We could speak at great length, hold large panel discussions, produce dozens of major motion pictures and hundreds of very-special episodes, and publish hastily penned novellas and whimsically illustrated poems about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s usually the same old commercialism-and-excess versus togetherness-and-peace battle. Regardless of the medium, the true meaning is typically delivered in the form of a miracle, the most secular of which, surviving winter, is the true meaning of our winter celebrations. It’s cold. It’s dark. Food is scarce. The things we eat are dead, because it’s cold and dark, and the things they eat are dead.
You can follow this to the center of the food web: the sun, only traces of which remain in the winter (ergo cold and dark). We (meaning all the critters, not just the people) deal with this in many ways. Some of us sleep (great idea). Some of us leave (great idea). Others save. Take the noble beast the sugar maple (Acer sachrum). Sugar maples photosynthesize like hell all summer when there is plenty of sun, and the spoils of the suagr are saved for the winter. Naturally, we take their sugar because it is so damned tasty. Bees collect nectar when flowers are in bloom and make honey for the winter (yeah, we take that, too). Humans, clever creatures that we are, use many methods of food preservation, and at Di Bruno Bros., we love them all. We culture our milk and salt our meats; we ferment, cure, bury in fat, and surround in sugar all the goodness of those productive months. Old Man Winter be damned! In fact, wintertime, now, with our strings of lights, elaborate gifts, and fancy foods galore, ceases to be the hard time of famine and becomes our most excessive and showy time of year. It’s a miracle.
One of my (and our) favorite methods of food preservation is canning, particularly the canning of fish. This is a relatively recent innovation in food preservation. After thousands of years of cheese, pickles, and salted meat, we only started canning fish, or anything, for that matter, in the 1800s. We credit the modern canning technique, in which closed containers are submerged into hot water to void them of air, to Nicolas Appert, a French cook-turned-food-technician who first used this method to preserve sugared fruits. At the time it was unknown, or hazily understood, why Appert’s technique, which piggy-backed off some earlier bottling methods, worked.
He was a stickler for cleanliness (even though he knew not what a germ was) and riding on some early publications on the nature of gases, but it is absolutely worth noting that Appert’s canning technique predates both Robert Boyle’s and Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough works on gases and germ theory, respectively. Appert’s success can be attributed to his fearless submission to an early food critic, Grimod de la Regniere, an intimidating character whose moxie could not be rivaled in today’s digital free-for-all of critique. Regniere’s approval and delight of the canning process led to Appert’s receipt of a government grant to continue and refine his research. By 1810, his invention had been disclosed and widely distributed.
Canning has proven invaluable in the seafood industry. Fish have short shelf lives and we all know that; a rotting fish having become the icon of all stink jokes. The stink is literally a fish out of water scenario. Aquatic environments are typically cold, so the fatty tissues of fish must be made of oils that remain fluid at lower temperatures. This is why fish are such a great source of healthy, unsaturated fats, but these oils also oxidize rapidly at our land temperatures. Additionally, the bodies of marine fish are loaded with biochemicals that help regulate their osmotic balance in saltwater, the very compounds we can attribute the complex tastiness of marine fish to. Out of water, and after death, these chemicals break down into the stinky, typically “fishy” compounds, and then into those that smell of ammonia. Basically, we’d better eat our catch quickly or circumvent the stink. Historically, we would salt and subsequently ferment, smoke, or bury our fish in lye.
Most of these techniques require, or at least hope for, some sort of reconstitution, leaving us with a slimy protein that we prefer cut with another, more palatable texture, thus the potatoes with our baccala. It works, that is to say, you’ll get your cod from Iceland to Italy without much stink, but the process results in a very different product than that of cooked fresh fish (baccala a roasted cod fillet is not). Canning fish, however, better retains the muscle quality of the fish. Joseph Colin, a colleague of Appert’s, and another confectioner, first canned sardines in 1822. He was familiar with the packing of pickled sardines, and sent his prototypes to be tested by a seafarer on a three-year circumnavigation (navies have always been the hallmark of preserved food testing). Within years canning factories were abundant. Canning also reduces the need for too much processing beforehand, especially for smaller, more difficult to butcher fishes. The canning process subjects the product to sufficient levels of heat and pressure to dissolve the bones, making meticulous processing beforehand obsolete. As a bonus, the dissolved bones are a tremendous source of calcium, at about five percent by weight.
By now, undoubtedly, you ask “What does this have to do with Christmas?” Beside the fact that every year I received some sort of canned fish in my Christmas stocking, a tradition I intend to carry on with my own cats, I would like to present to you the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Christmas Eve is considered a Lenten day by the Catholic Church and, as such, meat (that means flesh from a terrestrial vertebrate) is not to be eaten. This is really to make sure there was enough meat to send to the navies and such, but this is a Christmas miracle, so we’ll stick to the magic. Christmas Eve, though, remains and big day for celebration and family, a day that should be marked by a grand meal, so fish it is. Why seven? That’s a little more vague, but from what I can gather, It’s due to the Christian love of the number seven, which is not something I made up to be a smart aleck: it’s a thing. The Feast of the Seven Fishes became a grand Italian tradition, carried by immigrants and their spawn to and throughout the United States, and what a delight it is for me to hear so much fish talk in the advent.
