Travel News

Passage to Iberia

Fortuitously wedged between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the ancient, sun-drenched province of Cádiz entices visitors with its ramshackle charm and a cuisine shaped by the bounty of the sea.

A few metres from the spot where workers are laying track for the new high-speed train line that will unite Madrid and Cádiz, two men slowly drag nets across a shallow pool of water. From a distance, the two could be from any era, so timeless are their movements. Over and over again, they dip their nets, skim them across the surface of the pinkish water, and pull them out, dumping the sparkling contents into a bucket with barely a glance at the monstrous machines churning up the earth nearby. The two are confident of their place in the universe: their forefathers have harvested salt on this site since Roman times. The area around them may be modernising at lightning speed, but here at Salinas de San Vicente, they know that without salt, there would be no Cádiz.
The southernmost province in Spain, Cádiz has been spared the rampant overdevelopment that's turned much of the country's coastline into a nightmare of concrete high-rises and British pubs. Windswept, and captive to an Iberian sunlight so startlingly bright it can literally knock the breath out of you, the province seems more authentic somehow: its rural areas are large expanses of dry, open land; its towns are still slightly ramshackle.
Cádiz's identity just seems a little closer at hand, easier to access, especially through the food it proudly produces. As part of Andalucía, it shares an obsession with olives and pigs and wine. But Cádiz is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea - in fact, it serves as a passageway between the two - and all that seawater has created a unique culinary culture. To the verdant oils, complexly fatty jamón Ibérico, and the nutty sherries revered in the south, Cádiz adds its own flavours: the briny sweetness of some of the best fish in the country and the clean, primordial taste of salt.
How primordial? Baelo Claudia, a Roman settlement on the coast just west of Tarifa, was founded in the second century BC. To approach it is to move through centuries in a few incongruous steps. To the left, the white sands of Bolonia beach are almost obscured by a carpet of bronzed sunbathers and their brightly coloured towels. To the right, austere Ionic columns rise from what was once the forum. Stand with your back to the curve of the amphitheatre, and you can see what the Romans must have glimpsed as they sat watching divertissements on the stage: cobalt water, and behind it, the coast of Africa. The continent's presence reminds you of Baelo Claudia's strategic importance, but it's the square pits downhill from the Temple of Minerva that reveal how its fortune was made: in the trade of salt and fish.
Tuna is still a major industry in Cádiz. In fact, most Spaniards will tell you that the best in the country comes from the Strait of Gibraltar; the narrow, watery passage where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Here, tuna is caught in roughly the same way it was when Baelo Claudia was a thriving city. The "almadraba" is a maze of large nets strung out along the coast from April to June when bluefin tuna from the Atlantic attempt to spawn in the Mediterranean. The series of nets eventually corral the tuna into an area small enough for waiting fishermen to haul them from the ocean surface.
"It's a passive way of fishing," explains David Florido, a social anthropologist at the University of Seville. "You wait for the fish to come to you, rather than going after them." We are having lunch at Albedrio, a bright restaurant in the coastal town of Zahara de los Atunes whose evocative name translates as "Flowering of the Tuna". Needless to say, we know what to order; the only surprise is the number of delicious guises the tuna takes: meaty, stewed chunks from the neck, a lightly smoked tartare from the belly and a ceviche that's both tart and unctuous. The abundance of tuna is startling, considering the dangerously dwindling stocks of bluefin in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and it's easy to feel a little guilty about how much enjoyment comes on Albedrio's plates.
"But there's no need to feel guilty," Florido assures me. "What you're eating is almadraba tuna, and almadraba is completely sustainable - if it weren't, it wouldn't have lasted 3000 years. It's everybody else who is the problem." Indeed, as the world has developed an insatiable appetite for tuna, the almadraberos have been overtaken by Japanese trawlers and international companies who fish by helicopter, spotting schools of tuna and sending their GPS coordinates to boats waiting in the Atlantic.
But that displacement hasn't diminished the importance of the almadraba - nor the reverence for tuna - in a place like Barbate. The most famous of almadraba towns, with a new museum dedicated to the method, Barbate is not a lovely place. (For lovely, you have to go to Vejer de la Frontera, with its whitewashed streets that twist around a hilltop fortress built, legend has it, by a Moorish prince as a gift to his Spanish bride.) It is, however, a place where the town's main product has become a sort of collective obsession. In rough bars around town, men interrupt their games of dominoes to snack on tapas of tuna heart, seared lightly on the plancha. Gritty streets are enlivened by colourful murals of leaping tuna. And at Tres Martínez, where the Martínezes have been making candy for three generations, bonbons flecked with tuna are made with tender, loving care.
