The tuna coast

The tuna coast

By
Manuela Darling-Gansser
Contains
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669030
Photographer
Simon Griffiths

For centuries the northwest coast of Sicily has been the site of an extraordinary natural phenomenon. Sometime around the end of May and early June, large schools of tuna arrive from the Atlantic and move to their spawning grounds in the Mediterranean. As they migrate the fish pass close by the Egadi Islands and then move in towards the Sicilian coastline as they head towards Palermo and the waters beyond.

It is easy to imagine that for as long as men on the land have been watching the tuna they must have been consumed by dreams of catching them. At first, small boats would have been launched from the beaches and ports along the coast and fishing lines would have been thrown into the waters. Then, with the arrival of the Moors, a new technique was introduced that greatly increased the size of the catch and spawned a whole industry. Huge nets were laid at sea, anchored to the bottom and arranged in an elaborate pattern of wings to tunnel the migrating fish towards a central point. At the moment the head fisherman (who are still known by the Moorish name ‘ras’) judged right, the nets were closed, trapping the fish in one small area. There the ‘mattanza’, a mass ritual of catching and killing the tuna, would take place. For hundreds of years now, the mattanza has been one of the great annual events of life on this coast.

The northwest coast of Sicily is dotted with distinctive stone buildings and towers called ‘tonnare’, fishing bases that used to service the mattanza. Traditionally, these would include a boat shed to store the long wooden rowing boats and nets, a factory area where the fish would be processed and a watchtower to alert the fishermen when the tuna were arriving. Along this part of the coast one tower would always be in sight of the next, so signals could be exchanged. Many also served to warn against marauding pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa.

Although tonnare can be seen all along the northwest coast, the main focus of the mattanza has always been at Favignana in the Egadi Islands and at Trapani on the northwest coast of Sicily. These are the places where the tuna first touch the coast on their migration. In the early nineteenth century, the first cannery was established on Favignana and tuna from Sicily was exported to the world. Just south of Trapani there are extensive salt pans. Historically the availability of salt was important as it meant the tuna could be preserved and sold for an extended season, not just fresh.

We visited the island of Favignana on a lovely spring morning – it is a place almost entirely dedicated to tuna fishing. At the port we admired the old boat sheds and the factory of a huge tonnara. This, we learnt, was the enterprise of the local Florio family, who started the canning industry there during the nineteenth century. Their house near the port, the gothic Villa Florio, is in the process of being restored. In the town itself we found many shops dedicated to tuna produce, where they sold everything from tinned tuna and smoked tuna to salted tuna and tuna in oil. We even spotted tuna roe that had been dried to become the famous bottarga. We discovered that there is a difference between tuna caught in the mattanza and tuna caught ‘volante’ (out of season). And naturally, the mattanza tuna is greatly preferred. We were told that the best part of the tuna is the flesh around the stomach. The fishermen are in Favignana in force too. The town squares are full of men with the weather-beaten faces of old seafarers. Tuna may not be caught in great quantities anymore, but on Favignana the traditions are being preserved.

On the ferry journey back to Trapani we noticed an unusual site to the south of the city – the profiles of windmills, their sails turning in the sea breeze. These working windmills are close to the old salt pans, which are still in production today. The salt pans are on the edge of a shallow lagoon between the island of Mozia, an old Carthaginian settlement, and the mainland. An elaborate system of levies and sluices controls the flooding of the bays, where the sea water is left until it evaporates over the summer months. Today the salt is no longer used to preserve the tuna catch, but is sold as a gourmet natural product.

To arrive at the busy port of Trapani by sea is to get the real flavour of the city. Ferries and working boats depart for the Egadi Islands and Pantelleria to the west, as well as to Sardinia in the north and to the coast of Africa to the south. Trapani itself has something of a North African feel about it. It might be because of the Moorish influence and the pale, bleached-sand colour of its stone buildings; perhaps it’s because of the signs on the breakwater announcing the departure of ferries to Tunisia. The Moorish influence is also found in the local food. We were excited to learn that the specialty of Trapani is couscous, grains of semolina made from hard durum wheat, which are steamed over an aromatic broth. In North Africa couscous is accompanied by meat (lamb or goat) but in Trapani it is served with fish.

