By BETH QUINN, Associaited Press
The Pacific Northwest fish that has the gourmet food world abuzz these days is albacore tuna — in a can, no less.
Hand-caught, hand-filleted and hand-packed at microcanneries from Brookings to Astoria, premium canned albacore will account for 8 percent of Oregon’s 7 million-pound albacore catch this year.
Custom canners tout the tuna’s health benefits, saying tests show that it’s higher in omega-3 fats and lower in mercury than supermarket brands.
Celebrity TV and radio chefs praise its superior taste, and food marketing experts say the new niche market for Northwest premium albacore should continue to grow.
Small coastal canneries have been turning out raw-packed, additive-free albacore for at least half a century. But that was news to David Rosengarten, a New York City-based cookbook author and TV chef, when he began his quest to find the world’s best tuna.
He taste-tested more than 200 cans of tuna for his 11,000-circulation newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report,” which won the 2003 James Beard award for best food and wine newsletter.
He pronounced the Northwest’s microcannery products America’s best canned tuna.
“I thought that what I was going to find was great European-style tuna,” Rosengarten said. “I figured that I’d find super-high-quality, dark red Mediterranean-style tuna. As soon as I took mayonnaise and fork to Pacific Northwest tuna, that was it.
“I keep telling everybody, ‘Forget everything else — this is the tuna.’ ”
Among those Rosengarten told were the viewers of NBC’s “Today” show and the listeners of Minnesota Public Radio’s nationally syndicated “The Splendid Table.”
In keeping with the product recommendations he’s famous for, he also told those audiences they’d find America’s best canned tuna at Great American Smokehouse and Seafood Co. in Brookings.
In the two months since the shows aired, sales have gone way up, smokehouse owner Nancy Myers said. She estimated that she’s shipped 3,600 half-pound cans of albacore that retail for $5 each.
“The response has been phenomenal,” Myers said. “They say, ‘You’ve spoiled me. I’ll never buy another can on the shelf again.’ I had an e-mail saying, ‘I open a can of tuna, and I eat it right out of the can.’ They’ve never tasted anything that good.”
A generation ago, a handful of coastal canneries served sport fishermen and canned coho salmon caught on fishing charters. Oregon’s tuna fleet sold its entire catch to three giant cannery companies that cooked the fish twice and added spring water or vegetable oil to produce supermarket brands.
These days, the giant canneries buy only the larger, older fish caught by Asian tuna fleets, leaving Oregon tuna fishers to find new markets. That’s one reason Oregon’s microcanneries now turn out at least 17 private labels of canned albacore, most of them signature brands of the fishermen who caught the tuna.
Herb Goblirsch of Otter Rock pioneered “from my boat to your table” custom canning with his Oregon’s Choice Gourmet Albacore in 1981.
The albacore filling Goblirsch’s hold are migrating juvenile tuna that follow the Japanese current to Northwest waters. They feed on shrimp, krill and sardines 30 to 100 miles offshore from June through October. The tuna are troll-caught on the surface with lures and landed by hand.
Goblirsch studied Japan’s exacting standards for fish handling to produce the highest-quality sashimi-grade fish, the thinly sliced raw fish sold in sushi bars.
Care from the water
“The difference in the can starts with how you take care of the fish when it comes out of the water,” he said. “It’s not a production cannery boat. It’s a quality, one-at-a-time fishing boat.”
This year he’ll land 60,000 pounds of albacore and produce 30,000 half-pound cans.
“I have over 3,600 families that buy from me across the country,” he said. “I don’t even advertise. My business grows from word of mouth — somebody tells their neighbor or a friend — and it grows like a pyramid scheme. If the whole U.S. knew what we had, they would be knocking our doors down.”
Many of Oregon’s 100 tuna boats are following Goblirsch’s lead in producing sashimi-grade albacore. For those with private labels, the special handling continues at the cannery.
At Chuck’s Seafood in Charleston, the five-member canning crew goes through 2,500 pounds of albacore a day. Two trim each 10- to 30-pound fish into fillets, and three others cut, weigh and pack the raw fillets into half-pound cans.
Some brands add salt or garlic for flavor before cooking, but most private-label tuna is packed in its own juice. The microcanneries say that accounts for its superior taste — and justifies higher prices that range from $5 to $7.95 for a half-pound can.
“You pay for quality”
“It kind of goes right along with microbrew beers and espresso,” said Heath Hampel, co-owner of Chuck’s Seafood. “You pay for quality. It’s not really expensive for what you get. It’s just fish as good as it comes out of the ocean,”
Hampel estimated that this year he’ll turn out 300,000 cans of gourmet albacore — his own label plus more than a dozen private brands. Most are sold by mail order from fishermen’s homes or by hand at farmers markets. Some of the older brands, such as Goblirsch’s, also sell to retail stores.
“It has a nice label, a nice story and a nice message,” said Nick Furman of the Oregon Albacore Commission. “The element of direct to the consumer from the fishermen — there’s a cachet about that.”
But for serious foodies such as Rosengarten, taste is the ultimate cachet: “I thought the days of great white tuna were over, but what’s being produced in the Pacific Northwest today is taking up the slack. It’s really good stuff.”
Beth Quinn: 541-474-5926;