St. Jean’s Cannery is a family owned and operated business that has been a mainstay in Nanaimo for fifty years. Started by Armand St. Jean in 1961, today it remains a family affair with son Gerard taking over from his father’s humble beginnings, selling his home-smoked oysters to local bars. In a West Coast fishing industry that has been in steady decline for years, business is booming at St. Jean’s making it a remarkable success story. So when Armand’s grandson Dave St. Jean invited us to tour his family’s cannery, we were gung ho and ready to view (and hopefully eat) a ridiculous amount of seafood.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Dave and the world’s biggest salmon can (Guinness world record pending) built as a part of St. Jean’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year. Our instincts told us to procure a giant can opener even though there was no actual salmon inside. Instead, we discovered that it was in fact a small museum documenting the history of their company and their products, making us all the more eager to start the cannery tour.
Dave outfitted us in a pair of white lab coats complete with hairnets. It wasn’t the most stylish of attire, but a necessary part of the tour. We were first led into the canning area where we were thoroughly entertained by the dizzying array of machinery and apparatuses involved in the process. Amazingly some were original and are still a part of the operation today. Much of the upkeep and mechanical maintenance in the cannery is done by Dave’s uncle, he explained.
As we made our way to the processing line, Dave talked family recipes and techniques, most of which are super top secret and kept tightly under wraps. Unlike other canneries, their catch is filleted off the bone and goes into the can raw, so that as it is cooked in the can, the natural oils remain inside. This technique keeps the fish super moist and tender and you can definitely taste the difference. It’s no wonder that they remain the only cannery in Canada that still cans Albacore tuna, butter clams and smoked oysters. In fact St. Jean’s sees about 10 000 lbs of tuna a week during peak season! All of St. Jean’s products also feature pop-top lid technology, a feature which has saved the pair of us from starvation on numerous occasions when our broken can opener stood in the way of dinner.
Their motto “you supply the fish, we do the rest” really encompasses the variety of services St. Jean’s has to offer. While hand packed canning is still their bread and butter, high end gourmet products are their specialty. Customers have the option of treating their catch to an all natural woodsmoking, a Cajun, peppercorn or (honey glazed) candied process and have their fish hot or cold smoked. They will also steak, fillet and vacuum pack your order and ship it right to your doorstep, a service that has garnered steady business from local sports fishing lodges and commercial fisherman alike. As the aroma of freshly smoked salmon taunted our noses, the intoxicating smell coming from the trio of giant smokers lining the cannery walls awakened in us a hunger of epic proportions. The part we were most looking forward to now was getting the opportunity to sample some seafood!
St. Jean’s Cannery has come a long way from its simple beginnings and has credited their small scale operation and diversification as the keys to their success. They continue to grow their ever expanding line of products (80 in all) creating new gourmet items and mouth watering recipes. While Armand’s original smoked oysters and candied salmon remain the most popular, they have branched off to include canned wild chantrelle mushrooms, antipastos, clam chowders pates, pepper jellies, marinades, and rubs, all of which can be purchased online through their website. More recently, they have produced a new Niko’s line of dipping sauces and marinades. Originally blended for Niko’s fusion restaurant in Campbell River, St. Jean’s started producing the sauces to meet the overwhelming demand from customers who wanted to use the product at home. We could definitely testify to its popularity made evident by the gathering pile of toothpicks as we sampled some candied salmon, Niko’s sweet mustard, and their vegetarian antipasto.
We left St. Jean’s with a full stomach and a goody bag full of their products to try at home. Although we couldn’t get Dave to divulge his family recipes, he did give us a glimpse of St. Jean’s Cannery’s winning recipe for success. We’re sure Armand’s legacy will live on for many more years to come and encourage any seafood lover looking for quality, locally produced canned goods to visit St. Jean’s store on location at the cannery or online. Keep your eye out for a recipe in the future as we will be coming up with something scrumptious soon!