Spain in a Can

The rich produce of Spain's coasts, and the variety and quality of its fruit and vegetables, can reach anywhere in the world inside a can.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

Can Openers (1952-02) by Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

They started out as a survival food, but today, canned goods occupy an important place in diets around the world because of their affordability, diversity, and good quality.

Their arrival in Spain led to the emergence of a thriving canning industry, famous for the quality and variety of its products.

[Banquet] (1867) by Ernst AlpersThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Greek and Roman Legacy

Even in the days of classical antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans knew about and practiced different methods of preservation. Salting, drying, smoking, and fermentation were all processes used to prolong the shelf life of food.

But they weren't enough: although they provided some leeway, most foods still didn't last very long. And it would take a long time for research into decomposition and preservation techniques to progress.

LIFE Photo Collection

Napoleon: An Advocate of Canning

"An army marches on its stomach," the emperor once declared. He was keen to supply his troops with food while they were deployed across Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. As a result, he offered a healthy reward to whoever came up with a solution so that the soldiers could eat without having to rely on looting.

It was Nicolas Appert, a French pastry chef, who claimed the prize of 12,000 francs. He developed a system to preserve food and prolong its shelf life by sealing it in airtight containers and subjecting it to prolonged heat treatment.

Pasteur Louis 1822-1895 French Chemist And BacteriologistLIFE Photo Collection

From Appert to Pasteur

"It's not theory, but the fruit of dreams, reflections, research, and experimentation," said Appert, who established what is considered to be the first industrial canning factory.

Another important breakthrough came about in the 19th century thanks to Pasteur, who managed to provide a scientific explanation for Appert's discovery.

He discovered that the presence of microorganisms was the reason why food was spoiling, and he demonstrated the heat-sterilization method, which was quickly adopted by the growing canning industry.

LIFE Photo Collection

And Then Came Tin

Alongside that, there were also developments in packaging. Glass gave way to metal containers that were too heavy and difficult to open—so much so that soldiers had to use their bayonets!

The solution was provided by an English merchant named Peter Durand, who patented the manufacture of tin containers that were much lighter.

By Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

Factories were opened in England, France, and New Orleans. This boosted the popularity of cans in the United States, where an average of 140 cans per inhabitant are consumed each year.

The first canned goods were meats, prepared in various ways, because they can better withstand high temperatures without losing their quality.

Can Openers (1952-02) by Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

The Invention of the Can Opener

The can had been invented but, to open it, you had to use a cold chisel and hammer.

In 1858, the American Ezra Warner invented the first can opener—a cumbersome device that was not at all practical. It eventually evolved into the modern can opener in 1870 thanks to William W. Lyman, a fellow American.

Canned ClamsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Canning in Spain

The quality and variety of Spanish canned goods means that exceptional products are readily available throughout the year.

Harvesting Piquillo PeppersReal Academia de Gastronomía

Spain is a major player in the canning industry thanks to the quality and variety of its products. Its choice of the best raw materials, a respect for keeping up traditions, and cutting-edge technology have made the country's industry a world benchmark.

Canned ArtichokesReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Canning Industry in Spain

Its origins date back to the 19th century and today it is a booming sector with high export figures.

With tuna alone, Spain produces 70% of the canned goods in the European Union. This makes it the main exporter of canned goods in Europe, and puts it in the top 5 exporters of canned goods in the world.

"Le Drapeau" Canned Food by Massó Hermanos S.A./ La ArtísticaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Canned Seafood

The first canned goods in the world were vegetables and meats, and it was in France that these methods first began to be used for fish and shellfish.

Canned goods reached Spain almost by chance, thanks to a French ship loaded with canned sardines that sank near Finisterre, around 1850.

"Massó" canned food by Massó Hermanos S.A./ La ArtísticaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Galicians began to develop an industry that was given a huge boost by Catalan entrepreneurs.

Galicia and Andalusia were the 2 regions that set the direction for canned seafood production in Spain.

Still Life with Canned FishReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Sea in a Can

Mussels, cockles, razor clams, clams, and scallops from the Galician estuaries; tuna, melva, and mackerel from the Andalusian coast; and anchovies and bonito from the Cantabrian coast. Spain's rich marine life, with its coasts bathed by the Cantabrian and Mediterranean seas, and the Atlantic Ocean, makes for an incredible variety of canned fish and seafood products.

And there is an added bonus: the use of olive oil, which is a highly prized method of preservation that also increases the quality of the produce.

Still Life with Canned VegetablesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Canned Fruits and Vegetables

For centuries, canned fruits and vegetables have been an important driving force in the food and agriculture sector.

In 1848, the first factory opened in La Rioja, turning this northern region of Spain, along with Murcia, into one of the main areas for fruit and vegetable canning.

Navarre, the Balearic Islands, and the eastern provinces are other areas dedicated to the production of canned vegetables, which now also include legumes, leafy greens, and fruit.

Canned Piquillo PeppersReal Academia de Gastronomía

Vegetables: Simply Open and Eat

Tomatoes and peppers were the first star products, and tomatoes still are today.

Many other vegetables are also canned: peppers (bell, piquillo, sweet, spicy, whole or in strips), borage, green beans, artichokes, thistles, peas, and broad beans.

Almost any resource on earth can be put through preservation processes and reach consumers with the highest quality.

Piquillo Peppers FabricReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Promising Future

Spanish canned goods are constantly improving due to the strict sanitary controls on raw materials, and the advanced technology used in manufacturing processes.

Many of them bear the "Protected Designation of Origin" and/or "Protected Geographical Indication" quality stamps, which acknowledge the link to the places that produce and manufacture each product.

Pepe SollaReal Academia de Gastronomía

It is an industry that is going from strength to strength, and taking an increasing interest in innovation and sustainability. Spanish canned goods have taken a significant leap in terms of variety and quality, and now offer a varied catalog of products fit for haute cuisine.

Credits: Story

Text: Silvia Artaza, in collaboration with Ismael Diaz Yubero, Spain’s representative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Advisor for the Spanish Embassy in Rome. Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Image: Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade / Life Photo Collection / Massó Museum.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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