Can It, Jar It, Salt It! Spain's Top Five Preserved Seafoods

Jonathan Harris | June 2018

There is a saying that Madrid is Spain's biggest fishing port. Visit any food market in landlocked Madrid and you will understand why. Beautiful whole fish with crystal clear eyes stare up from their beds of ice, just hours after they were caught. Crabs and lobsters wiggle their antennae as razor clams push themselves along and try to escape their containers. When it comes to seafood, Spaniards expect quality and freshness. And they are willing to pay for it.

Spain consumes more seafood per person than any other country save Japan. When you look at a map it is not hard to see why – the Iberian Peninsula is nearly surrounded by ocean. For millennia the Spanish people have depended on the sea and this long tradition influences how people eat to this day.

Modern Spain depends on air shipments, refrigeration and plentiful mounds of ice to offer fresh seafood to cities and towns across the country. But long before refrigeration, the people of Spain used other methods to preserve and enjoy seafood far from fishing ports, long after the baskets of fish arrived at the market. Here are five examples of preserved seafood that are still treasured in Spain.

1. Mojama – Jamón of the Sea

Probably the most ancient fishing tradition in Spain is the Almadraba Bluefin tuna harvest in Andalucía. Every spring these giant fish head to the Mediterranean to spawn, passing by Gibraltar where the open Atlantic Ocean streams into the Mediterranean Sea. Since the time of the Phoenicians over 3,000 years ago, brave fishermen have used a series of nets to funnel the tuna into small holding areas where the men would wrestle them into their boats. The fishermen allow the smaller tuna to escape their nets for another day, and only the largest, fattest tuna are harvested (an ancient example of sustainable fishing). The beautiful whitewashed fishing villages of Zahara de los Atunes and Barbate continue the tradition to this day.

But what did they do with up to 800 pounds of valuable fish before cold storage? The answer lies in the salt flats of the Bahia de Cádiz, where the Phoenicians harvested sea salt since biblical times. The freshly caught tuna was coated in this salt and then hung to cure in the hot, dry winds of the area. We visited a tuna curing house in Barbate where they still hang salted tuna loins in the sun, right on the roof of the stone and stucco warehouse. The resulting cured tuna is called mojama. And not only the prime cuts of tuna were preserved - even the intestines were salted and dried, later to be chopped and added to soups for flavor and nutrients.

Nowadays mojama is most commonly made from yellowfin tuna loins (bluefin is much too rare and valuable, and many people choose not to eat this endangered fish). Fresh tuna is salted and hung to cure in modern temperature-controlled facilities with strict hygienic controls. This is a less romantic process than hanging the loins in the sun, but the quality and flavor is much better! This cured tuna is typically sliced very thinly and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. It has a clean, intense tuna flavor that pairs perfectly with Marcona almonds and a glass of dry sherry. Mojama can also be grated and added to salads, soups and other recipes to add a nice umami flavor.

2. Bacalao – Spain’s Favorite Fish

Bacalao, or salted cod, is so much a part of Spanish culinary heritage that you almost never see fresh cod in Spain – the flavor of the salted cod is much preferred. At least 500 years ago, Basque fishermen learned how to preserve cod using sea salt. This was very important because they had discovered vast fisheries of cod far away in the Atlantic and needed a way to preserve the fish for the return journey. It is thought that they fished off of the coast of North America well before Columbus made his famous journey.

Fully salted bacalao became an invaluable source of protein in the Spanish diet by the 1500s. Because it could be transported vast distances without spoiling, bacalao reached every part of Spain and became a part of virtually every regional cuisine.

Today in Spain, bacalao is no longer the bone-dry salt cod of the past. Premium cuts of bacalao are served at Spain’s finest restaurants and you can even get bacalao that is salted, then pre-soaked and frozen so that it is ready for your favorite recipe of Bacalao al Pil Pil or Bacalao Ajoarriero. 

3. Bonito del Norte Tuna – The Basque Beauty

In Spain, Bonito del Norte is considered the finest quality tuna because of its very white meat and rich flavor – maybe that is how it earned the name bonito, meaning “beautiful.” From the Albacore family, these small tunas migrate from the Atlantic into the Bay of Biscay every summer to feast on anchovies and other small fish. When they are well fattened, fishermen from the Basque Country head out in their boats and catch them using individual fishing rods, pulling them one-by-one from the ocean. Since no nets are used there is no by-catch and the fish do not struggle as much. The resulting tuna is mild and delicate with a delicious flavor.

