The Costa de la Luz
Deep in southern Spain, in the province of Cádiz, spring arrives slowly, timidly, sometime after the drums of Semana Santa die down and before the flamenco and horses and sherry ferias begin. Spring: languid lunches in beachside chiringuitos, walks on the region’s pristine beaches, horse and wine and spring festivals seemingly every week, and almadraba season. You know that winter is truly over is when the almadraba bluefin tuna fishing on the Costa de la Luz starts (in late April or early May) and fresh tuna makes its way onto counters in markets and stores and chalkboard menus at bars and restaurants throughout Cádiz. Your chance to eat fresh bluefin tuna lasts a scant six or eight weeks.
The ancient almadraba technique of fishing has been practiced for upwards of three thousand years on the coast of Cádiz. The technique was introduced by the Phoenicians and continued under the Romans and later the Moors. With bluefin tuna little appreciated in the 1970s the traditional method strugghled to survive and its demise plunged towns dependent on it into ruin. Today four places in Spain practice the revived almadraba, all of them in Cádiz: Barbate, Zahara, Tarifa y Conil.
The almadraba method originally involved nets being attached to land on boths sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, catching the tuna as they migrated from the cold waters of the Atlantic into the Mediterranean in the spring in order to spawn in the warmer waters. This annual migration leads to huge concentrations of bluefin tuna near the entrance to the Mediterranean between Spain and Morocco. Partially due to the predictability of their migrations and partially due to a renewed appreciation for the fish in restaurants from Tokyo to New York to Madrid the bluefin tuna has been overfished to the point of endangerment; this overfishing has resulted in strictly enforced quotas and restrictions to protect the population which has resulted in their numbers increasing since 2010.
Nets Across the Water
Today the almadraba technique is practiced with an underwater labyrinth of nets attached to boats. The migrating tuna make their way through the nets into a final net suspended by the boats. Once the fish are trapped the fishermen on the boats lift the final net to the surface (a process called the “levantá” meaning the lifting). The entrapped tuna become visible. A few of the fishermen jump into the water inside the net and attach ropes to the tail of each fish, now thrashing violently, so that they can be lifted out of the water onto the waiting boats.
Once the day’s quota is reached the boats make their way to shore and the catch to one of the processing plants where it is cut up (called ronqueo) and flash frozen. Approximately half of the catch is sold in Spain and Europe; the other half is bought by Japanese traders and taken to Japan. The bluefin tuna is highly prized in Japan where prime cuts are found in sushi and sashimi.
The bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, known in Spain as atún rojo for the color of its flesh, typically weigh in between 400 and 500 pounds, although mature members of the species have been known to can reach 1,000 pounds. Due to its size and unique, high-fat flesh, the bluefin yields many cuts, each with its own character and optimal preparation. The variety of cuts that come from the bluefin, and the “sirloin feel” of tuna belly lead some to liken it to beef or pork.
Bluefin Tuna and the Cuisine in Cádiz
In Cádiz the atun rojo has historically been used to make cured and salted fish products, with the most revered being mojama, salted and dried tuna loin that is the maritime counterpart to jamón ibérico. When the traditional cuisine does use fresh atún de almadraba, the most typical method is “vuelta y vuelta,” tuna steaks quickly cooked on both sides on a hot plancha, or atún encebollado, tuna slow-cooked with onions. These days, thanks in part to the influence of Japanese cuisine in Spain and in part due to leading chefs’ focus on cooking with local ingredients, eating fresh almadraba tuna in Cádiz province is just a question of choosing one of the many restaurants that feature it on their menus in May and June. You can find restaurants preparing sashimi and tartare, grilled tuna belly (ijada), slow-cooked dishes with lesser known parts such as the cheek or the head meat (morrillo) and creative modern tuna tapas in bars throughout the region. Famously there is a tuna-lover pilgimage site, a tuna-specialized restaurant in Barbate, one of the almadraba towns on the Costa de la Luz. The restaurant, El Campero, serves every possible cut of bluefin tuna and even has a tuna tasting menu.
Participate in the Almadraba
May is an excellent time to visit the Costa de la Luz in Cádiz to try almadraba tuna. And for die-hard fans it is possible to spend the morning in the company of the fishermen on one of the tuna boats and witnessing the dramatic levantá. Check with us about our 2020 Almadraba Tour which we will offer as a small-group trip (up to 8 people) in May, 2020.
See our Andalucia trips.