A town all at sea
10 Mar 2012 by Nick Lander

This article was also published in the Financial Times.


In January 2012, Tokyo restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura paid the record sum of 56.5 million yen for a single bluefin tuna, weighing 269 kg, at the Tjsukiji fish auction. While this one fish would then provide up to 10,000 pieces of sushi, Kimura's more altruistic aim in bidding so high was 'to liven up Japan after last year's devastating tsunami'.

While Tsukiji has become synonymous with tuna in Japan and the world over as this fish has become increasingly popular with chefs and their customers, Barbate, an hour's drive south of Cadiz in south-west Spain, is only now beginning to promote itself as the epicenter of tuna in Europe, despite the fact that tuna has been caught here for over 3,000 years.

Tuna_2Barbate's particular gastronomic contribution to the world is that Nature also provides this seaside town with another ingredient that transforms tuna into a memorable restaurant dish. The salt from the surrounding salt flats is the only other ingredient in mojama, the wind-dried tuna that so many chefs now carve into fine slices and serve on a thin slice of bread as a tapa with a glass of sherry, or as a first course on top of well-dressed salad leaves.

My tuna guide was Paco Rodriguez, whom I met up with in one of Barbate's numerous cafes, little appreciating that he would introduce me to a novel breakfast dish, too. Alongside our café con leche we were served thick slices of white toast onto which it is customary to squeeze as much thick, fresh tomato pulp and olive oil as possible from the jars on the bar as one sees fit and then, more challengingly, to attempt to eat this without spilling a drop. This is an obvious combination given that plump ripe tomatoes were one euro a kilo in the local supermarket, I noticed.

Barbate comprises two sweeping beaches (it was off the coast just further north that the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in 1805) and a large nature reserve that attracts hordes of tourists during the summer. During the rest of the year, Rodriguez explained, the town relies on the almadraba, the netting of bluefin tuna and the fishing, processing and culinary skills that this annual harvest has handed down over the millenia.

Tuna_4

The almadraba takes place each May and June when the bluefin tuna migrate from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean in search of warmer waters. The fishermen of Barbate are particularly fortunate in that they are so close to the narrow straits between Spain and Africa that give them the first opportunity to land these fish that can swim at speeds up to 20 knots.

The equally well-travelled Phoenicians first appreciated this geographical advantage and established the almadraba, a system of long, deep nets that draw the tuna into ever tighter circles before the fish are slaughtered on board and brought to shore. As the number of bluefin tuna has fallen significantly, Rodriguez explained, with many now caught in the deep by boats with sonar radar, Barbate's processing skills have turned to the smaller, yellowfin tuna which they buy via the fish markets of Galicia, north-east Spain.

We drove to the Herpac plant, where Rodriguez is in charge of quality control, and my immersion in this fascinating fish took on a very modern, and somewhat less romantic, turn. White hats, boots and jackets were donned before we walked into a series of cold and silent rooms.

At around 80 kg, yellowfin tuna are most impressive, even dignified, as they wait to be prepared for the kitchen table. Their aerodynamic shape that allows them to swim so fast also makes them relatively easy to divide into the ten most preferred joints, with both the Spaniards and Japanese united in their passion for the fatty belly, lomo to the former, toro to the latter.

It is, however, the combination of the fillets, about a metre long and 6 cm square, immersed in salt and left to dry by netted windows so that they harden in the dry, humid Levanter wind that blows in from north Africa, that produce mojama, in a similar magical process that leads to Parma ham. From Barbate mojama travels to the tapas bars and kitchens of Europe.

Out of whites, Rodriguez said that it was now time to put one of Barbate's restaurants to the test. He consoled me when he saw my face fall at the news that El Campero, the town's best-known restaurant, was closed that day and said that we were heading off to a place where few journalists had ever eaten.

We drove down several narrow streets before stopping at Peña el Atún, the local association of tuna fishermen in this town fashioned by tuna.

The bar area was devoted to the members' obvious two passions - football and tuna - but opens out into one of those courtyards that are quintessentially southern Spain: white walls on which hang colourful ceramics and a wide grill, all under a deep blue sky.

Lunch was tuna six different ways: thinly sliced loin; compressed tuna eggs with olive oil; stewed tuna with almonds; the belly two different ways; and, finally, a slice from the locally prized neck. 30 euros each with Tio Pepe sherry. Tunastic!

Herpac, www.herpac.com
Peña el Atún, c/Rodriguez de Valcarel 15. Tel 95643231. Closed Sunday.
El Campero, www.restauranteelcampero.es