length. The best tunas had a range of high and low notes, were never just sweet or just salty, and had great length of flavor. Color foreshadows flavor: if a tuna was rosier, it was often better tasting. Texture played a smaller part on these tins, just made this summer, but over time it has a much bigger role. The older a tinned tuna in oil, the softer and more luxurious its mouthfeel.

The fishing boats in Getaria.
One thing that you may be asking is, "What constitutes a batch of tinned fish?" It's a little more complicated than with cheese, where a batch is a single day's make, usually a mix of last night's and that morning's milk. A tuna batch is a single catch from a single boat, brought in at one time and sold to one buyer. That's how fish are managed in the Biscay auction market and Ortiz stays faithful to the one boat one batch cooking, which means the tin you get from Ortiz is traceable back to a single boat on a single day's catch (that said, a catch may last longer than a day, but it comes from a single shoal of fish). It may take several days to cook a big catch and, since the fish in it are different sizes and different ages, there's bound to be more variability than with a single batch of cheese.

We decided on a single catch of bonito, caught that summer, but brought examples of nearly every tin we tasted back to Michigan so we can taste again and confirm what we thought. A second round of tasting is one of those steps that I've learned, over time, to be important when I'm making a big flavor decision. Sometimes, out on the road where everything may be a bit more exciting, I can talk myself into liking something that, second time around, doesn't live up to the hype. 

We're going to cellar a few thousand tins, too. I tasted some two and three year old tunas at Ortiz and pretty much everything I likede about a young tuna got better when they aged. (This is only true for good tuna stored in oil—water-packed tuna gets worse with age.) The good thing about aging tuna is its a lot easier than aging wine. You don't need a special cellar with specific humidity and temperature. Tuna in a tin is practically indestructible. Our aging room is going to consist of boxes stacked on a pallet stored high up on the racks in our warehouse, wrapped in plastic with a note that says "Don't Touch till 2016!"

Our first selected tunas will arrive this May.

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