An artisan canning tradition developed in the Basque region to preserve this valuable catch. In small facilities not far from where the fishing boats unload their catch, the tuna is cleaned and then poached in seawater. Pieces of tuna are cut by hand and placed in jars and cans which are then filled with olive oil. My favorite part of the Bonito del Norte is the "ventresca," impossibly buttery fillets of tuna cut from the belly of the fish.

Spanish seafood fanatics know a secret – the longer you keep a can of seafood, the more the flavors mature and the more the olive oil penetrates the meat. I was really surprised to learn that “old” canned seafood is considered the best! It goes to show how serious Spanish customers are about the quality of their seafood that canned tuna garners so much appreciation.

4. Anchovies – Little Fish, Big Flavor

Anchovies in the United States have a bad reputation, which is a shame because a well-preserved anchovy is a thing of beauty. When I was young I had a bad experience with a slice of pizza covered in anchovies, so it took quite a bit to convert me to the anchovy fan that I am today!

What makes Spanish anchovies so amazing is the Spanish reverence for this delicate little fish. In the Basque Country and Cataluña fresh anchovies are filleted by hand and packed in sea salt for six months to cure. The fillets are then cleaned again and packed by hand in olive oil. An aside - I remember visiting a facility near the Bay of Biscay where several Spanish women were standing around a table, cleaning each fish by hand. The owner told me that in the interest of efficiency he does not allow the ladies to chat while they are working together, which I thought of as cruel and unusual punishment!

Once packed, the anchovies are carefully stored in refrigeration until the moment they are served. The resulting fillets are silky smooth and rich with umami flavor. They are best served simply as a tapa with fresh bread, so the taste of the anchovies can be savored and appreciated. Tossing them on a cheap pizza would be sacrilege! (Never use anchovies from the grocery store shelf - the lukewarm temperatures break down the flavor and texture of the fish.)

Another way to preserve anchovies is to pack them in wine vinegar and olive oil. This effectively pickles them, turning the fillets white. These are called ‘boquerones’ in Spain and have a refreshing, tangy flavor. I call this the ‘gateway anchovy’ because of their mild, delicate taste.

5. Galician Shellfish – Luxury from a Shell

The Rías Baixas of Galicia are a paradise for seafood. These fjord-like estuaries are where the cool Atlantic waters mix with fresh river water, creating an ideal habitat for a variety of clams and mussels. The shellfish from this region are so prized across Spain that the hand-packed canned almejas (large clams) and berberechos (cockles) sell at caviar level prices.

I remember visiting the small port town of O Grove and witnessing the local aquaculture first hand. As the tide retreated from the Ría de Arousa it exposed rectangular plots staked out in the sand near the beach. Believe it or not, our host explained that each area belongs to an individual or family. The plots are seeded with baby clams each season, and then carefully tended to remove seaweed and predators like crabs and starfish. After 12 to 24 months the clams are large enough to be harvested by hand with special rakes.

The fishermen deliver the clams to the market where the largest, plumpest ones are selected for canning. The same day the clams are steamed and removed from the shell by hand, then artfully placed in a tin and packed in natural brine.

It is surprising to most Americans that canned clams are so prized (and costly). But in Spain the exquisite quality of this delicacy is fully appreciated. Some bars and restaurants offer Galician canned seafood as their featured fare, serving opened tins for north of 50 euros each. One such establishment is Espinaler, located in Barcelona, 600 miles from the ports of Galicia. They feature excellent canned seafood from Galicia served alongside their famous vermouth. The fact that such a distant eatery showcases this special canned seafood speaks to its popularity across Spain.

I have always been impressed by the reverence paid to seafood in Spain. The people of each seaside city along the vast coastline of Spain take pride in their local seafood and they demand freshness and quality. Almejas from O Grove, gambas blancas from Huelva, anchoas from L’Escala, almadraba from Barbate, bonito del norte from Getaria – the best examples of Spanish seafood are each tied to a specific place and culture. So, it is not surprising that the traditional methods of preserving seafood are practiced with this same pride and focus on quality. 

¡Buen Provecho!
Jonathan Harris