This story begins in the memory of Abel Álvarez with the memories he keeps with his grandmother. "I ate sardines with her. I would prepare them, wrap them in brown paper and put them in a huge tin." These days the agenda of this Asturian chef is accelerating. It's better not to count the hours in the pit because you lose count. Considered one of the most renowned grill masters in our country, his name – and that of Luisa Cajigal – is linked to the Güeyu Mar restaurant, located in Playa de Vega (Asturias), but also to his well-known and appreciated braised preserves, canned jewels that are sold in 14 countries, from Australia to Canada, passing through Sweden and Dubai.
Can of cocochas from Güeyu Mar.
From the moments with his grandmother he got the bug and over time he decided to make his own preserves. "I made them from time to time," he says on the other end of the phone as he excuses himself to give instructions to a person on his team. "When I started making them in the restaurant – Güeyu Mar, located in the small town of Vega, near Ribadesella, with 40 inhabitants – I made them by emulsifying them." When he wanted to put the sardine in a can as one of the menu items, it turned out to be more complicated than he thought at first and he had to give it a whirl.
He did not give up, far from it, in his efforts. "I started visiting canneries to get information and get to know the land," he recalls. "They told me that what I was trying to do was impossible. How could I think of adding arbequina oils?" He listened, assessed and rolled up "the blanket in his head: I bought old machinery, fixed it and started testing".
Today, the brand produces 100,000 cans a year, with sardines as the undisputed star of the menu. "I just got a very powerful client abroad and we're dealing with a large order," he excuses himself. The success of his preserves has been worked on "little by little". "The only thing we're doing is a more disruptive product," which by the way has had numerous imitators. "They have copied our packaging a lot," says Abel with a certain resignation, who has turned his brand image into a hallmark of this Asturian company.
Packaging is one of the brand's hallmarks.
Spain is a country where a lot of cans are consumed. Abel saw this as a business opportunity, but also to give stability to his team when the rhythm of the restaurant slowed down. Right now, 12 people work in the cannery and "every year we increase the team." Initially, Abel planned to focus on sardines, but soon realized that it was "seasonal" and that he needed to "expand the products to consolidate the project." Mussels, espadrilles, bonito, octopus and razor clams were soon added to the menu. "Today we have all of this. The only thing we don't have at the moment is cockles," he said a few days ago.
They can make 500 cans of sardines a day, which sell themselves. "In Spain, you don't pay for a can of sardines. I see 120 ml cans at petrol stations for 2 euros. At that price, something is wrong. And the product, of course, has nothing to do with ours." It's clear that he's not competing with the big boys. "I don't want to imitate anyone. I seek to offer the best product. What's the point of getting something out of the race and being the first if it's not worth what I'm selling."
Sardines are the queens in Güeyu Mar.
To date, it has no distributors in Spain. "I've always looked for personalized customer service," he explains. "At the end of the day, that's what makes the difference."
That and the brewing process behind it. "The issue of barbecues is the most complicated." It uses Arbequina extra virgin olive oils, which is what gives a different structure to the product. "I like large sardines, which have more flavor." This EVOO means a higher cost as well. "We spend more than 60,000 euros a year on oil."
Abel's head doesn't stop. "The prawn isn't working well for us," he muses aloud. He will look for the formula to find a solution, but "this year there is no more time". The world of preserves still has a lot to say and this chef wants to write his own chapter.