That evening we ate at Ai Lumi, a restaurant and wine bar on the main street. The wines were exceptional, with the first three pages of the wine list devoted to local wines – all available by the glass. The nearby wine-growing areas are on the flat valleys inland from the sea. White wines are grown on the low country, reds on the slopes above, and we were delighted to sample a selection of both. Naturally we also tried a few of their tuna dishes. One of my favourites, tonno ammarinato, was particularly memorable and was made with onions cooked in vinegar. At the end of dinner we tried two digestivi, just to settle the stomach. The first came from the nearby town of Marsala. It was not technically a Marsala wine because its alcohol content was too low (19.5 per cent rather than 20 per cent), but was made by the same process. It was dry and aromatic and absolutely perfect with a very sweet dessert like cassata. We also tasted Passito, a sweet wine made from the zibibbo grapes that are grown on the island of Pantelleria off the west coast. It was luscious and raisiny, and made a great accompaniment to ricotta cake.

Although tuna fishing and the tuna industry still dominate this part of Sicily, the tuna catch is a fraction of what it used to be, mostly because the fish are now caught by industrial-scale fleets before they reach the port at Favignana. The small boats still row out to set the nets – I saw this during my visit – and the mattanza still takes place. But along the rest of the coastline the tonnare have nearly all closed down. All that remains are the old stone boat sheds and watchtowers in their prime positions on the waterfront.

We visited one of these the following day on a trip to the small seaside village of Scopello. It is the site of a magnificent disused tonnara, set on a small bay with limestone pinnacles rising from the waters and with watchtowers set on the headlands. The slopes behind the bay were covered in flowering broom, cistus, valerian, Queen Anne’s lace, acanthus and giant teasels. We ate a simple fish lunch at a restaurant perched high above the bay surrounded by a large party celebrating the First Communion of two young boys.

On another evening we drove out from Palermo to visit an old tonnara near the town of Mondello. The Kursaal Tonnara is owned by Alberto Coppola, who has also beautifully restored an old building in the city walls of Palermo into a well-known restaurant and bookshop. Albert is now working the same magic at his tonnara. The oldest part of the building dates from the fourteenth century, and it was in use up until 1953. The Kursaal Tonnara is situated right on the water and Alberto has created a beautiful garden within the walls and a restaurant with a lovely view of the sea. There we enjoyed his hospitality as the sun set on a late spring evening.

In thinking about dishes from the tuna coast the only difficulty is in deciding which recipes to include. In Sicily tuna is prepared in so many different ways and most of them are delicious. My first choice is finissima di tonno, a dish of finely sliced raw tuna that is topped with fried capers. The capers are also a Sicilian specialty and come from the islands of Pantelleria or Salina.

Next, there is a recipe for pâté di tonno. You won’t find this dish in Trapani – it is my grandfather’s creation. He had a famous restaurant in Lugano in southern Switzerland and this is a dish he devised using canned tuna in a period of wartime rationing (although it’s exceptional at any time). Although canned tuna has quite a different flavour to fresh tuna, I belive this is something to be embraced not rejected. After all, you wouldn’t turn down prosciutto because it doesn’t taste like fresh pork! Of course tuna can also be preserved in oil. I have included a recipe for tonno sott’olio using canned tuna.

Two of my other favourites are tonno al forno, which is a baked tuna dish, and my version of the tonno ammarinato that we tasted at Ai Lumi.

Finally, to finish up there is a torta di ornella, made with almonds and lemon, which would be delicious served with a glass of Passito di Pantelleria.

Recipes in this Chapter

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