In Spain’s Andalusia region, discovering tuna and sherry and a kinship with the Phoenicians
Ignoring the warnings of the ancient Phoenicians, I sailed past the legendary Pillars of Hercules, the mountains that flank the Strait of Gibraltar, and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. Instead, well-anchored on the ferry that links Spain to Morocco in less than an hour, and savoring the impossibly fluffy croissant I’d bought from the floating cafeteria, I pondered the rich history that lay in the choppy waters between Europe and Africa…
Attuned to tuna
The next day, back in Tarifa, Spain, Ignacio Soto was waiting for me. A silver-haired sailor with a nonchalant elegance, Soto happens to count Christopher Columbus among his ancestors. He runs Nature Tarifa, a company that offers all manner of nautical excursions, but is most passionate about the rich biodiversity of the area. “More than 25 million birds migrate every year from one continent to the other,” he said, and then with a captain’s authority announced proudly, “We are now the only group allowed to take travelers to watch the almadraba.” He was referring to the historic tuna net-fishing technique that capitalizes on the spring migration of the fish into the Mediterranean. These fishing rights were granted to noble families centuries ago, have been passed along through generations and are still tightly held.
“Phoenicians, the kings of trade, settled in this area first, because of the access to Africa, the tunas and the salt marshes,” he explained as we drove nine miles to the stunning Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia and its well-preserved fish-salting factory, set just a few feet from the water. In the adjoining museum, Soto pointed to the tunas engraved on ancient coins and amphorae. All this talk of tuna made me hungry, so he took me to La Taberna de El Campero in the nearby town of Zahara de los Atunes. There, among more than 20 tuna preparations, none from a can, we feasted on mojama, an intense dried salted bluefin, and atún de ijar, the rich belly cured in oil.
I climbed back into Soto’s Jeep for the short half-hour ride to the hill town of Vejer de la Frontera, one of the latest additions to an unofficial list of the “most beautiful villages of Spain.” …
Bigar is a New York-based food and travel writer.