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I had been gazing at the surface of the sea for more than an hour from the deck of a fishing boat, just off Zahara de los Atunes on Andalusia’s Costa de la Luz. Our boat, the Tierra, was one of four making up the sides of a square, the men on board gradually raising the net that was slung between them. We were nearing the climax of the almadraba, a technique used to catch bluefin tuna on this stretch of coast since the Phoenicians settled 3,000 years ago.
With seven others, I had set off from the harbour soon after dawn on a sunny Saturday morning in May. We were led by Ignacio Soto, who runs Nature Tarifa, the only company that takes people to witness the almadraba from the proximity of the trap itself. Recognised by the European Parliament as a sustainable fishing method in a 2015 study, it uses a maze of nets, anchored to the seabed, to catch tuna as they follow their migratory route from the cold waters of the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to reproduce. As they swim close to the coast in search of the entrance to the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, some of the fish are diverted into the nets, and funnelled through them until they reach a final chamber, the copo. Once a day from the end of April to the beginning of June, the floor of the copo is lifted to the surface — the moment we were waiting to see.
There are four almadrabas along this stretch of coast, set up off Conil, Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa, but together they catch a tiny percentage of the tuna that pass through these waters. The size of the mesh means that only mature fish are caught, usually more than 10 years old, which will have already reproduced several times. The fishermen adhere to a strict quota, which is increasing every year as stock levels rise. “Until about five years ago, nearly all the catch from this Zahara almadraba went to Japan, but now more than half stays here,” said Soto. “This is the best bluefin tuna you can get and people in Spain and the rest of Europe now want to eat it, too.”
Suddenly dozens of shiny silver fins and tails burst through the water right in front of me, turning what had been a placid pool into a thrashing mass of spray. “The net has been hoisted up to 10 metres from the surface,” explained Soto. “Now the boats have to shift much closer together and get it up very quickly.”
The fishermen were shouting to each other across the boats, which were now only a few metres apart. Leaning over the sides, in what looked like a choreographed routine, they grabbed at the net with their bare hands. “They have all been doing it for years, learning the technique from their fathers,” said Soto.
Then half a dozen of them jumped down into the heaving mass of more than a hundred tuna in the net. Many of the fish were bigger than the men, who dodged from side to side to avoid the frantic flicking of their tails: a swipe could inflict serious injury. Until a decade ago, the fishermen would at this point have set about killing the fish with large, sharp hooks, turning the water red with blood and gore (in Sicily the almadraba is known as the mattanza, the slaughter). Now — out of concern for damage to the meat as much as the stress caused to the animals, I was told — the men began looping a rope around the fish tails, two at a time, to be hoisted on to a boat called the Frialba Uno. There they were dispatched with a swift cut behind the head with what must have been a very sharp knife indeed, before being lowered into the hold.
“There is only space for 100 or so, but they don’t want any more than that. To guarantee the quality, the boat has to get the haul back to the harbour, butcher it and freeze the fish going to Japan within two hours,” said Soto. “With more fish to deal with, the team will take longer, which means the quality — and the price — will drop. Today we have caught 120, but that is really pushing it.”
Then, the fishermen were suddenly still. They lit cigarettes and yelled from boat to boat, but now it was banter rather than frenzied instructions. We stumbled off the deck on to Soto’s motor yacht to head west back to Barbate, passing the Frialba Uno as it chugged home with its heavy load. Through the morning haze, I could see the lighthouse at Cape Trafalgar up ahead and Morocco across the sea to the south.
My almadraba tuna adventure had begun a few days earlier in the food market in Barbate. I was there with Annie Manson, who is from Scotland and runs cookery classes and gastronomic holidays from her stylish white house in the hilltop village of Vejer de la Frontera, which is one of the prettiest in Spain and a bit of a gastronomic hotspot, too.
Her Ultimate Almadraba Tour, a new trip launched this year, offers not just the chance to watch the fishing but to learn all about the culture of cooking and eating bluefin tuna in this corner of south-west Spain.
