Far too long no blog… but there’s always an excuse. However Andaluz, my new food & travel book, is now finished & in the capable (I hope) hands of my publisher. There’s a long wait before it actually appears, so in the meantime here’s a snippet about my last stop on the trail, the southwest corner of Spain.
I’ve travelled through this area in the past but it really won my heart this time. There’s something special about the sharp contrast between the verdant interior of cork-oak forests and rolling pastures, much loved by the fighting bull population, and the endless, seductively white sand that lines the coast virtually non-stop from Cadiz to Tarifa.
Aptly named the Costa de la Luz, the coast of light, it is also blissfully unblighted by high-rise hotels. And Africa or rather Morocco is just a shot away, visible above and below on the horizon, so injecting a note of exoticism. This spells drug-smuggling and people-smuggling, the latter a particularly desperate, sad and very regular occurrence. That horizon also reflects the ghosts of Spain’s past; in the 8th century, it was the launch-pad for an Arab and Berber army which landed at Tarifa, the southernmost tip of this costa, and instigated nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule.
With all this beauty, fresh air and history, there are inevitably touristic enclaves, notably Vejer de la Frontera, a classic pueblo blanco now completely overrun by foreigners. When I stayed there a few years ago we would sip nightcaps on the roof-terrace while watching the twinkling lights of Tangier across the strait. Magical, but that allure has seduced hundreds more like me. A friend of mine who has a house there told me about getting ‘cabin fever’ in this old Moorish labyrinth that now echoes with voices from all over Europe.
There is one other big negative round these parts, the easterly wind or levante. “Feo levante” (‘horrible wind’) one local muttered. Some people go mad or become suicidal, so it is definitely something to bear in mind before you pack your bags. The wind- and kite-surfers of course love it, and their ad hoc capital just north of Tarifa, the lovely beachfront Hurricane Hotel, overlooks hundreds of multi-coloured sails bobbing on the waves like aquatic liquorice allsorts. Not surprisingly, wind-power is big round here too, crowning the hilltops with gigantic white turbines slowly whirling.
And then there is tuna fish. This visit coincided with the famed almadraba season, when bluefin tuna is fished like crazy on its migratory path from the oceanic pulses of the cool Atlantic to the placid, tepid Mediterranean. This happens roughly from late April to early June (sorry gourmets, too late for this year), peaking in May when every single restaurant down the coast features countless alternative preparations of the tender, succulent fish. There are about a dozen different cuts, the belly being regarded as the nec plus ultra and eaten either as raw tartar or quickly seared Japanese style as in tataki.
The bluefin (atun rojo or ‘red tuna’ in Spanish) are fished using a Phoenician technique going back a mind-boggling 3,000 years. This entails a dozen or so fishing-boats forming a circle on the waves to trap the fish in a maze of vertical nets. After a couple of hours comes the levanta when the nets are raised and the catch transferred to the boats to be bloodily killed. It’s said to be sustainable, as only large mature fish are kept while smaller ones are returned to the depths, though I have also heard the small ones are introduced into aquatic farms to be fattened up for future delectation.
At the tuna capital of Barbate I witnessed the Japanese ‘shuttle’, a swift, high-tech ship (above) that ferries cargoes of fresh tuna from the fishing ports of this coast to a mother ship moored in the Canaries. Once full, the mother ship heads for Japan to unload its tonnes of coveted cargo (by now frozen) at the voracious fish markets. Here it fetches mind-blowing prices as the Atlantic bluefin is the most desirable of all for sashimi aficionados. It also spells immense status for the restaurateurs who pay hummungus prices at the auction. Well over 90% of Spain’s catch now heads for Japan.
Luckily that left a tiny bit for me which I happily devoured in Zahara de los Atunes, a smaller fishing port with a few more tourists than Barbate but also old-timers (above) and an equal number of seafood restaurants. The broad sandy beach is blessed with a boardwalk for easy strolls to inhale salty Atlantic breezes.
Below is the tataki I consumed with gusto…and below that the bluefin tartar with salmon eggs, a delectable treat.
In fact it’s hard to choose between Conil, Barbate and Zahara for a gastro-tuna feast as there is immense competition and therefore high quality. For tip-top I can recommend Casa Antonio in Zahara, El Campero in Barbate (now also in Zahara) or Casa Francisco in Conil. If you’re in Cadiz itself, the beguiling capital of this province, head for that wonderful old favourite, El Faro, or try La Curiosidad de Mauro (see my post about the latter’s chef here).
And a bluefin gourmet product that you’ll find all over Spain is mojama, strongly flavoured, air-dried tuna sliced wafer thin and eaten as a tapa, again a technique going back to the Phoenicians (the curing, not the tapa…).
Other preparations on the Costa de la Luz go from thinly sliced loin carpaccio to compressed tuna eggs with olive oil, stewed tuna with almonds, grilled belly or a slice from the locally prized neck. And don’t worry if you miss the season, because all year round you find atun rojo thanks to Barbate’s huge warehouses of frozen fish. Though of course fresh is best.
Then, once you’ve pigged out on this prize from the deep, it’s time to head inland to sample the local retinto beef that grazes on pastures speckled with wildflowers right beside fields of hefty toros bravos, fighting bulls. But that’s another delicious story.
ACCESS: From abroad, fly either to Gibraltar, Jerez or Seville, then rent a car to explore the area in depth. There are plenty of small affordable guesthouses as well as villas to rent.