Thirty-three dishes…and all of them tuna! Genesis star Chris Stewart bites off more than he can chew in Andalucia
Living as we do in a remote corner of Andalucia, up in the mountains south of Granada, we tend to rely for food on what we can grow on our farm and in our vegetable garden. We do well – but there’s one thing I miss, especially as spring arrives, and that is fresh tuna.
Try as I might, I simply can’t get it to grow here! And in early May with the sun blazing from a bright blue sky, I find my thoughts ineluctably drawn to the small, rather pretty fishing town of Conil on the Costa de la Luz, a few miles east of Cadiz.
I imagine myself sitting at a table, the white tablecloth flapping gently in the sea breeze, and tucking in once again to a dish of the most succulent tuna I’ve ever tasted.
Mediterranean magic: Chris dreams of returning to pretty Conil de la Frontera, in southern Spain
Now there are many and wiser folk than me who say we should no longer eat tuna – not yellowfin, bluefin, or the little skipjack – and that if we continue the industrial-scale dredging of every last ditch in the oceans in the hunt for the few survivors of the once-plentiful tuna stocks, our grandchildren will never know the pleasure of this fish.
But there are sustainable alternatives, one of them the almadraba, the traditional tuna harvest which takes place around Conil in May. This is the time to eat the best tuna you ever dreamed of, caught according to a strict quota system in a maze of nets cast from the long, white sandy beaches.
Last year, I was wheedled into being a judge at the Concurso Gastronomico de Atun de Almadraba de Conil, the annual culinary contest that marks the start of the tuna harvest.
Taste of the good life: Chris Stewart judged a tuna-cooking contest in the village of Conil
I had never been a gastronomic judge before – and I’m not entirely sure I could do it again – but as a once-in-a-lifetime feast of fish, it takes some beating.
It began with what seemed an incredible statement – and a sense of dread. As we judges filed into our tasting room, one of the organisers revealed that we were going to have to taste no fewer than 33 dishes of tuna.
A fork here and there would be all that we should do, of course, but 33 forks is a lot of fish. However, there was no turning back.
A little before noon, I was penned, along with an august selection of chefs, presidents of gastronomic societies and real food journalists, into an enclosure glimmering with polished cutlery and fine white napery.
Beside us was the kitchen and we could see through the window the fiery furnaces, cauldrons of steam and the fish slippery on the slabs.
A mass of hopeful chefs scurried to and fro, attended by black-clad waiters. It looked like a lobster quadrille.
And then all of a sudden the first dish was on the table. It was, according to our cards, parpatana de atun rojo al 10rf con cous cous de frutos secos y torrija salada (red tuna with cous cous, fruit and nuts – in case you’re wondering, 10rf is a particular vintage of sherry).
We all looked at it for a bit in a knowing gastronomical way, assessing its appearance and presentation – the first item on the score card. There were five categories – appearance, taste, authenticity, ingredients, and technical skill – with a maximum of five points for each.
After we had peered at it from every angle, we lunged as one with our forks. We were peckish and the presence of this dish on the table was driving us to distraction.
Within seconds we had demolished it and were all deep in earnest mastication, our pens hovering pensively above our scorecards.
The appearance had been flawless – five. The taste was beyond description – five. As for authenticity, well, what could be more authentic than parpatana de atun rojo al 10rf con cous cous de frutos secos y torrija salada? – so, another five.
Southern charm: Conil is situated close to the Andalucian city of Cadiz, right on the beach
The ingredients were fresh as fresh could be – you’d be a fool, I reckoned, to enter a rotten fish in a cookery competition – so yet another five.
Of course, the technical skill employed in the creation of this masterpiece was beyond question: the crunchy bits were crunchy, the juicy bits oozing juice, the hard bits hard as they ought to be, and the soft bits soft.. no two ways about it – another five.
That made straight fives for the first dish, a hands-down winner, before we had even got off the launch pad.
I beamed around at the others, who were still diligently masticating, their brows furrowed with critical assessment.
