As a foodie living in Andalucia, and writing about its manifold gastronomic delights and attractions, experiences and peculiarities for visitors, I am regaled with missionary fervour about everyone’s must-tries – from sweet, nutty jamon iberico (Iberian ham – no chance, I’m a non-meat-eater); dinosaur-claw-like percebes, or goose barnacles (maybe one day); big juicy red tomatoes from Los Palacios near Sevilla (yes please); and the famously melt-in-the-mounth tender atun de almadraba (blue-fin tuna, confusingly known as atun rojo).
Having tried this tuna at a ronqueo (tuna butchering, where they deftly turn a carcass into cuts in minutes) here in Seville, and being suitably impressed, as well as at a restaurant in Algeciras one September a couple of years ago, I still yearned for the ultimate atun de almadraba experience: to taste this gourmet delicacy by the sea, as freshly caught as possible, during the spring almadraba season.
So back in May (June was a blogging black hole, thanks to a packed city-guiding schedule) the family set off for Conil on a tuna mission, a pescatarian pilgrimage. Drawing a blank on one-nighters at Air B&B, we ended up at the Fuerte Conil-Costa Luz, with five (count ’em) swimming pools, including one with bridge, island and Jacuzzi; children’s club, sea view bedroom and gargantuan buffet breakfast.
But for the all-important dinner, I had done some careful research into the Ruta del Atun 2015 which takes place in May and early June, with a tapas competition on the first Friday – a whole month of feasting on these magnificent, highly-prized fish. They are caught as they swim from the cool Atlantic water, where they’ve been fattening up all winter, to the warmer Mediterranean to spawn. Prized by gourmets, this tuna is like nothing else you’ve ever taste, with its soft flesh and sweet taste.
The systems of nets, called the almadraba, dates from Phoenician times (pre-Roman, 1st century BC) and is said to be sustainable as only fish of a sufficient size are used – all others are returned to the sea, rather than being left on deck in the nets to expire, as occurs in other types of sea fishing. Read more about the almadraba in this post by my cooking-and-sherry-expert friend and collaborator Annie Manson, who lives near Conil.
After checking out the map of participating restaurants, and asking Annie and her friends’ advice, I had pinpointed the two recommendations which were closest to the hotel – essential for tired children who won’t want to walk miles after eating to collapse into their beds.
Our selected venue (as close as I had hoped, just down the road from the hotel; no point being overly optimistic with small, pool-exhausted children) was La Fontanilla, right on the beach of the same name. I loved the marine-y décor, with chairs painted just the right shade of ocean blue.
The location couldn’t have been better: right on Conil’s endless La Fontanilla beach, with gorgeous sea views, long stretches of golden sand to either side, and a gently golden-glowing sun slipping down behind the horizon off to our right. Walking out of the restaurant’s beach-front, open to let in the sea breezes, you glided straight onto soft, warm sands.
We loved the relaxed ambience of La Fontanilla, even with tablecloths (normally a sign of poshness) the restaurant wasn’t stuffy – other families were dealing with truculent youngsters, always a reassuring sign for a parent. And after our dinner there, we couldn’t understand why it wasn’t busier.
Perusing the menu, the choice of atun de almadraba dishes was dizzying – carpaccio? tartare? encebollado? I wanted all of them, naturally. The waiters were gratifyingly patient with our indecision and the kids’ impatience for their meal to arrive (a food-philistine confession: they had pasta).
We went to town and ordered a couple – the carpaccio (raw, very finely sliced, melt-in-the-mouth) and encebollado (cooked with onions, good but unphotogenic); later the kind owner invited us to try some more – tartare (raw, diced, served with soy vinaigrette and parsley), and taco de ventresca (belly), grilled to perfection, still pink and juicy inside, and served with mushrooms (a perfect combination, we were told), courgette, asparagus, peppers and potatoes – both of which were exquisite. The tender texture and sweet yet robust flavour of this tuna combine to give a culinary experience that is hard to beat. This is the king of tuna – a world, a universe away from anything that comes in a tin.
Pedro Perez, the restaurant’s owner and President of the Associacion de Almadraba, was very generous in introducing a foreign journalist to the delights of this tuna-wonder. And I was only too willing to be shown the way by an expert. He told us that the tuna cuts are preserved in freezers at -60 degrees immediately after being caught, to ensure the meat stays in perfect condition. The cost is around 65 euros per kilo. He also told us about the La Chanca exhibition centre in Conil, urging us to visit, but sadly we couldn’t – next time!
The next day, after dragging our over-stuffed bellies away from the mega-buffet breakfast (my son’s plate was piled with bacon, churros, tomatoes, tuna and olives – a Spanish desayuno, full English, and salad all-in-one; I resisted the temptation of buck’s fizz, plumping instead for a cup of the Earl), we went to a favourite nearby beach, Fuente del Gallo. This is one of those which disappears at high tide (be careful not to fall asleep and get washed away), is reached by steep steps, and is backed by cliffs, so is never too crowded.
After a delightfully distracting few hours wave-jumping and rock-pooling, we were suddenly forced by the rising tide to beat a hasty retreat, wading across the rocks to the steps.
Fabulous food (our tuna, son’s churro-and-olive combo, daughter’s chocolate croissant), great swimming pools and beautiful beaches – all ideal ingredients for a perfect weekend away.