"I've always liked to mix salt and sweet," says Pepi Martínez, as she stirs chunks of mojama - a regional delicacy made by curing slices of tuna in salt and drying them in the sun - into a bowl of tempered milk chocolate. "For me, the whole point of cooking is to open the palate." Her roquitas de Barbate certainly do that: dried bonito, a powerfully flavoured cousin of tuna, gets stirred into dark chocolate; and dried roe is mixed with walnuts and white chocolate. "I know not everyone likes it," Martínez admits. "But tuna is what we're known for."
Known and then some. Like Eskimos and their 50 names for snow, the people of Barbate have 25 words to describe parts of the tuna. At El Campero, run by chef owner José Melero, each one is a marvel of distinction. Tuna loin, face, heart, ear, semen: at El Campero, they use it all. And all of it is utterly delicious. "Almadraba tuna are caught when they've put on tons of fat for the long journey from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean," explains Melero. "That's why they're so succulent."
Indeed, a few hours in Barbate will convince you that almadraba tuna is the only fish worth eating. But step outside the town limits, and you're quickly reminded of the bounty of Cádiz's waters. For a modern take on it, there's no better place than Angel León's Aponiente in Puerto de Santa María, a busy little coastal village permanently scented with the smell of frying fish.
León has built a national reputation for combining the freshest seafood with cutting-edge techniques - but he is more conservationist than mad scientist, interested in finding new uses for products around him. In the past, he has used fish eyeballs to thicken sauces and burned olive pits for fuel, but his latest project, if he has his way, is much more far-reaching. These days, León is busy trying to convince the world to eat plankton. "It's the most primal food," he says, by way of explanation. "It's what we eat eats. So why not cut out the middle man?" Why not, indeed? At his restaurant, León stirs a dollop of plankton into rice with clams, which turns the dish far greener than traditional parsley ever could, and pools it beneath a pristine slice of gilthead sea bream.
According to León, cooking with plankton is a way of getting food from the sea without harming it. Born into a long line of fishermen, he has watched in horror as fish that were once abundant in the Bay of Cádiz have disappeared, and been just as horrified by trawlers that throw thousands of kilos of less desirable fish away in their quest for more prized varieties. At Aponiente, León celebrates this so-called by-catch, coating slices of horse mackerel, for example, in lemon-infused roe and wasabi-coated sesame seeds; or dressing a sheet of tonaso with olive oil and black garlic. The food is so flavourful, and León's combinations so inspired, you never notice you're eating fish that most fishermen would throw away.
In both his flavours and his attention to sustainability, León represents the future of Cádiz cooking. But to taste its past, there is no better place in Cádiz than Casa Balbino, in nearby Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Along with his two siblings, Balbino Izquierdo has been working in his father's place since it was a dry-goods store. They have turned it into what some critics have called the best tapas bar in Spain, and they may well be right. Balbino's tapas, even the simple ones like potato salad, are extraordinary. Its acedias - small, grey-skinned dabs fried whole - are crisp as potato chips. Its locally caught langoustines, steamed and salted, are the platonic ideal of crustaceanhood. ("What? You're not sucking the head?" chides one waiter good-naturedly). And then you order, as you invariably will, the tortillitas de camarones.
Tortillita is a classic Cádiz recipe, one that has been adopted throughout Spain with mostly poor results. It's a fairly simple recipe: mix wheat and chickpea flour with a little onion and either water or wine, stir in a handful of tiny whole shrimp, fry pancakes in hot oil. But there's a lot that can go wrong with a tortillita: it can be too greasy, too soggy, too dense, have too much flour or too few shrimp. At Casa Balbino, such horrors are avoided. The lacy tortillitas, as large as salad plates, are loaded with shrimp. How good are they? Let'sjust say that Izquierdo has installed a ticket dispenser so that people don't fight over each plate - carrying crisp, hot, greaseless tortillitas - as it comes out of the kitchen. "There's no secret," Izquierdo shrugs. "Just good shrimp." And if you happen to mention that some people consider his to be the best tapas in Spain, he just smiles modestly.