If you planned to prepare a seven-course seafood dinner with fresh fish, do it. I will not tell you not to, in fact, I applaud you, as few classes of food warm my heart the way fish does (sorry cheese, but I’m a fishmonger’s daughter). I will find myself eager to hear of what you’ve selected (such diversity on our aquatic brethren for eating!), but if you have given up on the feast of Seven Fishes because you don’t have time to shop for fresh fish (perhaps you are far too busy or tired from your Christmastime job in, say, specialty food retail), and, let’s face it, you can’t exactly buy your fish three weeks ahead of time like all your cheese and cured meats (hint, hint), I give you (hush, now, and in the Linus voice) the miracle of preservation: seven species of fish cooked and sealed, ready for you to celebrate and get through the winter: The Feast of the Seven Canned Fishes. And Lo.
Flott’s Red Clam Sauce is already made, so you can check this right off your list. Throw another fish in there by serving it over squid ink pasta. Remember to get some grating cheese, as I do not subscribe to the old wives’ tale that cheese and fish are not be combined. Poppycock: grate away. Try Piaccentinu di Enna, a pecorino with black peppercorn and saffron. The saffron adds a metallic element we already love with shellfish, and this cheese is a star grater.
I have a great fondness for canned mussels, especially when smoked. Cole’s, a Rhode Island packing company specializing in Portuguese products, gives us a tremendous example. Try it with Tunworth, a British Camembert style that quickly became a staff favorite upon forst arriving in the shop. This cheese is already loaded with smoked mussel flavor, along with dried porcini and roasted vegetable, a ready vehicle for the contents of the Cole’s can. Alternatively, try the mussels in escabeche, a classic vinegary preservation, tremendous with some bitter greens and new harvest olive oil.
This is the part where you tell me you hate anchovies and would never, ever, ever, EVER, eat them. Well, you’re wrong; they are delicious, and pretty much every tasty sauce or dressing you’ve ever had owes its tastiness to the presence of anchovies. The canned anchovies we carry are the salt preserved guys. This method of preservation releases a lot of those tasty aforementioned amines, providing that umami punch you just won’t find elsewhere. We swear by the Ortiz salted anchovies. These guys are hand sorted for size, which means the appropriate amount of salt will be used. It shows. They are phenomenal chopped as an ingredient or eaten whole. Use some shallot and parsley for the finest of anchovy toasts and pour yourself some Banyul’s; its spicy-sweet flavor is designed to complement the tasty, salty anchovy.
Sardines are amongst my favorite animals (seriously) and the iconic canned fish. Matiz and Ortiz both produce exceptional canned sardines, but the Cole’s smoked sardines and those packed in piri piri, a traditional Portuguese chile sauce, really stand out. An easy dish is made of opening these cans over some steamed rice or toasted bread (another place you can use that new harvest olive oil). Get yourself a wedge of Pantaleo Sardo, a firm goat’s cheese that tastes of lime and white pepper, to shave over top.
Cole’s offers a few trout products, of which I am partial to the smoked trout fillets. They glisten with that golden-pearlescence of fish skin that has been exposed to smoke and scream for the tart creaminess of Kunik or Coach Farm’s Triple Cream (think lox and cream cheese). Go ahead: get some capers and everything flatbreads. If you are really cool, which you probably are, you’ll get another fish in there with some trout roe or American sturgeon caviar. If the fish eggs scare you, though, try the Cavioroli encapsulated oils, which will pop on your palate just the same.
Holy Mackerel! This phrase has its origins in the Catholic abstinence of meat, so we should include it, but they are also the perfect fish with all the meatiness of tuna and the oiliness of sardines. Try them smoked or in mustard (both from Cole’s). Consider a soft scrambled egg and an English muffin generously slathered with Ann’s Hungarian Hot Pepper Mustard or Brussels Sprout Relish.
Tuna are usually billed as the pinnacle of teleost evolution. These meaty, fatty, kings of the sea carry an air of nobility even a hog or steer could never possess. The canning of tuna was developed by Italian immigrants in California in the early 1900s, and sandwiches across the world have been thankful ever since. Go for the Serrats, a Spanish brand. These jars contain large filets of Albacore or Yellowfin (these are different species, so they count for two at your Feast). There are hundreds of wonderful things to do with tuna, but let’s consider the classic. Try a bit of mayonnaise laced with Fee Bros.’ Celery Bitters atop the whole-wheat bread notes of the Terschelling Sheep Gouda or Ossau Iraty (the Dutch and Basque, both great shipbuilder’s, know a thing or two about fish). If you’re ready for something wilder try the Cole’s tuna pate on a meaty alpine cheese (Maxx Extra or Adelegger would be great choices) and garnish it with some Takumi shoyu (the sexiest soy sauce you’ve ever had). Spicy tuna rolls never tasted so good.
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!
A 9th Street Monger