Sunday, June 3, 2012


Fresh tuna--beautiful, but---

Every time I see the glistening slab of fresh tuna at the fish market, I promise myself that this is the last time. I will not buy/eat tuna—a critically endangered fish—ever again. Once again, though, I succumbed. In spite of the guilt, oh my god, but it was delicious. That’s why it’s so hard to quit.

Barry Estabrook, who blogs at, said “There is a strong likelihood that someone in this generation will be the last human to eat a bluefin tuna.” The species, he writes, hovers on the brink of extinction.

And yet. The towns of Barbate and Conil, tuna fishing towns on the Atlantic coast of Cádiz province (Andalusia), have just celebrated their big feria de la almadraba, with bars and restaurants serving up meals and tapas featuring atún rojo—“red” tuna, bluefin tuna.

The almadraba in Spain is a very ancient way of fishing tuna. The Phoenicians, who colonized southern Spain more than 3000 years ago, devised a system of capturing the tuna as they migrated from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The almadraba nets, forming long chambers, like a series of corrals, are anchored to the bottom. Tuna swimming through on their migration to spawn in the Mediterranean are trapped in the nets. Fishermen in boats pull the nets into a tightening circle, until the huge fish are trapped in the middle. The men gaff them and haul them on board. It is an amazing sight.

The almadraba catch is controlled and subject to strict quotas. The nets allow smaller fish to escape. All this sounds pretty good. But, here’s the problem—very little of the almadraba catch finds its way to the restaurants in Barbate, nor to the market where I shop. The Japanese buy it all. They pay huge amounts of money, freeze the catch, ship it back to Tokyo. Very expensive sushi in the making.

If you want the truth, I’m not sure what I’m buying. It may be yellowfin tuna that comes from northern Spain (and keeps the tuna canneries operational). Or it may be tuna fished much further afield, in unregulated waters by industrial fishing vessels (such as in the Indian Ocean, where a Spanish trawler was taken by Somali pirates a few years ago).

Perhaps you don’t know what you’re buying either. After consciousness raising and conscience pricking, I am looking more closely. Perhaps the next time, I will give the tuna a pass.

Atlantic bluefin tuna—Thunnus thynnus—is known as atún rojo, red tuna, in Spanish. Important to the canning industry is bonito del norte, Thunnus alalunga, which is white tuna or albacore—not to be confused with Thunnus albacares or albacora, yellowfin tuna, also sometimes called albacore (rabil in Spanish).

In southern Spain, where tuna is part of traditional cooking, it is usually cooked in a slow braise with onions and tomatoes slowly reduced. While it’s delicious that way, I wouldn’t dream of long-cooking tuna. I love it, if not raw, then quickly grilled and served medium rare—pink in the middle.

Sliced tuna with sauteed cherry tomatoes.
Here I used a thick slice of tuna, browning it on both sides in extra virgin olive oil. I added sliced onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes cut in half. Some oregano. I let the tomatoes reduce while the tuna cooked to that perfect point. After the tuna rested for 5 minutes, I sliced it across the grain and served it with the gooey tomato-onion mix and a sauce of olive purée (that recipe is here; another tuna recipe, with onion confit, is here).

Cold tuna in salad with capers.
I used sliced leftover tuna to make a sort of salade niçoise, with tomatoes, potatoes, beans and capers.

I so hope that I am not the last person of my generation to eat tuna. I would hope to enjoy it again. Meanwhile, I’ll be trying some new recipes with sardines and mackerel, two fish not threatened with extinction.


  1. Thanks for researching the types of tuna we eat -- it can be very confusing. I did not know that red tuna is bluefin.

    1. Donna: I am still trying to learn more about Spanish tuna. Indeed, very confusing.