It's amazing that one small town boasts not only the best tapas bar in all of Spain, but what some also believe is the country's best wine as well. Sherry is made throughout Cádiz, though its epicentre is in Jerez, in the north-western corner of the province. This is where Sandeman, Osborne, and the ubiquitous Tio Pepe have their bodegas, as do a number of much smaller, boutique makers. Most make a variety of sherry, ranging in sweetness from the pale, dry fino to the dark, intensely syrupy Pedro Ximénez. But in Sanlúcar, they make another dry version called manzanilla. This sherry represents one of those indelible connections between food and place: in the way that balsamic vinegar can only come from Modena, manzanilla can only come from Sanlúcar.
Manzanilla is vexing. It's made in exactly the same manner as fino, has the same colour, and the same dry, lightly toasted flavour. But ask a Sanlúcar winemaker if there's really a difference between manzanilla and fino and he will smile pityingly at your ignorance. Ignacio Hidalgo is a direct descendant, through nine generations, of the man who founded Bodegas La Cigarrera in 1758. Seated in the leafy courtyard of his bodega, surrounded by ancient oak barrels, he explains the process of making manzanilla. Yes, the grapes are the same. Yes, manzanilla, like fino, develops a layer of yeast on the top, called the flor, that imparts its distinctive flavour. Yes, they are both mixed with older wines as they age, and moved through a pyramid of barrels whose position allows the winemaker to keep track of the process. "But no," says Hidalgo." They don't taste the same at all." Manzanilla, he says, is more subtle than fino. But is that connoisseurship or civic pride speaking? It's hard to say: rivalries are so intense that it's almost impossible to get a glass of fino in Sanlúcar or a manzanilla in Jerez.
To compare them side by side, you have to go to the province's capital, also called Cádiz. The oldest continuously inhabited city on the Iberian peninsula, Cádiz's historic centre has been much spruced up these days. Its pastel-coloured buildings with their glass-paned "cierros" glow softly in the bright sunlight, its central avenues are given over to trendy clothing stores, and its palm-dotted parks and public squares all offer free wireless internet access. But if you know where to look, there are signs of the older Cádiz everywhere.
Miguel Ullibarri knows where to look. A Bilbao native, he moved to Cádiz 12 years ago, after falling in love with a "gaditana" (as people from Cádiz are called) and the city she calls home. He's a partner in a company called A Taste of Spain, which leads custom-made gastronomic tours throughout the country. So perhaps it comes as no surprise when he listens to my request to see old Cádiz, smiles and says: "For that, we have to eat."
There are glimpses of old Cádiz in unlikely places - along the seaside promenade that offers the same view Christopher Columbus must have taken in before he left on his second journey, or in the crumbling courtyard, its three-storey walls pockmarked by time and humidity, of an old-fashioned "casa de corral". But the most consistent reminder of old Cádiz is in the city's tapas bars, those always-crowded outposts where gaditanos come to chat and eat and drink and, above all, pass the time.
You can see it beneath the pressed-tin ceiling of El 10 de Veedor, a dry-goods store that has added a few extra counters so that late on Sunday mornings, young couples with baby strollers and old men with their newspapers have a place to rest their glasses of beer and plates of Payoyo cheese. It's there in the heaps of plates - filled with fried anemones, steamed prawns, shrimp croquettes and tiny fried squid - that pile up on the well-polished wooden bar of El Faro. It's there (boy, is it there) as you squeeze into Casa Manteca and stand, sweating in the pre-lunchtime heat, on the scuffed tile floors beneath photos of bullfighters and flamenco singers in order to down plate after plate of what, in this part of the country, is called chicharrones. Elsewhere, the word refers to fried pork rinds, but here, for some inexplicable reason, chicharrones are cold, thin slices of cooked pork loin that are rubbed in adobo, and doused with lemon and salt. "That," says Ullibarri, taking a bite, "is the soul of Cádiz."
Maybe it's the salt that does it because about an hour later, Ullibarri is moved to say the same thing again. This time we are standing at La Manzanilla, a sherry bar whose owner, Miguel García, has been in the business for 68 years. Today, his son Pepe takes care of most of the customers in the traditional manner: each glass of wine is accompanied by a tapa of two olives and he scribbles your tab in chalk on the wooden bar in front of you.
Pepe has poured a small glass from each of the five wine barrels behind the bar, and has lined them up by colour on the counter. The first glass, right before the glass of fino, and almost identical in colour, is manzanilla. A sip of one, then the other, and it hits me: the manzanilla tastes ever so slightly of salt. "Of course," Ullibarri says to me, "Jerez is inland but Sanlúcar is on the coast. They both make wonderful wines, but manzanilla tastes more of the sea." He pauses a minute to peer into his glass, then repeats his earlier words. "For me, this one tastes like the soul of Cádiz."