Stories About Spain
Spain's Best Seafood Traditions
Written by: Jonathan Harris
The largest fishing port in Spain is the Barajas airport in Madrid, or so the saying goes! When I think of iconic Spanish foods, my first thought is of the amazing jamón and chorizo sausages, or the 400 artisan cheeses, or the incredible extra virgin olive oil. But seafood is just as important to the cuisine of Spain, and every coastal region of the country boasts a wealth of distinct and delicious food traditions.
Spain is virtually surrounded by the sea and eating fish and shellfish has been at the heart of Spanish cuisine for millennia. In fact, Spain trails only Japan in fish consumption per capita. Eating lots of seafood is a core part of the Mediterranean diet and a big reason that the Spanish are among the healthiest people on earth.
When I lived in El Puerto de Santa María in the province of Cádiz, amazing seafood was everywhere. This is the land of pescaíto frito, super fresh seafood lightly floured and fried in olive oil. One of my favorite places to eat was Restaurante Romerijo, where you could select a variety of fish and have it cooked to order. I remember devouring piles of boquerones fritos (anchovies), puntillitas (tiny squid – there must have been 50 to a plate!), acedias (tiny flounder), merluza (hake) and so much more.
Camarones, Gambas y Langostinos
And no seafood is overlooked. Once I visited a local market to buy some seafood and vegetables and I saw an old woman holding a basket filled with tiny brine shrimp called camarones. Every few minutes she would tap her basket and the shrimp would jump in the air, thus proving that they were fresh. Later I visited the famed Casa Balbino restaurant in Sanlúcar de Barrameda to sample their tortillita de camarones. As I decided what I’d like to eat, the bartender wrote my order in chalk on top of the bar. In a few minutes he delivered the hot, crispy tortillitas. These light, lacey fritters are made by mixing fresh brine shrimp with chickpea flour and diced onions, then fried in very hot olive oil. I’ll never forget how tasty they were.
Some other local shrimp and prawns are even more sought after. For Americans, shrimp are categorized by size and not much else. By contrast, the Spanish take great pride in the hyper-local varieties. Gambas blancas de Huelva are delicate white shrimp only found near the city of Huelva, with a flavor so sweet it is required that you suck the heads to taste every last drop of flavor. Langostino shrimp are fished by hand off the shores of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and have a rich, lobster-like flavor that I can taste just thinking about it. These local delicacies are revered, and people are willing to pay eye watering prices for them.
There is a theme I have witnessed over and over again – the deep pride that the Spanish have for their local region and the food traditions that are part of their identity. A perfect example is the ancient almadraba, a tuna harvest first introduced to Spain over 3,000 years ago by the Phoenicians. Every spring bluefin tuna (atún rojo) migrate from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea to spawn in the warm waters. The almadraba technique involves fishermen creating a labyrinth of nets that the fish enter and can’t escape. Finally, the tunas end up in a central net surrounded by fishing boats. The fish are lifted to the surface and fishermen jump into their midst, put a rope around their tails and hoist them out of the water.
For centuries, the annual harvest provided essential food for the local communities that lasted the rest of the year. Most of the fish was salted and dried to be eaten later. In the fishing town of Barbate, I visited a small company that continues to preserve tuna in the old ways, although they generally work with the more common yellowfin tuna. They told me that none of the fish is wasted - I was impressed that they even salted and dried the intestines and roe! The owner took us to the roof to see the most prized cut, called mojama. Hanging in the open air, caressed by sea breezes, were hundreds of mahogany colored tuna loins. They reminded me of cured hams in miniature and, in fact, the drying process is quite similar. My host carved some thin slices of mojama, drizzled them with olive oil, and served them with fresh bread and a glass of fino sherry. The tuna was salty and tasted of the sea, with a firm, lean texture. It struck me that I was sharing a meal that the locals had been eating long before the Moors or even the Romans arrived on Spain’s shores.
With the decline in the bluefin tuna population, the current harvest is limited by the government. I rarely eat bluefin because of its rarity, but I had to try the fish caught in this ancient way. My opportunity came at a chiringuito beach café in El Puerto de Santa María. Built right on the sands of the beach, the chiringuito served frosty Cruzcampo beer and amazing seafood, like grilled sardines caught fresh that morning. One day in June their special was atún almadraba, I had to order it. Cooked simply on a plancha griddle with a pinch of sea salt, it was a revelation. Each bite of dark red tuna was tender and ridiculously rich. And because of the Spanish reverence for great seafood, it was exceptionally fresh and perfectly cooked, with no spices or sauces to get in the way.
