Discovering new spices and local foods gets me excited about a foreign country. It’s one of the ways I learn and get to know a culture and its people. I usually eat whatever the locals eat wherever I am but as I tend to stay in one place for 3-6 months sometimes I take “risks.” I’ve had pizza in Seoul (served with tabasco sauce and sweet pickles), masala dosa in Paris (I needed something spicy), sushi in Buenos Aires (supposedly the “best sushi place in Argentina”), and tacos in Melbourne ($15 USD for 2 tacos). With the exception of a pretty good dosa in France and fancy tacos in Oz, all the others were…. well, less than stellar. What was I thinking eating raw fish in Argentina?! I knew better than that. So when señor Jorge suggested we take a road trip up the coast for a few days, what I actually heard was “let’s go eat good local Spanish food!” You see, señor Jorge is a locavore like me who likes to eat and drink what the locals do.
As I packed a small overnight bag the night before the trip, I felt as if I was Anthony Bourdain in one of his travel shows. Here I was in the south of Spain with my long-time resident of Andalucía “fixers” who were going to take me to their favorite spots, restaurants, and bars. And I should note that they also acted as “producers” of these next few blog posts, having arranged for all of our accommodations and even driving me to and from locations. If anything, I failed them by only having my smartphone to record our trip…
Nonetheless, here we are on the road from Marbella to Tarifa looking ahead towards the Strait of Gibraltar.
We stopped at a beach (I think it’s called Playa de los Lances) on the outskirts of Tarifa for a stroll. Almost immediately, George spotted a couple of fishing boats not too far out at sea. And with a delighted excitement in their voices Sally and George exclaimed, “Almadraba!” Almadraba, they explained to me, is the word used to describe the ancient technique of setting up a maze with nets to catch Atlantic bluefin tuna during its migration season. I found out later from a quick wiki search that this old Mediterranean fishing method was introduced by the Moors. It’s only in the months of May and June that the tuna pass by this part of the world and the people of Barbate near Cádiz have been catching tuna here for 3000 years. They use nets and lines to create a central pool where once the fish enter it, they cannot escape. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time to see the boats out in person! George even had an old newspaper article he had saved for me to read and learn more about this operation, and said we were heading to Barbate to have a tuna feast for lunch. Yay!
Having driven all the way down to the southern tip of Spain, we got back in the car and headed up the west coast. The distance we needed to cover wasn’t much so we moved at a leisurely pace. George had us stop at this beautiful hotel by the sea for our morning coffee break. The beach resort was buzzing with Brits and locals on holiday, some riding horses on the beach.
I was told that there are fancier seafood specialty restaurants in Barbate (the most famous one being El Campero) but “The Tuna” was exactly the kind of places I love. Casual, full of locals (we didn’t see any other foreigners), and delicious.
Instead of sitting inside, we opted to dine out in the courtyard under a large canopy. We took a cursory scan of the regular written menu but our attention was on the daily specials featuring the seasonal almadraba tuna. I think we ordered everything on the board, except for the mini burguer (ha!) with a bottle of chilled white wine and some Cruzcampos. Why does a caña de cerveza always taste so good in Spain!?
Because the canopy over us was this deep shade of blue, all of my photos from our delicious tuna lunch look purple. I suppose if I were more serious about taking good pictures, I would have taken the plates away for better lighting but that thought never crossed my mind. I had freshly caught tuna in front of me.
An assortment of various tuna parts.
We had more drinks and more tuna, and by the time we finished our meal almost the entire restaurant was nearly packed. When I saw our bill at the end, I had to laugh a little- for everything we had, it came to just about $20 USD per person.
We were full and happy, ready to hit the road again but señor Jorge had one more tuna stop on the agenda. Just down the street from the restaurant, there was a store run by the company Herpac where you can stock up on all things tuna. I read later in the newspaper article that one can also take a tour of the factory if you so choose.
At the store I bought the most expensive can of tuna of my life (it wasn’t the most expensive one on offer by the way). I also got a small chunk of mojama, which is cured and dried tuna using local sea salt. Deep red in color, it’s not as dry and hard as the Japanese katsuobushi, and is eaten like a piece of ham. George told me to shave it thin, drizzle with some good olive oil and eat it with bread. I ended up carrying around the can of tuna and the vacuumed sealed mojama throughout my summer journey through Amsterdam, all over Northern Ireland, and up to Stockholm. I can honestly say that I have never had a better can of tuna than the one I got from Barbate. It just simply melted in my mouth like butter. Even the olive oil the tuna was submerged in was amazing!
I saved the mojama until I was in Copenhagen. One evening I sliced it as thinly as I could to have with some dark bread and a glass of red wine. It had an intensely concentrated tuna flavor but in every other sense, it ate like jamon. When I shared some with P and K a couple of weeks later, that’s exactly what they said to me. It’s tuna ham!
Tsukiji may be the first place that comes to mind when it comes to great fish, but Barbate and its atún rojo thoroughly charmed me. I hope one day I get to return to Barbate and see the locals continue the tradition of alamdraba.
Hotel Dos Mares: Ctra. N 340 Km 79.5, 11380 Tarifa, Spain.
El Atún: Calle Ancha 39, 11160 Barbate, Spain
Herpac: Poligono Industrial El Olivar, 11160 Barbate, Spain