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Aube's Travels

Andalusian Days (III): From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, a Road Trip Along the Tuna Trail

SPAIN | Wednesday, 22 June 2016 | Views [860]


Espetos grilled at the chiringuito Rocamar in Malaga

Stop 1: Malaga  

Antonio, an ex-fisherman who is trying to teach me the art of skewering sardines, is quickly losing his patience as I demolish one fish after another. “Watch! It’s like this!”, he shouts, effortlessly weaving through stacks of sardines like a granny crocheting her thousandth bonnet. I grope the fish, trying to locate the spine. “It’s just a little fish!” Antonio insists, “don’t be scared of it. Stop! This one is no good!”

He rips the mutilated sardine from my skewer and flings it into a bucket of defective specimen. Trinidad and Julian look on with pity, probably glad they are not in my place. We are at the chiringuito Rocamar, a beachside restaurant by the traditionally working-class neighborhood of Huelin in Malaga. Chiringuitos grill and fry just about any seafood you can name, but are best know for espetos, a Malagan specialty of skewered sardines grilled on an outdoor fire and seasoned with sea salt, sea wind, and a squeeze of lemon, as has been done since the Phoenician times.

An ex-teacher’s pet, I am seconds away from tears. The skewer is a flat, pointed metal strip as wide as a thumb, and the sardines are easily shredded to pieces if not properly woven through. The skewer needs to make an incision near the dorsal fin, find the spine, slide under it, then re-emerge from the fish’s belly. It’s as easy as ramming a surfboard between my lungs and hoping I come out ready to win a Miss World pageant.

After an eternity of practicing through innumerable sardines who wished they hadn’t died in vain, I manage to present one respectable espeto to my maestro. It earns a nod. “Good,” Antonio said. “Great student! Learned so fast!” The praise rings ironic, and I eye him suspiciously. He takes my espeto and puts it with others in a fridge. I wonder if it has been marked specially to be kept away from other customers. But now we move to the grill, which looks like a small fishing boat installed on a single pod that spins the boat from its center. A large barrage of woodfire is built along the length of the boat, and the espetos are erected like a wall of vertically stacked fish against the fire. The flames are never allowed to devour the flesh of the fish, so the boat must be spun so that the sardines always have their back to the sea wind. The result is lightly charred, juicy fish. While I retire to the dinner table on the beach, Antonio continues to labor, gauging the wind, guiding the boat.

Now at a safe distance, I observe my maestro: leathery face whipped by years out at sea, crooked yellow teeth, silver hair, crisp blue shirt and khakis. No sweat stains under his arms after hours of working by the fire, while my face is still burning from the ingenious decision of trying to identify whether any of the espetos were mine. But the sun is setting, and the air cooling. Rocamar is filling up for dinner time, and enormous platters of fried seafood are carried out from the kitchen. Antonio is building fortresses of sardines on his boat-grill. Diners snap pictures, impressed. I smile, like a smug tourist, gleeful of my tangential association with local lore, and crunch into the spine of a steaming sardine.

White dunes by Tarifa, on the way to Cadiz province

Stop 2: Punta Paloma, Tarifa

At 8 am, denoted as “EARLY START” on the itinerary, we stuff the trunk with suitcases, drone bags, Trini’s hot pink crocodile skin luggage set, and drive out of Malaga by way of giant shopping malls and stadium-sized parking lots. Somewhere along Marbella, the Spanish St. Tropez where stars vacation, I fall asleep. Waking up in a pool of drool, I am sad to learn that I’ve missed the Strait of Gibraltar, to which I’ve always attributed great significance as the closest point to North Africa. Turns out it’s not. We park somewhere outside of Tarifa and climb atop majestic white sand dunes that overlook a placid bay, and, on the opposite shore, the Rif mountains of Morocco. Although they seem only an Olympian swim away, the currents are treacherous and often deadly. Here, and only here, the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic.

