Catch Of The Day

The familiar canned fish is now swimming in gourmet circles -- and selling for caviar prices

March 12, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tuna fish, that high-protein, low-cost pantry staple of every hardworking homemaker, has gone the way of artisan breads, boutique chocolates, imported cheeses and aged balsamic vinegars.

In short, tuna fish has gone upscale.

For $6.99, you can buy a 6-ounce can of Dave's Gourmet Albacore at the new Whole Foods Market on Fleet Street in Baltimore. But when it comes to gourmet tuna fish, that price is practically a starting point.

The latest Dean & DeLuca catalog sells a 14-ounce jar of tuna in olive oil for $20. And Zingerman's, a Michigan-based catalog of gourmet goodies, sells a 110-gram tin of belly-cut fillets for $15. That's less than 4 ounces. And it doesn't include shipping and handling.

For the extra money, tuna eaters can expect large fillets of a fish that has been individually caught, processed right away and either cooked right in the can or simmered in olive oil.

High-end tuna fish is not new, but it is enjoying a new surge in popularity, said Zeke Freeman, corporate buyer for Dean & DeLuca. The famed gourmet food store added the $20 tuna to its catalog for the first time this winter, he said, and it has sold better than expected.

There are many reasons for the renewed interest in gourmet tuna. Omega-3 fish oils, which are found in tuna, have received a lot of attention recently as nutritional good guys that fight everything from cancer to heart attacks. Some customers also like the idea of purchasing tuna that was caught by an old-fashioned hook and line, instead of a net that can catch dolphins and other collateral creatures.

But Freeman said the real reason people are snapping up gourmet tuna is that it tastes so much better than the stuff that sells at most supermarkets for around $1.29 a can.

"The difference in consistency is incredible," he said. "The meat texture is just much more dense than what we are used to, tender, not overly flaky. ... It's a much more interesting mouth feel than what people are used to."

Mo Frechette, a Zingerman's co-owner, said that many people are simply looking for better-tasting food. "There's definitely an increase in tuna attention, and there are probably a lot of reasons for it," he said in an e-mail. "I'm just guessing, but since a lot of folks eat out more often, we find they shop with us when they want to cook in and make something special."

He also noted that the higher price for gourmet tuna is only a few dollars, "nothing like what you'd spend eating out, or even on a nice bottle of wine."

The difference between gourmet tuna fish and the stuff from large companies stems mostly from the way the tuna is handled.

"There aren't any tricks to making a great simple food like tinned tuna, just lots of shortcuts you can take to cheapen it [poor fish storage, cheaper cuts, and using water or vegetable oil instead of olive oil]," Frechette said.

Dean & DeLuca gets its tuna from a family-run company in Spain that has been operating since 1936, Freeman said. While much gourmet tuna comes from Europe, companies in the United States are starting to compete.

One such company is Dave's Gourmet Albacore, which has doubled in size every year since it began in 1991. Owner Dave Greenberger oversees about a dozen fishermen who provide tuna and salmon for the million-plus cans a year his company sells, said Crista Jones, sales manager. The fishermen catch the fish one at a time, in contrast to commercial fishermen, who have as many as 200 hooks on their line, Jones said.

As each fish is caught, it is pulled into the boat while it is still alive, then "bled" and put in a deep freeze.

"The fish are then cooked in the cans," she said, adding, "It's the best way you can eat a product out of a can and get all the nutrients."

Fish caught on 200-hook lines or with nets are often dragged through the water, dead, for periods of time, Jones said. "They're sitting in the water, warming up. They start to decompose," she said.

Large tuna companies often cook the tuna, then remove the bones, then can it and cook it again in the cans, she said. That's why the pieces tend to be small.

"Pull back the lid and you'll find solid strips of delicious, full-flavored fish," rhapsodizes the Zingerman's catalog about its Portuguese tuna, which sells for $6 per 110-gram tin.

Gourmet tuna can be substituted for any other canned tuna in recipes that call for tuna fish, including tuna sandwiches, tuna casseroles and tuna croquettes. It is particularly good in recipes where the fish shines, such as in a salade nicoise.

A word of caution, though: Experts now say that pregnant women should limit their consumption of certain kinds of fish, including tuna, because it may contain mercury, which can interfere with fetal development. The new Food and Drug Administration guideline recommends that pregnant women limit their fish consumption to an average of 12 ounces per week.

Where to buy gourmet tuna

Dave's Gourmet Albacore is available at Whole Foods markets in the Baltimore area and at Roots, in Columbia.

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