Food by VICE

How a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Inspired a Gourmet Canned Food Company

The team behind Holland's Coco Conserven produces top-quality rillettes, ribollita, and ragout with local ingredients on a small scale.

by Felicia Alberding
Feb 25 2017, 9:00pm

In the Netherlands, canned goods do not have a reputation for being culinary delights. Nothing wrong with chickpeas, tomatoes, or pineapple from a can; it's just that opening a can is just not a festive occurrence. (Butter beans from a can are a problem: a butter bean should be crunchy and crunchiness is not something that survives after a winter in a can.)

Vera Bachrach, in her own words, was "struck by the can" about two and a half year ago. By how beautiful and iconic it is in the southern countries and how canning can be the solution for questions in the food industry: that keeping food very fresh costs a lot of energy, and how tons of good food are just dumped afterward. You may know Vera from the Tostifabriek (Grilled Cheese Sandwich Factory), where, in 2013, all seemingly simple ingredients for a tosti—grain for bread, pigs for the ham, a cow for milk to make the cheese—were grown in Amsterdam. Together with friends Tobias Jansen, Joris Jansen, and Sascha Landshoff, Vera decided to tackle a huge problem: We have completely lost our connection with what we eat. A tosti costs about a euro and a half, but we do not even know how the ingredients are made and how much work is involved for each separate ingredient.

Vera Bachrach en bos

Vera Bachrach with the "shooting woods" in the background, which separates the previous ammunition factory from Zaandam. All photos by Rebecca Camphens.

When, after seven months, the tostis were finally ready to eat, the producers themselves had a problem: they did not want to part with their cow. "We wanted to keep Els, but we also wanted her to remain food," Vera tells me. "Could we not can her?" we wondered. This is how the can kept coming up and we decided to make it a completely new project."

Now, after more than two years, I visit Vera and Joris in an old grenade factory in Zaandam, in an industrial area that is enclosed on one end by water and the other end by woods. Their canning project, which started as a kind of campaign, became a real factory in cooperation with Liesbeth Gouwens: Coco Conserven. Instead of milking cows and baking bread, they now occupy themselves with raw material protocols, through which door the suppliers enter, autoclave machines—a device with which you can food—and visits from the Food and Wares Authority.

productiekeuken coco

"The other day, someone said, 'It's so nice that you guys do all of this, I would foresee so many problems,'" Vera says. "That was exactly right. We do not foresee insolvable problems, but that is our problem actually." As she explains the machinery in the production kitchen, she notes that many things are involved—from renovation of the old grenade factory to HACCP-proofing the kitchen to the label. "It is never finished, but it starts to take form slowly." Three cans are ready now: goose rillettes from remnant geese from Pieter van Meel, a ribollita (vegetarian soup) with beans from a Westland grower and old bread, and a ragout made from the less-popular parts of pigs and cows.

The canning of those things is actually the easiest part of the process, they have discovered. "You fill the can with the recipe, put the can in the felsing machine, and seam it shut," Vera explains. "Then it goes here into the autoclave, which sterilizes the can to kill all bacteria. You wouldn't believe it, but Joris and Sascha had to follow a special course for this."

Vera en felsmachine

It's what happens before the canning is where the problem lies. Joris Jansen worked for a long time as a chef at restaurants such as Toscanini and As, so it had nothing to do with his cooking skills, but the first couple of cans were absolutely dreadful. Firstly, because of their tinny taste, which they still don't know exactly where it comes from. "It is a very specific taste, that you will taste on everything that has been closed off, if you start to pay attention," says Joris. "If you try to mask that, you are on a slippery slope and the taste becomes very confusing."

In the beginning he tried to solve it with sweet onions, because the tinny taste is somewhat sour. They also needed to use recipes that benefit from stewing for a long time. In the meantime, Joris knows that it helps to sterilize the cans longer at a lower temperature and to not boil down the ragout too far. "That is, of course, part of the classical ragout, but when I did that it was really inedible." He experimented with more tomatoes and less boiling down, and that helped. The ragout is now his favourite. "It is not ordinary cooking, then I stay with my pan, taste it and I can adjust all kinds of things all the time. Now I cook in a kettle, fill the can, sterilise it, and wait. It has a very irritating delay."

Vera met blik

Another problem, Vera shares, is the processing of surplus from the food industry. "We enjoy saving that food, but in order to be able to do that, you have to arrange your processes to be very flexible. Surplus is never constant. The NVWA wants to know all the details, which makes it more complex and that is what we are thinking about now."

"They really want to know everything very precisely," Joris continues. "Where is the black pepper from? It is Skal-certified, but does it originate from India or Sri Lanka? That goes for all the ingredients. Very intense, but also good."

fabriek coco

With their ragout, rillettes, and ribollita they are not going to compete with canned goods giants such as HAK and Struik—they are aiming for a new market. In Holland there does not yet exist a culinary canned goods culture. For beautiful and tasteful cans, you go to Portugal, France, or Spain, where they transform the packaging of sardines, tuna, and anchovies into real eye-catchers. For Vera the can is the answer to everything: "With a can you can conserve things, you can transport it uncooled, the packaging is recyclable, and you do not need any preservatives. It is also an undervalued icon. In France, many farmers have a seaming machine on their own farm to make pate themselves. In Holland you have applesauce-types who talk about faster methods in congresses. It is about time we start canning other things".

Kantoor coco

She knows this because they attended a number of congresses lately. "The can industry is a world of its own," says Vera. "We attended a number of congresses lately and most people think it's great that something new is happening in the canned goods world. Those manufacturers have done pineapple and butter beans in cans for years already."

The rillettes will be sold in restaurants, with the first cans already being sold at De School, and the soup and pasta sauce should be available throughout the entire country. "I eat the ragout and ribollita myself all the time," says Vera. "I cannot cook at all and I don't have to anymore. Joris cooks for me."

This article was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.