In Spain, preservedor foods stored in cans and jars, are not simply a matter of economic survival or a basic source of nutrition for students, hikers, military recruits, etc. On the contrary, the tradition of conservas is more like keeping one’s finest jewels locked away in a safe – a prized possession to bring to the table on special occasions, and a one-of-a-kind offering that can be found in traditional and modern bars and bodegas.
It was a Frenchman named Nicolas Appert who invented the technique of canning around the beginning of the 19th century, winning a prize of 12,000 francs from Napoleon for finding a way to keep the French army alive and well fed during his long war campaigns. After being heated and sealed tightly in jars, these foods were not only transportable but also retained all of their nutrients.
Today, however, Spanish conservas are not mere soldier’s chow, but rather gourmet food products in which every ingredient counts. Variables such as the type and quality of salt, sugar, oil and/or vinegar, sauces and condiments used in the canning process, season and location where the food was caught or harvested, the cut, size or number of pieces in the box, and even how long the product has aged, can all affect the taste and texture of preserves – which, like wine in a wooden barrel, often improve in flavor over time. Many different products can be preserved using these techniques – vegetables like artichokes, seaweed, cooked game meats like partridge, wild boar or venison, and even traditional stews like calluses – but only a few are considered gourmet products.
Some of the most valuable delicacies found in Spanish cans are fish and seafood from the cold northern seas. From the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic come Cantabrian anchovies and top quality tuna. From the Galician coasts come some of the most delicious clams, razor clams, mussels, small scallops (zamburinas), mackerel, sardines, octopus or squid. The best Galician clams can reach €600 per kilo, or around €97 for a box of 20 pieces; resembling shiny pearls of the ocean, these white clams are carefully preserved in salt water only. Another curiosity, the Catalan caviar, from sturgeons raised in the waters of the Pyrenees of Val d’Aran, prepared according to the Siberian tradition – that is to say fresh, unpasteurized – and sold for €77 per 30-gram box. .
The tradition of keeping all kinds of marine treasures arrived in Spain in the 19th century, influenced by the French. From there, Catalan entrepreneurs – such as the famous Massó family, still a well-known trademark of conservas – brought the techniques to Galicia. They participated in an industrial revolution on the Atlantic coasts of Spain that led to the creation of dozens of canneries, eventually becoming the largest canning industry in Europe.
In Barcelona, these canned delicacies are often served as appetizers, accompanied by a good wine or, most often, vermouth. Conservas can be found in all kinds of bodegas (cellars in Catalan), such as Morro Fi, Lo Pinyol, La Moderna, Bodegueta Cal Pep, or the famous bodega Quimet i Quimet in El Poble Sec, one of the most emblematic places to enjoy the local “vermouth hour”. Here, owner Quim Pérez has created hundreds of incredible tapas and montaditos using preserved ingredients. One of our favorites is a fantastic sweet and savory contrast of Cantabrian anchovies served with two halves of syrupy apricots and finished with an intense dollop of Torta del Casar (a creamy cheese from Extremadura) and a few drops of vinegar reduction balsamic.
In the district of Gràcia, Bodega Costa Brava is one of our go-to places for conservas, a small tavern with a comforting local atmosphere that has been around for over 60 years. The current owner, Xavi Batlló, who is also a DJ in the city’s bars and clubs, offers a great selection of dishes from Espinaler, one of the best and most emblematic Catalan canned brands. But for a fun evening of tapas accompanied by pop-rock music, we recommend trying one of the venue’s many lovely homemade conservas, like their boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) or sardines in escabèche, which are fried then marinated in lemon and orange juice with tomato and aromatic herbs. All are prepared on site by the bodega’s chef, Joana. Also in Gràcia, Bodega Quimet (not to be confused with Quimet i Quimet above) is a typical neighborhood bodega that offers affordable tapas from the high-quality canning brand Lolin, in a pleasantly informal atmosphere.
When buying preserves to enjoy at home, head to stores that specialize in preserves, such as Entrelatas in Gràcia. Opened by Paola Fornasaro in 2015, Entrelatas was the first store in Barcelona entirely dedicated to preserves. Here you can find an interesting selection of affordable yet beautiful conservas of all kinds, mostly Spanish, but also Italian, French, Portuguese and Greek. LaTorre pun in another gourmet producer, shop and bar with two locations in the Sant Antoni district and a small local factory. Their bestsellers are anchovies, but in their stores you can also get a wider variety of canned seafood and olives.
Beautiful, often historic Barcelona colmados – the old-fashioned Catalan shops specializing in wines, liqueurs and preserves – are another great resource. Some of the best in town are the renewed ones Colmado Quilez on or near La Rambla de Catalunya Mantequeria Lasierra in the Eixample district. Both are traditional shops with a carefully curated selection of canned vegetables, meats and, of course, sea treasures. You can also find preserves in the “Rincón Gourmet” of the El Corte Inglés department store, which offers a wide selection of top brands, or the Vila Viniteca grocery store, temple of local gourmets. Very often, market stalls dedicated to olives also offer a selection of products preserved in jars and cans, such as Olives i Conserves Salvador Helbig in the Llibertat market.
It’s time to open the safe.