Stop 3: Salt mines, Chiclana de la Frontera

For lunch there is sea salt and seaweed. The Salina Santa Maria de Jesus, a large estuary in the Bay of Cadiz, mines small amounts of virgin artisanal salt that is later sold and served in a domed wooden restaurant at the center of the salt fields. Incidentally, large quantities of seaweed have taken hold of certain waterbeds in the estuary, and have been diligently worked into the menu. The family of obese brown sheep that freely roam the property, thankfully, have not. Imma, a charming blonde with light blue eyes and braces, reveals other secrets of the property: in some quadrangles fleur de sel appears overnight due to the high contrast between daytime and nighttime temperatures, and is scraped off the surface in the morning by seasonal salt miners. Other quadrangles, in the summer, become outdoors mud bath spas, where bathers can spy on herds of flamingos dwelling nearby. We get our hands dirty in the algae and bite into fresh scoops of green kelp, a testament to the sacrificial lengths I’m willing to go to for the camera.

Making new friends at the salt mine

Once indoors, my palate is quickly refreshed by some extra dry Sauvignon Blanc, and we set off on our seaweed marathon. It vastly exceeds our cautiously optimistic expectations. Imma metamorphoses into an enchanting hostess with pearl earrings and a black dress, and brings us our first course: seafood pancakes fried in olive oil with shrimp and sea asparagus, a shrub that grows next to the estuary beds and is intensely salty. Next a light beet soup with more sea asparagus and shredded white fish, followed by the obligatory croqueta plate, but this time with seaweed, and divine scrambled eggs lost in mounts of fish, seaweed, and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry reduction.

Scrambled eggs with fish, seaweed, and sherry reduction

Penne with pesto and seaweed

This is just the beginning--out come fat plates of penne with pesto and seaweed, seaweed-wrapped whole bream, garbanzo bean stew with seaweed, green rice with seaweed, and for dessert, bacalao sashimi on avocado. The meal tastes, quite literally, like we are eating the sea, and I sprinkle so many individual forkfuls with an extra pinch of virgin salt that I must’ve clogged half of my arteries. The dishes are inventive but hearty, plated like a no-frills home-cooked meal. No surprise, since the chef is not some young gastronomy aspirant but Imma’s mother-in-law. Outside the window panes, the obese sheep lie down like country dogs, lazily following the course of the meal through semi-shut eyes. On the walls, salt-themed proverbs, quotes, poems. One, by the poet Rafael Alberti, speaks loudest of all:

What a joy, at dawn,

To travel in the carriages

Piled high with salty snow,

Towards the small white houses!

I will forsake seamanship, mother,

To be a saltman.


Stop 4: Barbate

One kind of creature has ruled over the seas surrounding the fishing towns around Barbate since Phoenician times--wild bluefin tuna, enormous beasts that easily surpass 450 pounds in maturity and are caught in deep water fish traps called the almadraba. This method of capture intercepts the traditional migratory route of bluefin tuna, who swim out of the Mediterranean to seek the cooler waters of the Atlantic every May. After months of orgying in the warm, soupy Mediterranean basin, the tuna are well enrobed with the holiday weight that renders them particularly fatty and desirable to fishermen. To minimize the freshly caught fish’s shipping distance, tuna factories have mushroomed all around the Bay of Cadiz to process the tuna locally. We make a pitstop at HERPAC, a salting, smoking, and conservation plant that specializes in treating wild bluefin tuna caught between the months of May and July.

Wind-dried tuna slices at HERPAC

After donning particularly hideous plastic caps and flapping coats, we fill our lungs with the concentrated stench of fish and witness the artisanal process of readying tuna for the cans. The beasts are stored for no more than 48 hours in a congelation tunel, then wheeled out to the “dirty room” to be hand-cut and “snored”--the sound made when the saws cut through the tough flesh of the fish. The tuna is quartered based on the fat content of its body parts: leanest starting from the top and the center, fattest towards the belly and the exterior. Men in yellow overalls carry enormous, deep red tuna fillets with both arms. At this point, the fish can be smoked, cured, or cooked in large vats and then trimmed to fit into cans with olive and sunflower oil. The fattiest pieces sometimes require up to 2 years to cure. A small gift shop and tasting room awaits us with “sea jamon”, a tough, thinly-sliced wind-dried tuna, and semi-cured sashimi with cubes of cheese. I learn with regret that most of the stock does not travel too far away from Spain, as Spaniards alone generate massive demand for the majestic fish. Piling back into the car smelling like thousand-year unshowered Poseidons, we set off for the coastal route north to Cadiz, paralleling the trail of the bluefin tuna that got away.

