Scout Canning is taking on transparency in the fishing industry and bringing the best of Canada’s coastal bounty to our home pantries.
When most of us think of canned fish, it likely brings to mind images of pale tuna chunks floating in cloudy water and some low-grade confusion about dolphin-safe labelling. If you’ve travelled to parts of coastal Europe like Spain and Portugal, however, or even dined in a local tapas restaurant, you might know that it’s possible for canned fish to have a completely different identity — one that sees it served on elegant “seacuterie” boards alongside dips, crudités, and wedges of fresh bread.
Chef Charlotte Langley is on a mission to bring this culture of conservas, as fancy tinned seafood is known in Europe, to North America. With Scout Canning, she hopes to transform our idea of canned fish from lowly tins that gather dust at the back of our kitchen cupboards to beautiful preserves that allow us to experience the best of Canada’s seafood from coast-to-coast.
Langley has been experimenting with canning for the past five years after discovering a century-old canning machine in a friend’s Etobicoke-area warehouse. “It was a piece of equipment that he had since like his great grandmother,” she says.
Initially, Langley played around with canning everything from ice cream cakes to mini tourtieres but eventually realized that seafood was a natural focus for her interest in this unusual culinary art form. “I came up with a bunch of crazy ideas and recipes, but what it came down to for me was understanding how to really initiate my strengths as a chef, which is fish and shellfish,” says Langley, who grew up in P.E.I.
Langley says Canada had a robust canning industry up until about the mid-20th century, but the practice has fallen out of fashion in recent years. “It gained a reputation for a lack of transparency with consumers,” says Langley of traditional canning. “For modern day, conscientious consumers, that doesn’t really sit so well. We want fresh, natural ingredients when we’re cooking at home and to know where it’s coming from and how it’s been reared and made and processed and preserved.”
Additionally, the canned seafood that most of us are familiar with seeing on grocery store shelves isn’t made to be gourmet. “It wasn’t designed to be flavour-forward or health-conscious,” says Langley. “It was just about: how do we preserve this fish for as long as possible?”
With ethical sourcing and flavour-driven seasonings inspired by European conservas, however, Scout Canning is flipping traditional tinned fish on its head. Langley and her team have built a network of small-scale and sustainable fisheries and created a transparent supply chain. They’re also donating a portion of profits to organizations that work to protect the oceans and local waterways via 1% for the Planet.
“We’re trying to keep the processing as close to home as where the species is born,” says Langley, explaining that Scout has canning facilities in both P.E.I and B.C which allows the brand to work with fish native to each coast. “It goes back to the transparency model. We show you where it comes from, how it’s harvested, how it’s caught, what the ingredients are. Really, it just comes down to being honest about what we’re doing,” she says.
While Scout Canning is rooting out some of the canning industry’s problems, it’s also preserving (pun intended) its minimal waste roots. Langley points out that much of the fresh seafood we see in a typical grocery store seafood counter ends up going to waste. “By preserving the seafood in this way, we’re extending the shelf life,” she says. “Canning came about because they were looking to preserve food in the peak of its season. And even seafood has a season.”
In addition to creating a seafood product we can feel good about purchasing, Langley also simply wants to introduce Canadians to the wonderful world of conservas. “We want to get people excited about using conservas, or tinned fish, as a way to incorporate healthy, delicious seafood as a daily meal,” she says.
“The North American palate has never really been inspired or encouraged to consume tinned fish. It’s not really been recognized and celebrated as an art form. But when you look at Spain, Portugal, Italy, all of these amazing countries, this has been a part of their heritage and their culture for hundreds of years.”
Scout’s current line-up is a far cry from the grey-tinged tuna that most of us associate with canned fish, featuring products like rope-grown P.E.I. mussels in a smoked paprika and fennel tomato sauce; and MSC Certified Atlantic Canadian lobster claw, tail and leg meat with sunflower oil, butter, and salt.
Langley is working to remove the stigmas we might have around canned fish and to educate home cooks about the diverse ways it can be enjoyed. She suggests that cooking with conservas can be as simple as snacking on it straight out of the can. “I call it the point of least resistance cuisine,” she jokes. “Just open the can and pop in your mouth.”
Scout’s cute, 100 per cent recyclable packaging features recipe ideas on the box to get you started. Langley also recommends experimenting with incorporating tinned fish into your favourite dishes, whether that means tossing some mussels into a basic spaghetti or elevating a morning omelette with lobster.
Langley suggests that Scout’s canned tuna can be an approachable option for newbies since most of us already have a basic idea of how to use it. “Just make whatever you’re comfortable with, even if it’s a tuna fish sandwich, but now you’re making it with products from the best ethical, sustainable source you can find in North America,” she says.
Ultimately, Langley hopes to make quality seafood more accessible for Canadians. “It’s really just getting people excited about learning more about sustainable, ethical seafood and where we can find it,” she says. “It’s not scary and it’s easy and there’s no pressure. Just enjoy it and have fun with it because food should be fun and pleasurable.”