“Almadraba tuna is so sought-after because they build up blubber in the Atlantic to keep warm and that goes to the belly, which is marbled like the best Ibérico ham. When they swim past the coast, they are at their prime. Fat is king here,” she explained, as we looked at the two-dozen different cuts on one of the stalls. “Everything is eaten, nose to tail; even the head is divided into five parts.”
The Spanish call it atún rojo, or red tuna, which makes sense when you see it glistening vermilion on the slab. The prized ventresca, the belly, was €40 a kilo. One cut was triangular and much darker and denser than the rest. “That’s the heart,” said the stallholder. There were some pale blobby bits, too. “Those are huevas de leche, a real delicacy,” said Annie. “The soft roe or sperm sacs,” she added helpfully. I winced.
While we waited to buy huge bunches of asparagus and onions, another stallholder handed me a baked sweet potato to eat. “People pop them in the oven after they take the bread out in the morning, then eat them as dessert with sugar on them,” said Annie.
We drove back to Vejer, the road twisting up a gorge on an ascent that is sufficiently steep to make your ears pop. Vejer is only 200 metres above sea level but commands views of the surrounding plains and across the sea to Africa. In the kitchen in Casa Alegre, literally Happy House, Annie poured us glasses of fino. “Sherry pairs very well with tuna, with the different styles suiting the various cuts,” she said, as she showed us how to fillet anchovies from the market. “Put your thumb behind the head and just snap it off. Then turn it over, run your thumb all the way down to the tail and just break off the backbone.”
With a reassuring glass of González Byass Viña AB amontillado to hand — we were getting a sherry class thrown in as we cooked — we made the local dish atún encebollado, with chunks of mormo tuna, from the top of the head, and the onions we had bought, which all sizzled away in a pot with lots of pimentón (paprika). We made a chocolate cake, too, liberally sprinkled with raisins soused in sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry.
While our efforts turned out rather well (or was that the sherry talking?), there were astounding gastronomic experiences yet to come. The next day we were back in Barbate at El Campero, a restaurant which opened in 1965 and has become celebrated nationwide for its tuna dishes. Its almadraba tasting menu takes guests from marinated loin dice to sashimi, tataki and tartare. A platter of grilled cuts featured a dark triangle. Yes, it was heart and yes, emboldened by more sherry, I tried it. To my surprise, I rather liked it — sort of one step beyond liver. And then came piruleta de hueva de leche. This “lollipop” was a wooden skewer threaded with those soft roe pieces. I wasn’t keen on the texture or the taste but maybe it was just knowing what it was that put me off.
You might think that would be more than enough tuna for anyone, but there is more, a lot more, going on during the short almadraba season. The coastal towns put on tuna-related events throughout May and Annie had timed her trip to coincide with the “tuna tapas route” in Zahara de los Atunes, which runs for five days every year. While Zahara is primarily a fishing town, it also has a stupendous beach — as does everywhere along the Costa de la Luz — and its little grid of streets is lined with bars and restaurants. For the tapas route, 39 of them each create a different tuna dish, many of them incredibly complicated, which are sold with a glass of beer, wine or sherry for €3.50 a pop — staggeringly good value. We only managed about 10 bars but had loin wrapped in seaweed served on a pebble, belly cleverly made to look like bone marrow and a Perspex box with compartments containing different cuts that looked like jewels — the final one was chocolate truffle filled with mojama air-dried tuna.
Can you imagine a better way to spend an afternoon? I looked out to sea, where a line of orange buoys marked the line of the almadraba nets, ready for the next morning’s catch. It all looked so tranquil.
The writer was a guest of Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen. Its Ultimate Almadraba Tour costs from €1,450 including four nights at the hotel Casa del Califa and the trip with Nature Tarifa. British Airways flies from London to Gibraltar (100km from Vejer)
Photographs: Ignacio Soto/Nature Tarifa; Robert Harding/Alamy