Stop 5: Trafalgar

The lighthouse of Trafalgar emerges out of left field like a giant arm extending into the Atlantic waters. We make a stop at a nearby beach to get something to drink. Cape Trafalgar is the famous site of a 1805 battle between the British Royal Navy and a French and Spanish fleet that claimed the life of fearsome British officer Horatio Nelson. Today, there are no resorts in sight, only a campground at the entrance of the access road. We sit in the kitschy garden of an Australian outback-themed tiki bar where enormous polished tree branches serve as benches. Trini orders a coffee, I a white wine, and Julian a strawberry milkshake. For breakfast we have grilled toasts with red lard that comes in little jam packets. Walking by the kitchen, I smell grease and freshly sizzled burgers. Outside, at a neighboring table, a man with long, oily blond hair and a cowboy hat is sipping a glass of wine, a big black dog at his feet. A German man in sandals sits down with him for a while, then leaves. They speak in English, but the cowboy’s English is accented. They must have met at the camp nearby. Who is this cowboy, alone with his dog at Cape Trafalgar, drinking wine at a tiki bar? The wind blows wildly. The dog sighs, and rests its jaws on its paws.


The lighthouse of Trafalgar

Stop 6: Sancti Petri

We reach our final seaside stop before the journey takes us deeper inland to the agricultural flatlands on the outskirts of Sevilla. Sancti Petri, once a small tuna fishing village, now houses a large complex of luxury resorts and leisure centers lining one of the largest and most pristine beaches on the Cadiz peninsula. We check into the Barcelo, a 5-star hotel that looks like a gargantuan red city of Pueblo architecture amid tropical gardens. Sandy and sunbaked after the past few days on the road, I sit down alone on my giant personal terrace, scrutinizing the ocean on the horizon. There are few hours to recharge before our visit to the star attraction in this mecca of tuna, the Atunante restaurant housed within the hotel. Perhaps fittingly at the opposite end of the spectrum to the chiringuito that started the trip, Atunante specializes in red tuna-themed fine dining in a sumptuously decorated room with dim lights, no more than twelve tables, and a confusing amount of cutlery. We are told that every course will contain tuna, even dessert.

A massive tuna steak at Atunante

Unable to decide between red or white wine, we get both to accompany the light tomato butter balls and crostini that start our meal. There may be tuna in the butter. We are ready for it. The plates begin to arrive, each presented playfully--tuna foie, “jamon” and cured tuna in nondescript metal cans atop a bed of salad, miniature ice cream cones filled with salmon and tuna sashimi with soy sauce and seaweed salad, coal-colored croquettes with warm, soft tuna flesh and mayonnaise...Through the glass walls, the golden sheen of sunset light beckons spectators, and Julian and I sneak out of the hotel and sprint, (me in heels), to the beach, just in time to catch the sun setting, impeccably west, onto the Atlantic. When we return, three different cuts of tuna steak, lined up from leaniest to fattiest, await us with coarse sea salt and seared taro. The real main course, however, is an enormous lateral slice of golden crusted tuna, thick, lightly sweating pearls of fat. Another round of bottles of red and white. A slice of chocolate, nuts, and tuna tart with ice cream and crumbled goat cheese. Thankfully, my room is a thirty second walk from the restaurant, so I refrain from asking to be rolled home on a luggage cart.

After crashing onto my king-sized bed, dizzy from the wine, I see ghosts of the majestic fish, silver beasts as big as myself, swimming in muscular clouds past the Strait of Gibraltar, into the cold currents of the Atlantic. I see Antonio’s face, lacerated by years of fishing, and Alberti’s verse on salty snow wheeled at dawn towards the white towns of Andalucia. Though I can still hear the waves in the distance, I am already nostalgic for the sea.

Tags: andalucia, food, road trip, seafood, spain, travel, tuna

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