Fresh is an adjective devoutly to be wished for when used to describe almost any food. Almost!
I certainly would be as turned off by fresh poached or broiled salmon with cream cheese on a bagel as I would be to find canned tuna in my sushi or as the base of a tuna burger.
In reverse, I always feel that I am in the hands of a gastronomic poseur when offered a salade niçoise made with fresh tuna that lacks bite and texture.
I suspect that this pretension has to do with the word “canned.” Fresh tuna advocates might relent if the fish was dubbed “preserved” or, these days, “fermented.” It wouldn’t hurt if it was also marketed as being inspired by a time-honored Mediterranean tradition where the preserving is traditionally done in olive oil.
The best tuna I ever ate was served to me as part of a breakfast at an antique olive oil mill that I was visiting in Menton, France. Work had begun around 5:30 AM and around 7:30 AM the miller’s wife appeared and, on the top of a wide barrel, laid out bread, cheeses, black olives and what looked like a Mason jar filled with huge chicken breasts in pale yellow oil. Turned out they were chards of tuna caught by the miller and preserved by his wife. Were I a purist, I would never again have eaten tuna, fresh or “canned.”
But especially when it comes to salade niçoise preserved tuna is the only correct choice, whether it is packed in a can, a jar or a ceramic jug. Because of its oil-softened crumbliness and intense salinity, preserved tuna enlivens the olive-oil and vinegar dressing as well as the other traditional ingredients: sliced boiled potatoes, cooked green beans, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes. For added salty intensity, capers and/or anchovies are often included. Cucumber and artichokes are also considered acceptable but leafy greens definitely are not, no matter how strongly they say salad to so many.
This season is, in fact, a good time to celebrate preserved foods, most especially the vegetables, fruits and herbs that soon will be unavailable “fresh” in many climates. But along with preserved meats—think deli, hams and charcuterie—such foods are never passed off as fresh. They are prepared and appreciated for their qualities in that form. I trust that no one would serve a thick slab of corned beef or pastrami as a steak or offer “put-up” tomatoes sliced on the plate hoping no one will notice the floppy shape and watery essence. Dried apples, apricots, plums and pears make their own luscious kinds of pies and compotes. And so too, with canned tuna although with luck, not the standard American type bathed in water or some nameless, ignoble “vegetable” oil. While we’re at it, we should order some extra cans of tuna to be combined with canned tomatoes and preserved capers to result in a pungent sauce for, naturally, dried pasta.