Issue No. 39: Controlled Rot – Vintage Seafood

Nearly every great traditional food involves some amount of controlled decay. Wine, beer and cheese are the examples we’re perhaps most familiar with. These are foods whose raw ingredients have been fermented and curdled—decayed, essentially—under a watchful eye. The controlled rot turns them into something even more delicious. Can the same be done with fish?

The popular myth is that fresher is better no matter the fish, no matter how it’s served. But it’s not true.

While there’s nothing better to fry than a mess of bluegill caught that afternoon, when it comes to preserving fish a certain amount of decay makes it taste better. Sushi, traditionally a way to preserve fish in Japan, is not improved by being ultra-fresh. Anyone who’s tried raw tuna right off the boat and thought it was totally bland knows there’s some magic that happens in the time after its caught and gets to the restaurant that expands its flavor.

Controlled decay is a key ingredient in tinned fish too.

Anchovies spend about a year stacked in salt before they’re ready to tin. The salt cures them much the same way it does prosciutto (Italian cured ham). And just as a mild, fresh ham becomes sweeter, richer and way more flavorful when it’s cured, so do anchovies. Trust me on this if you’ve only had bad anchovies—the good ones are amazing.

Anchovies don’t improve once they’re tinned, however. But there are many kinds of seafood that do. The two that we’re working with a lot these days are line-caught tuna and sardines. They’re both wild, fatty fish that are cooked then packed in olive oil, not water. The olive oil interacts with the flesh over time in a way that reminds me of how great wine ages. The changes aren’t drastic, but they’re noticeable, especially over time. The edges of the flavor get softer. The mouthfeel becomes silkier. The experience of eating grows more complex.

You can age tuna and sardines yourself very easily.

Buy some tins, put them in a closet, write yourself a reminder to flip them every year or so. They have an expiration date and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for writing this but I’ve been to fish factories and everyone I’ve ever met has told me that the date is totally arbitrary. They’re commanded to do it and no one who works there abides by it. Tinned fish can pretty much last forever. And, like with great wine, over time, great tinned fish will get even better.