“I guess when Salvatore came to live in Getaria, a tiny, remote town, it meant a little revolution.”
Marta Mendia
Salvatore Orlando helped pioneer the Italian salting techniques which are now entrenched along the Basque Country’s Cantabrian coast. The founder of, what is today, Conservas Olasagasti arrived in the small town of Getaria near San Sebastian at the close of the 19th Century, after his father sent him there from his native Sicily. However, it is Simona Olasagasti – the Basque woman whom Salvatore married – whose name adorns the tins and gives the cannery its name. Today, Salvatore’s grandson Matteo Orlando heads the artisan cannery, together with his wife, Marta Mendia, and other family members. The Tinned Fish Market caught up with Marta to find out more…

We heard that the cannery workers at Olasagasti sing to the tuna. Can you tell us more about that?

By saying that we even sing to the tuna, we mean that we sing to everything. Traditionally, fishermen in the Basque Country and women working in the ports and preserve factories have always created improvised choirs, usually with songs related to the way of life around the sea. From Boga Boga (Row Row) which is known around the world, to other more modest, more local songs, such as Berriz etorriko zera (You will come back again), all of them about the longing of the fishermen for the day that they will return home. Unfortunately, choirs and songs nowadays are more related to free time and leisure, and remembering the old days. However, it could be a great idea to recover the old ways, not only in the production of the product, but also in the atmosphere!

Have you ever been out on the fishing boats?

No, we have never been out on the fishing boats for days at a time. It would be a great experience but actually a “tourist” could be an inconvenience while real fishermen are working. On the other hand, I feel sick when the sea is not calm. A little problem for me… It’s Bonito del Norte fishing season now, and one of our nephews, Kaispar Orlando, is working on one of the best performing fishing boats in a flotilla from Getaria, a small town near San Sebastián. It’s a really hard job, he tells us, not for those with a sensitive stomach. They spend days at a time at sea. Every fisherman has to be available at any hour, every day, for the whole season, even in harsh weather and rough seas. Kaispar spends days and days without mobile coverage and can’t speak with his girlfriend – she’s waiting patiently until the end of the season. It’s a real show to see how Bonito del Norte is caught one by one - the fish dance when they get close to the baits scattered around the boat and it’s as if the water is boiling.

I guess when Salvatore came to live in Getaria, a tiny, remote town, it meant a little revolution. He probably had different customs, style of dress, way of speaking, even of walking. I imagine Salvatore in the village festivals or other celebrations, dancing as an Italian, with Simona in the spotlight. He was responsible, honest, well known in Getaria and around, where most of the people had some sort of job in his industry. My sister-in-law, Cristina - Matteo´s sister - tells me that Simona was "happy, happy, happy. Lots of laughter and tears. A pure heart… and she was a great dancer!" She was always elegant, and coiffed… Cristóbal Balenciaga made several dresses for her - one for each of her 6 sons’ marriages. Simona used to go to the boutique in San Sebastián. A big picture of Simona can be seen in the Balenciaga Museum, wearing one of the couturier’s creations. She was classy, could prepare any meal, and actually knew all the recipes by heart, even if she never lit the fire!

Would Simona have gone out to sea?

She didn’t go out to sea, no way! And I don’t think she helped in the cannery: it was another age. But she ran the Olasagasti hotel beforehand, that’s a fact! She had a Basque temper too: Ignacio, my father-in-law, used to say that when she was young she used to confront her husband when he tried to limit her freedom - according to Basque tradition - all whilst she raised six boys. Above all, she had a close, affectionate relationship with her six sons and more than 30 grandchildren. Every day, two or three grandchildren were invited to have lunch with Nonno and Nonna Salvatore and Simona in the big apartment where they lived until the end of their lives, in the centre of San Sebastián, close to La Concha beach. There were too many children for them all to be at the table at the same time, so Sonia, Miguel and Lupe had lunch on Mondays; Toto, Juan Angel and Amalia, on Tuesday… The current nonni do the same as their parents did: gather their large families around a plentiful table. It’s wonderful to be part of this big, loving family.

Can you tell us more about the family recipes behind the tins?

The Anchoas a la Donostiarra - a San Sebastián staple - was one of my father’s and Matteo’s father’s favourite dishes. We wanted to honour them with this product. And it goes without saying that this one is Matteo’s favourite. The Tuna with onion recipe can be eaten all around Spain but it’s particularly popular in the Basque Country and Andalucía... where Matteo and I got married. And Tuna with Piperade is a popular Basque recipe that my mother prepares during the summer at home. We took all these recipes from our home to the cannery and did dozens of tests - it was months of work, in close collaboration with the local Food Investigation Centre - until we got the perfect result.

Can you recommend any restaurants in Markina or nearby, and are there any dishes you would recommend there?

I can’t be objective. One of my favourite restaurants is Piper in Mutriku. It’s not a mythical restaurant, perhaps, like Joxe Manuel in Ondarroa - also highly recommended - but it has been a restaurant that has pleasantly surprised me. Spectacular shellfish and fish from the local fishermen and a familiar and personalized treatment from Santi ‘Piper’ - a family nickname - and his wife Maite. Please don’t miss their King Bream - ask for it by saying papardo gorrixe.

Are there any parts of the canning process that you particularly enjoy?

I especially enjoy when the anchovies arrive at the cannery fresh from the closest ports. The silvery fish are quickly cleaned and their heads removed and prepared the traditional way: the anchovies are layered in big tins: a layer of salt, a layer of anchovies, a layer of salt, another of anchovies… until the big cans are filled. All this is done by hand by the experienced women who work fast and concentrate in the same way Nonno Salvatore did. Matteo likes these tasks because he is keen on anchovies and he’s not at all lazy when he knows he’ll end up eating them. It’s incredible that, in the anchovy season, after the whole day working among anchovies, with fish smell everywhere, he comes home and cleans anchovies for dinner. No nos hartamos nunca de comer anchoas – there are never enough anchovies for us… or something along those lines!

Stephen Lucas