While almadraba tuna sustained a relatively small group of fishing towns near the mouth of the Mediterranean, bacalao was the most important fish across the country. Situated in the north of Spain, the Basques were famed fishermen and whalers even in Roman times. It is even possible that they set foot in North America before Columbus’s journey as they sought richer fishing grounds. Sometime after the year 1,000 they perfected a way to salt and preserve cod. Being both accomplished seafarers and savvy businessmen, they began to sell the fish to traders who introduced the inexpensive, transportable and tasty fish to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, bacalao became a staple food for nearly all of Spain.
Tasting a dish of bacalao al pil pil in the Basque city of San Sebastián helped me understand why salt cod was so important. After the cod is soaked to remove excess salt, the cooked bacalao is firm and flaky with a pleasant saltiness. Centuries ago, when meat was scarce and fresh seafood wasn’t accessible to most inland communities, this fish must have been a treasure.
Bonito del Norte
Another Basque seafood tradition is the harvest of bonito del norte tuna. Again, the Spanish reverence for quality seafood becomes clear as you see how the tuna is harvested and prepared. Translated literally as “the nice one from the north,” these special albacore tunas migrate to the cold waters north of Spain to feast on anchovies. This rich diet plumps up the tuna for their return journey into the Atlantic. During the Bonito del Norte season, boats filled with burly Basque fishermen head out from fishing ports like Ondárroa and Getaria. When the captain finds a school of tuna, chum is tossed into the water, then shiny hooks are dropped into the feeding frenzy. The fishermen then use rigid fishing poles to manually haul each fish onto deck, no easy task when you are talking about powerful tuna that can weigh close to 70 pounds! Because they don’t struggle in a net, the fish don’t burn off their fat reserves during the harvest. The result is arguably the tastiest tuna in the world.
Once on shore the fish are transported to the local canneries close to the port. There the bonito del norte tuna is poached, packed by hand in jars and cans, then covered with olive oil. Tasting this delicate white fish has changed my whole concept of canned tuna. Forget about the chalky tuna you’ve tasted before, bonito del norte is tender and rich, best enjoyed on a piece of toast or as the star of a fresh salad.
Mariscos de Galicia
Another region famed for their exceptional seafood is Galicia, in the northwest of Spain. Surrounded by the cool, rich waters of the Atlantic, Galicia has a special geography with large river estuaries, called “rías”. This is an ideal habitat for clams, mussels and scallops. One of my favorite cities of the region is Santiago de Compostela. Visit any restaurant in the old city and you will see a display of fresh seafood in the front window. One of my favorites is berberechos, tiny steamed cockle clams. Each little clam is tender and delicious, bursting with seawater as you bite into them. The region is also famed for mejillones (plump orange mussels), almejas (large tender clams), veiras (scallops) and navajas (razor clams).
While all of these shellfish are amazing when prepared fresh, they are arguably more famous in their canned form. Again, this has to do with the care and effort that the local canneries put into capturing each clam or mussel at the peak of freshness. Our friends at Conservas de Cambados visit the port early every morning to bid on the best clams and mussels at the commercial market. Within hours the shellfish is steamed and placed by hand in each tin, preserving the flavor and texture at its best. This tinned seafood is celebrated across Spain – there are even bars as far away as Barcelona that feature cans of seafood for as much as 50 euros each!
Octopus is another famed seafood of Galicia. I was surprised and delighted to learn that there are many restaurants that specialize in this one seafood, called “pulperias.” Often there is a large cauldron in the front of the restaurant where the proprietor cooks fresh octopus, then chops the tentacles into pieces seasoned with sea salt and smoked paprika (pimentón de La Vera) and serves them on simple wooden plates. During one trip, my wife and I devoured a plate of pulpo at a communal table at a pulperia in Galicia. When we asked what wines they had available, the owner pointed at two barrels on the wall and said “blanco y tinto.” It was one of our favorite meals - simple, rustic and all about the fresh seafood.
Finally, I want to tell you about one of the rarest and most unusual seafoods in Spain. On the coast of Galicia, where waves smash relentlessly on the rocky shore, a wild looking creature clings to the water’s edge. About the size of a finger, these percebes (goose barnacles) have a rubbery reddish stalk capped with a hard shell that looks like the toenail of a dinosaur. When the weather is right, brave (crazy?) fishermen clamber down the rocks and chip the percebes off with a sharp knife, in peril of being crushed by a rogue wave at any moment. In fact, several “percebeiros” lose their lives every year.
As you can imagine, this precious seafood fetches a very high price. At the market I’ve seen them cost over $80 per kilo. So, what is all the fuss about? Once boiled, you remove the leathery stalk to expose a bright orange tender center. It has a rich flavor, similar to Maine lobster or Dungeness crab.
Because it is such a special local delicacy, and because of their reverence for great seafood, Spaniards are willing to risk their lives and pay top dollar for a homely crustacean rarely eaten anywhere else. To me this is the perfect example of what makes seafood so central to Spanish cuisine. In Spain, the people demand the highest quality food and are willing to pay for it.
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