The “Pata Negra” of the sea

Earlier this year I travelled to the coast of Andalucía on a pilgrimage to find the best tuna in the world at the festival of Almadraba bluefin tuna. After the first full moon in May, the fishermen set up a complicated labyrinth of nets, which catch the tuna as they migrate from the Atlantic to warmer Mediterranean waters to spawn. Apparently, their fat reserves keep them warm through the winter meaning the fish are succulent and full-flavoured. The fish swim through different compartments of the nets until they reach the final area, locked in by the fisherman’s boats, which form a ring around the net. Next comes the most dramatic and breathtaking part of the process, ‘la levanta’, in which the burly fishermen hoist up the net and select the biggest fish, with some weighing more than 500 kilos. The Almadraba fishing system – meaning ‘to strike’ in Arabic – has been praised for its sustainability as there is no overfishing with a strict quota that the fishermen cannot exceed. This ancient method of fishing was first used by the Phoenicians on the coast of Cadiz and was later perfected by the Romans and was historically practiced all along the coast of Cádiz province. However, now it is only used in 4 villages: Barbate, Zahara de los Atunes, Conil de la Frontera, and Tarifa. Each of these villages also has a festival every May or June to celebrate this annual important event.
Fresh tuna is one of the most versatile and easy to prepare fish and as I walked through the market the other day and saw some fantastic looking tuna…I couldn't resist buying some. It’s a meaty fish with a distinctly rich, strong flavour and is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. When buying fresh tuna, it is important to judge the freshness before purchasing as tuna is often served raw and it goes off quickly. The best way to check the freshness is by the smell and touch – it should be odourless, firm and moist. Tuna is graded depending on the fat content, quality and size of the fish. The colouring of tuna ranges from deep red steaks with a lower fat content, mostly used for grilling, to the very pale pink belly, known here as Ventresca, which is the fattiest cut highly prized by sushi chefs for its texture and flavour. It’s so good that I often call it the “pata Negra” of the sea.

From a chef's point-of-view, it's an incredibly adaptable fish that lends itself to an array of different cooking styles and flavours. When exceptionally fresh it is perfect served raw sashimi style or finely chopped with some capers, parsley and lemon juice for a tuna tartar. If you can't handle raw fish you can poach it gently in olive oil and serve it with stewed peppers, salad leaves and a garlicky ali-oli. It is the perfect fish for grilling or barbecues. If you brush it beforehand with olive oil and coat it lightly with finely crushed peppercorns and fresh herbs, then serve it with new potatoes and rocket leaves it's unbeatable. Beware of over-cooking fresh tuna, as it tends to dry out, so be brave and serve it still pink in the middle.

Due to its popularity, tuna is being dangerously overfished in some parts of the world – depending on the type of tuna and where it is fished; it may even be on the endangered species list. Always check the latest sustainability information before buying tuna or choose sources that have been given the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) seal of approval. Both the blue fin and yellow fin tuna are found in the Mediterranean. They are migratory, are always on the move and have enormous appetites. Their speed, size and stamina makes them formidable hunters and they feed on schools of small fish like sardines, herrings and shrimps. This in turn gives them their big flavour. Some blue fin tunas can grow to a weight of 2000 pounds or more. Here are a couple of really simple tuna recipes, but if you don't want to spend any time in the kitchen; light the barbecue and chuck on some well seasoned tuna steaks. Just remember not to overcook them!

Grilled Tuna with Orange, Olive and Caper Sauce

Ingredients   Serves 4

4 x 180-225g Tuna steaks

For the Sauce:
2 large oranges, Juiced
2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
4 fl ozs/110ml orange juice
1 medium onion, chopped
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
20 black olives, stoned
20 capers
A handful of parsley, finely chopped

Put the onion, lemon juice, olives, capers and parsley into the food processor and pulse until they are finely minced but not smooth.
Remove from the food processor. Place the mixture in a saucepan with the orange juice and chopped tomatoes. Bring to the boil and reduce to thicken, stirring occasionally. Season to taste.

Place a frying pan over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season the tuna generously with salt and pepper. Lay the tuna in the hot oil and sear for 1 minute on each side to form a slight crust. Serve with the orange, olive and caper sauce, new potatoes and salad leaves.

Marinated tuna with warm pesto-potato salad

Ingredients:             serves 4

750g piece of middle cut tuna
150g sugar
150g coarse sea salt
200g olive oil
2tbsp chopped garlic cloves
4 bunches of rocket leaves
Juice of half a lemon

Warm pesto-potato salad
24 new potatoes (boiled and skinned)
100ml pesto

100g fresh basil leaves
30g fresh parsley
25g pine nuts (lightly toasted)
2 garlic cloves (peeled)
350ml olive oil

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend to a thick puree.

For the tuna
Combine the salt and sugar and mix well.
To prepare the tuna, lay a sheet of cling film on a chopping board and cover with a layer of salt and sugar. Place the whole tuna fillet on top and cover with more salt and sugar. Wrap tightly in several layers of cling film and store in the fridge for at least 6 hours, maximum 8. Remove from the cling film and wash the tuna fillet in cold water to remove all the salt. Cut into four even sized portions. Place in a plastic container and cover with a little olive oil, copped parsley, garlic and lemon juice. Marinate for at least 2 hours.

To serve:
Mix a couple of spoonfuls of pesto with the new potatoes and place a mound of pesto potatoes in the middle of each plate, then place some rocket leaves on top.
Slice the tuna into 3 and place over the rocket leaves. Drizzle with a spoonful of the olive oil marinade and serve immediately.

Tuna "Cerviche"

Ingredients:              serves 4

400g fresh tuna loin
4 tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1 small green pepper
Juice of 3 limes
2tbsp  chopped coriander
200ml olive oil
Salt & black pepper

Finely slice or dice the tuna fillet and place in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix well and leave to marinate for 4-5 minutes. Serve with a big green salad.