Saturday, May 10, 2014


I’ve just come back from a trip to the Atlantic coast, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, to the coastal towns of Tarifa, Zahara de los Atunes, Barbate, Conil de la Frontera and, inland, Vejer de la Frontera, where the almadraba, or tuna fishing season, has just begun. 

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.

Roman ruins at Baelo Claudio, an early fish processing factory.
The Romans, too, fished their way along this coast. Situated right on the wind-swept beach of Bolonia, near Tarifa in the Straits of Gibraltar—the southernmost tip of Europe—are the ruins of Baelo Claudio, a fairly substantial town that thrived from the 2nd century BC until 2nd century AD.

Temples, market, forum, amphitheater make up excavated ruins. Beside the sea, are pits where tuna and fish entrails were brined, fermented and seasoned, producing garum, the salsa of the ancients. Packed in amphorae, this gourmet product was shipped back to Rome.

The almadraba nets, forming long chambers like an interconnected series of corrals, are anchored to the bottom fairly close to the coast. Tuna swimming through on their spring migration to spawn in the Mediterranean are trapped in the nets. Once the huge fish are trapped in the final chamber, fishermen in boats pull the net into a tightening circle. The men raise the net, gaffe the tuna and haul them on board.

The nets allow smaller fish to escape. None weighing under 70 kilos (154 pounds) are captured, with most of the catch weighing in between 180 and 200 kilos (400-440 pounds). The average age of the fish is 14 years, meaning they have completed several reproductive cycles. (I got this up-to-date information from a new magazine called Oro Rojo, La revista del Atún.)

Since 2007, the almadraba catch is controlled and subject to strict quotas imposed by ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas). Due to indiscriminate overfishing, the Atlantic bluefin tuna (in Spanish known as atún rojo or “red tuna”) is in danger of extinction. Yet the local fishing industry claims that almadraba fishing is sustainable and feels it is being unfairly restricted for the sins committed by rapacious high-tech “factory” fishing fleets. It is estimated that only 0.01 percent of the tuna that migrate through the Straits are captured in the coastal almadraba.

As much as 80 percent of the almadraba catch is bought up by Japanese entrepreneurs and shipped, frozen, to Tokyo. What’s left goes to local markets, restaurants, tapa bars and canneries.

Different cuts of tuna at Barbate market.

In the mercado de abastos, town market, of Barbate, the home port of the almadraba boats, I found several vendors specializing in fresh tuna, showing all the many cuts as well as hearts, parts and pouches of tuna roe (eggs). Ventresca, the fatty tuna belly, looked gorgeous.

Tuna belly with thick rim of fat.

Loin and other cuts of fresh tuna.

At a nearby shop displaying dozens of tuna products in cans and jars, I bought a jar of tuna preserved in Ibérico pork lard. Something new and unusual to try. Maybe heaped on hot toast? Ventresca canned in olive oil will make a marvelous niçoise salad. Mojama, salted, air-dried tuna, thinly sliced and dressed with olive oil, will make a lovely aperitif with dry Sherry.

Carpaccio of fresh tuna (thinly sliced raw tuna).
While on a tapas crawl in the nearby town of Vejer, I sampled both traditional and vanguardista dishes with tuna. Very enjoyable was the carpaccio of fresh tuna at Casa Varo   Fresh tuna is flash-frozen (the method is Japanese), so there’s no risk of ingesting parasites in raw fish.

Grilled tuna in a summer salad.

Tuna with capers.

Back in my own kitchen, I am grilling a thick slab of tuna “loin.” The leftovers make fabulous summer salads.

There are tuna tasting festivals in Conil, Zahara de los Atunes and Barbate from now until June 9.

1 comment:

  1. I used to go down to Conil a lot for short vacations. I love it there, and boy could you eat well for not much money. I think I ate tuna every day!