Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Feasting on Tuna on the Andalucian Coast

Besides being famous for wine, flamenco and spectacular Moorish architecture, Andalucia is also renowned for its bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), being located on the migratory route between the cold Atlantic Ocean and the warmer waters where the fish breed, in the Mediterranean Sea. Tuna fishing has been a tradition here since ancient times, demonstrated by the discovery of Phoenician coins in Cádiz with pictures of tuna engraved on them. Today the vast majority of these huge, majestic fish are sold to the Japanese market, but a few still make their way into the local ports. In the town of Barbate, on the Atlantic coast south of Cádiz, a restaurant called El Campero is considered by many to be the finest place to sample this delicious fish, especially after the first full moon of May and through the month of June, when the tuna are in full migration.

A visit to El Campero last night with a group of friends proved that first of all, one doesn’t have to be in Japan to enjoy top-quality preparations of bluefin, and second, I have a great deal to learn about the edible anatomy of a tuna fish. Putting ourselves unhesitatingly in the chef’s capable hands, we were treated to fifteen different preparations of various parts of the fish, from well-known sections such as the ventresca (belly) and morrillo (collar) to more unusual ones such as the heart (meaty and dense, marinated in vinegar and served cold) and the galete, or throat (prepared as if it were rabo de toro, which in fact it closely resembles in texture). A specialty of the region is the pungent, saline mojama, sections of muscle along the spine that are salted and air-dried; even more intense are huevos de grano, tuna roe that has been salted, pressed and dried in a similar fashion (pictured below on the left). Served with a splash of fresh, grassy olive oil, both of these proved to be splendid partners to manzanilla pasada.

Mormo, the area directly behind the neck, wasn’t quite as buttery-rich as the grilled morrillo, but still very rich and succulent, prepared as a quintessential Andalucian stew with onions, garlic and oregano. Ventresca appeared throughout the meal in several different incarnations: my favorite was from a piece marinated in olive oil and then sliced paper-thin, giving it a silky texture, although it was difficult to argue with another plate of marvelously fresh tuna belly served simply as toro sashimi (“toro sin cuernos”, as our waiter joked).

The only problem with bluefin tuna is that it is declining in population due to overfishing. Although not endangered, it is listed as a species to avoid in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which does make me feel guilty enough that I eat it only very rarely (I do realize that as a responsible human being, I shouldn’t be eating it at all). I know I'm being hypocritical, but nevertheless I’m still very pleased that I was able to make it to El Campero at least once in my life.

Restaurante El Campero, Avenida de la Constitución, Local 5C, 11160 Barbate, 956.432.300


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