ABOUT CUCA FROM AUSTRALIA
No shame in it ... Tinned fish doesn't mean poor quality is some parts of the world.
Canning the catch may be frowned upon here but in Spain, quality comes in a tin, writes Larissa Dubecki.
IN SPAIN, it didn't raise an eye brow. But back in Australia, my bag stuffed with several hundred dollars' worth of canned fish wasn't going to get past the customs official without explanation.
Her problem, naturally enough, was the abject reputation of canned fish and shellfish in this country. Anyone willing to cart more than 60 cans of the stuff in their hand luggage must either be insane or ripe material for the Border Security cameras.
Clearly, my interlocutor wasn't Galician. The autonomous northwestern region facing the Atlantic Ocean is blessed with rias - shallow, fjord-like saltwater estuaries - and accounts for 85 per cent of Spain's canned seafood production. If that sounds like a big whoop, consider that the Spaniards have a tradition of preserving the best part of the catch, says MoVida's Frank Camorra, who along with his business partners is now importing the CUCA brand.
''People here see things in a can as bad but the best-quality stuff in Spain is canned - not just fish and shellfish but vegetables and meat as well.'' Having a taste of the product at the CUCA factory, where it is cleaned by hand by a line of women in white hairnets before being laid carefully in cans, was the clincher.
Cockles, mussels (there are 3300 mussel-growing rafts in the Galician rias, making it one of the world's biggest aquaculture industries), octopus, tuna (skipjack) belly, squid and sardines left me cracking out the credit card and facing the long trip home with a clanking bag. It might be quick and easy but it's definitely not fast food - by which it is the very definition of ''tapas''.
If you need any more convincing, the average Spaniard eats just less than four kilograms of it every year. But if you're still on the ''fresh is best'' bandwagon, try the sardines - the species Camorra sees as the easiest for people to get their heads around as ''quality'' canned fish. They still have their shape, the flesh is firm rather than disintegrating and the taste is cleaner than the canned varieties Australians are more familiar with.
''It's an aspect of Spanish food that I really like, getting something out of a can for an easy meal that's still tasty,'' Camorra says.
''It's come out of Spanish culture with people eating so late - when you finish work at 9.30pm and eat dinner at 10pm, you can't be bothered cooking … Spanish ready meals, if you like.'' CUCA is by no means the most expensive but for the MoVida boys, who have been serving the brand as tapas at Next Door and using it in dishes at Aqui, it is the best balance of price and quality.
And if you want to spend more than the average of $5 a can CUCA will cost in Melbourne shops, perhaps consider a trip to Galicia's Ca l'Espinaler (or a quicker trip to its online store, espinaler.es), an old-fashioned tavern turned blue-ribbon canned-fish operation where a 265-gram can of giant white clams wearing the Espinaler banner sells for a cool €132 (that's $195).
So hostile are Australian and American audiences to the notion of high-end canned fish that a conspiracy theory sprang up online after Anthony Bourdain visited Ca l'Espinaler on his travel/food TV series No Reservations, accusing him of being guilty of dramatic licence when it came to the price.
Camorra doesn't have such a hard time believing: ''I wouldn't doubt it. I've eaten the really expensive stuff myself. It's unbelievable; like they were prepared in seawater and were as fresh and plump as the minute they were pulled out of the water.''
CUCA Conservas are now available through Leo's Fine Food & Wine in Kew, Heidelberg and Hartwell, or you can eat them over the bar at Seddon Wine Store and MoVida, Next Door and Aqui.
Larissa Dubecki travelled to Galicia, in the country's north-west, courtesy of the Spanish Trade Commission.