‘What if each and every dish is as good as that?’ I wondered. ‘Then where would we be?’ But no, surely this was just chance, that the winner should be the first dish. It’s like buying a flat – you should always plump for the first one you see.
Then the kitchen door banged open and in came dish number two, Tarantelo de atun braseado sobre lecho de cocochas napado con salsa suave de atun (seared tuna with a mild tuna sauce).
It looked terrific, and my resolve melted as we fell greedily upon it. Of course the taste and appearance was sublime – five and five.
Rock star: Chris Stewart was the founder member of the seventies rock band, Genesis, and wrote the bestseller ‘Driving Over Lemons’ about his idyllic life on a remote mountain farm in Southern Spain
And all the other aspects were perfection too. Straight fives again. I began to doubt my aptitude as a judge. I sneaked a peek at the score card of Danny on my right. Danny was a hot-shot chef and knew his stuff.
To my dismay, where I had put straight fives, he had threes, twos and even a one or two. I was like a dog wagging its tail, a mass of superlatives, wreathed in wildly misplaced enthusiasm.
In my defence, it’s not every day that I get to eat such fabulous tuna – or indeed any tuna. But I realised, reflecting soberly, that there were still 31 more dishes to come.
As you might imagine, the third dish looked good too, it tasted good, it was authentic, the ingredients were of the best and the technical skill was dazzling.
My inclination was to go for the straight fives again, but I could see a problem looming, so I slipped in a couple of threes – then felt bad about it, so modified them with a couple of squiggly arrows pointing upwards.
Then I went back to the first straight fives and annotated them with downward arrows in order to indicate I may have been over-enthusiastic.
Our enthusiasm began to wane, as I had expected, as the dishes came and went. It was round about dish number ten that a general biliousness became apparent along with a growing bulbousness and a greenish tinge about the gills.
The dry Manzanilla sherry, which put in a belated appearance with dish 12, raised morale a bit, but by the time we hit the inevitable tuna with chocolate at number 18, we were all falling prey to a mild nausea.
Nobody could manage more than a nibble; we were pushing it about on the plate like children.
By this time, too, my score card was completely indecipherable. I had no recollection of what the arcane symbols and hieroglyphics represented.
One annotation had me completely mystified. It concerned a dish that had suffered a mishap while being washed ready for plating. ‘JABOB’, it said. I was halfway home before I remembered it stood for ‘Just A Bit of Bleach’.
I hoped I wouldn’t have to show my card to anybody or else the game would be up. Dish followed dish long into the afternoon.
Lucky dip: Tuna fishing at Barbate, in Spain’s Cadiz province, is a long-held tradition
The spotless napery was caked in a morass of nameless detritus. The bloated jurors lurched gracelessly among the offerings.
We made a hideous sight. But we battled on. We had to – much was hanging in the balance for the contestants. A win could make the fortunes of a restaurant, and these people had put in a great deal of care and hard work.
At last the end was in sight and the dish of the poor mug who had drawn the short straw was put on the table. We gazed at it in bemusement. It consisted of a clay boat full of glowing coals, and perched above the coals, like pineapples on sticks, were cubes of succulent, sizzling tuna.
We ate the whole thing, and it won hands-down with straight fives all round. I guess it was the simplicity that carried the day. I slunk out and wobbled down to the beach for a swim. By now, being composed largely of tuna, I felt an urge to get into their element. I launched myself in a blubbery way into the waves.
‘Hey, mind those nets,’ cried a fisherman from the beach.
Chris Stewart’s new book, Last Days Of The Bus Club, is published by Sort Of and is out on Wednesday. His website is drivingoverlemons.co.uk
Hotel-based holidays in Conil de la Frontera are available through easyJet Holidays (holidays.easyjet.com, 0843 104 1000).
Prices start at £338 for seven nights’ B&B at the three-star Hotel Diufain departing Gatwick July 2.
For self-catering properties visit www.spainholiday.com or call 020 3384 7066.
Source: Mail Online