Ferran Adriá of El Bulli fame and a party of top Catalan chefs watch the raising of the almadraba, a circular eco-Phoenician trap net Foto: Julio González
Read about one of the Big 4 Tuna Festivals of Cadiz or skip to the bottom to check out tips and 2017 dates
IT WAS ORANGE AND ROUND WITH A TINY LEAF, just like the oranges which hang from the trees all along the twisting whitewashed streets of Zahara de los Atunes during the merry month of May. Perfect down to the patina of its skin.
Paripé de Mandarina (Mandarin Deception), was created for Zahara’s annual Tuna Festival, a contest that sees talented chefs from three dozen local restaurants competing to create the tastiest designer tapas …
… tuna burgers and lollipops, bars of tuna wrapped in gold leaf, tuna with ice cream, tuna shaped like a yacht floating on a green sea
… or fashioned into miniature pizzas with their own printed boxes. There was even liquid tuna, wittily named Gin Tunic. Huge thought goes into the presentation to give a humorous twist, or to disguise.
At the astoundingly reasonable price of €3.50 for each tapa including a beer, wine, soft drink or chilled manzanilla, a sherry made for tuna that gets its flavour from the salt sea breezes it’s a no-brainer for fish aficionados.
And you get to vote for the best dish! If you go, you’ll soon have the irresistible urge to join in the Babel of tongues debating which one should win at this great international social mixer.
My bet was on the tuna toffees being served further down the beachfront at Atlanterra (Zahara’s posh sister resort). The short scenic drive (or beach walk if you’re up for it) runs past fields growing with wild flowers down to the waterfront grazed by horses and the cutest foals.
The tuna toffee didn’t disappoint either although it was another deception – two little sweet-shaped cubes wrapped in shiny paper, presented in a pretty tin that turned out to be ginger-flavoured tuna tataki.
I didn’t win a prize but I was right about the toffee tuna, which won the award for Most Original Tapa. I remember it every time I reach for a paper clip – the souvenir tin came in handy!
Fish lovers travel from far and wide to the Costa de la Luz to taste the first succulent almadraba tuna – caught by an ancient method dating back to Phoenician times as these Leviathans leave the cold Atlantic for their warmer Mediterranean spawning grounds.
During festival week there are as many fish fanciers on land as there are tuna in the sea. To crunch numbers, the population of this pretty maritime pueblo of 1,300 residents fills up with another 15,000 hungry souls who devour 65,000 tapas made from 200 tuna weighing around 200 kilos apiece.
But it’s so well organised – the Spanish are aficionados of la fiesta. You get a map of where each restaurant is, and a photograph and description of its speciality tapa .
And tuna isn’t the only temptation. There are some enticing prizes for eating it too. Get your form stamped everywhere you eat for a chance to win one (a TV, a Samsung tablet and a Nintendo Wii, the year we went or, if you sampled all 36 over the festival, a weekend for two at the Melia Atlanterra).
Being a fiesta, as well as drinking and eating there are street parades, music and dancing too.
“For most towns May is the month for communions and weddings but we don’t cater for those events in a big way as we’re only a small fishing village,” says local restaurateur Gaspar Castro, President of local traders association ACOZA.“At the same time, it’s one of the best months to eat atún rojo salvaje de almadraba, caught in our unique way. We’ve been making a party of it since 2009 and it’s really paying off.”
If high drama is you’re bag, the demonstration of tuna filleting is pure theatre, complete with buckets of blood!
Not for the squeamish perhaps, it’s called a ronqueo after the ‘snoring’ noise the knife makes when separating flesh from bone. You can see one in action here.
It takes experts with cleavers and sharp knives under 10 minutes to reduce one silvery 200-kilo tuna to 17 choice cuts the colour and texture of prime beef (which is why blue fin tuna is confusingly called atún rojo – red tuna – in Spain) “Hardly any goes to waste which is why we call the tuna the pig of the sea,” Gaspar told me.
Huevos de leche are also relished, though aren’t for the faint-hearted (being tuna sperm)…
A 200-kilo almadraba tuna will fetch €3,800 on the open market in Spain and the ventresca (stomach, best for tuna steaks) sells for €40 per kilo but some cuts are particular delicacies: the morillo (a kind of muscle in the head) costs circa €55 per kilo and the female eggs, €80 per kilo.
The most fascinating aspect of the local tuna industry is the almadraba – four large structures you can glimpse one kilometre out to sea.
Each is a complex labyrinth of nets several kilometres long and more than 30 meters deep, designed to guide the tuna into a central trap (el copo) from which there’s no escape. More eco than other methods, immature tuna can wriggle out through the mesh and live to spawn another day.
The levantá (raising up of the net) is part of the spectacle. Several will be held between April and June, dependent on wind, tides and sea conditions and decided by the almadraba’s ‘captain’. Then, the fishermen encircle this seething cauldron of captive tuna in their boats and hoist the nets out of the water (see picture at top). It can take them six hours to raise thousands of kilos of frenzied fish in around six hours. ‘Almadraba’ is Arabic for ‘place of fighting’ and the name’s well-justified.
Watch a levantá on video here and book an exciting trip to go out on one from the only company licensed to take trips.
Quotas are strictly controlled to preserve declining stocks of this endangered fish and today, Japanese ships queue up in the bay to buy tuna directly from the almadrabas as this more fishing method produces the most tender tuna meat. Atún rojo is a highly prized ingredient of sushi and sashimi and sells in Japan for four or five times its price in Spain.
The record for a 221 kilo blue fin sold at auction in Tokyo is 155.4 million japanese yen – a cool €1.1 million!
Don’t miss the drive along the coast east to Atlanterra for foals, fab coast views and bracing beach walks. This is one of the festival tapas zones, and parking is more plentiful.
Stay over. The picture postcard pueblo of Vejer is the perfect base for exploring both beach and countryside. Click the link for my report of great places to stay and eat or check out Vejer hotels here.
Celebrated in the Big Four almadraba towns of Cádiz province
Check out Zahara’s autumn Retinto Beef Festival too – a pub crawl with (cow) bells on!
And don’t forget to sign up for you free copy of our guide to travelling the most unusual British railway in Spain – Mr Henderson’s Railway.