Real Conservera Española. Canned Prefection
John Barlow looks into the secrets of gourmet seafood cannery Real Conservera Española
The meandering, filigree coast of Galicia, with its winding coastal inlets (‘rías’), is the perfect habitat for seafood. Mussels and oysters are cultivated on floating beds in the estuaries here, and other varieties are collected from the sands and waters, all benefitting from a combination of robust Atlantic tides and nutritionally rich currents. People flock from all parts of Europe to eat what comes from these estuaries, and Galicia is rightly considered among the premier producers of seafood in the world.
The elegant port town of Cambados, on the Galician coast, is home to several of the best known seafood purifiers and exporters in the region. From here clams, lobsters and everything in between find their way into Spain’s best restaurants, and beyond. There is also a thriving canning industry along the coast, and in Cambados one company stands out as the best among a very, very good field, although you may never have heard of it.
Real Conservera Española was founded in Cambados in 1920 by José Peña, and his grandson Iñigo Peña is now at the helm. In the past, the company was one of the biggest in the area, and its original stone-built factory, right on the docks in the middle of town, is now used as the Cambados Civic Centre. The Peñas were innovators, introducing a canning process in the 1940s, and have pretty much been at the forefront of the town’s preserved seafood sector ever since.
But these days they don’t compete against the larger companies up and down the coast. Instead, they concentrate on pure quality. Let us recall that Cambados is at the heart of some of the very best seafood harvests in Europe: when a company decides to focus on the best of the best, and preserve it in cans, the result is pretty spectacular. There are, I think, tree reasons for this: product, people, process.
It’s not only that the Galician coast is perfect for seafood. Real Conservera Española selects the best product from very specific parts of these pristine waters. Its cockles, for example, come from just a handful of beds in the Noya estuary. In total these are not much bigger than a few football pitches, but the yields are especially good. The cockles are not only a lot bigger than normal ones, but are of a more intense flavour; in fact, they are pretty much the show-stopper in any tasting due to the depth of their sweet-saline taste.
Mussels, meanwhile, are from a few miles up the coast, and again only the biggest and best are bought: incredibly plump and deep orange in colour, you can hardly get six of them in a can. Baby clams, by turn, often come from Cambados Bay itself, historically the staple food of the local fishing community, and by tradition harvested from the sands each day by fishermen’s wives.
In terms of captures, canning also means that the company can be ultra-selective with dates. Only products in their absolute optimum condition need to be bought, and this might be for as little as a few months or even weeks per year.
Iñigo Peña was born right among those fishing communities, down on the edge of Cambados Bay where each day a couple of hundred women still dig for clams and razor shells. A pharmacist by profession, when he took over the reins of the family business and began buying seafood from local docks, he made a discovery: many of the other buyers there were his neighbours from childhood. It’s not just the quality of the product that matters, then, it’s also the quality of local knowledge that goes into the selection process, the ability to distinguish the really top product when it appears. These days, Iñigo uses more than thirty buyers to scour the local docks for the very best, each buyer imbued with an intimate knowledge of the seafood sector, its infinite variations, and its innermost secrets.
So, people are key. From the women in the Bay, the men on the docks, to those working in the high-end purifying plants and canneries, Cambados has an unequalled local knowledge and expertise in all things seafood. And Real Conservera Española dedicates itself to decanting all that human expertise into cans, so we can appreciate it whenever we want.
The company is very much state-of-the-art. They use High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatography, and wherever you go in the factory, a white-clad scientific-technical officer seems to be collecting samples, because they test every single batch of everything they produce. However, it’s in the preparation itself that things get really meticulous.
Each single item of seafood is processed and packed by hand. Let’s take the tiny sardines, which are lightly cooked and canned in olive oil. These fish are about the size of your little finger, yet each one is headed and gutted by hand. If the fine silver skin is broken or the flesh damaged in any way, they don’t make the grade. Ditto the small squids, cleaned meticulously by hand, one at a time.
In fact, this hand-prepared theme can be taken to extremes: the mussels have two separate manual inspection stages, in which the ‘beards’ are carefully removed with small scissors, then each piece cleaned up for optimum presentation. Returning to those large-show-stopping cockles, after a similarly fussy manual preparation, they are arranged in the can in a spiral, their deep yellow tips pointing upwards in the same direction; thus, once opened, you can sit the tin on a bed of ice at the centre of your seafood presentation for maximum effect.
The company’s state aim is to offer gourmet equivalents of preserved seafood, the equivalent of caviar and foie gras, and thus to remind us that supreme quality can also come in preserved form. When you consider everything that goes into the products of Real Conservera Española, it’s easy to see why they are succeeding supremely well.
Selected tasting notes:
Cockles (Berberechos). Sweet and saline. Creamy and luscious. Liquor has a surprising depth and delicacy. ‘Wow factor’ due to the presentation in the tin (hand-set in a perfect spiral) and colour (deep yellow tips and white bodies). Liquor good enough to drink on its own, or can be use to cook rice.
Small clams (Almejas babosas). Plump and soft, yet retaining a pleasing chewiness. Creamy taste of the sea. More depth of flavour than fresh clams.
Mussels in escabeche sauce (Mejillones en Escabeche). Notable orange colour. Very large, firm pieces with a hint of smoke from the paprika in the sauce. Relatively firm consistency, with a satisfying meatiness, yet sumptuous.
Sea Urchin Caviar (Caviar Erizo). Delicate taste of the sea with sweet notes.
The meandering, filigree coast of Galicia, with its winding coastal inlets (‘rías’), is the perfect habitat for seafood