Jamon Everybody

I spent the last couple of weeks in southern Spain.

In the evenings, I tracked Napoleon’s progress through Iberia—it quickly became clear that his decision to invade Spain and Portugal was the start of his downfall. Everything looked rosy at the start—the invading armies were offered no resistance, the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil.

Then, the great general discovered what Caesar had already found—in both countries, guerillas made life for the French impossible. Shortly after, Napoleon decided to invade Russia. The British marshal Montgomery told the House of Lords in 1962, “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow’.”

Like Napoleon, I was in Spain for professional reasons—except in the final couple of days, when I joined the hordes of North European, American, and Chinese tourists.

About a nautical mile from shore, the twin-hull made fast to a cage holding three hundred thousand bass, and I gazed north at the small town of Altea. All along the strip are holiday apartments, including a large Norwegian area. Other ‘colonies’ are also typed by nationality.

Altea’s meant to be the cultural capital of the area—over to the west, there’s Benidorm, population one million, a city of high rises, built for low-end package tours, that holds no claim to culture whatsoever.

Like a number of other villages in southern Spain, this was traditionally an area of  almadrabas, tuna traps that date back to the Phoenicians, then to the Moors in the caliphate, until in 1925 it became popular as a tourist destination for Madrileños.

But in 1950, a humble man who had been a railway porter and a miner became mayor. The new alcalde set about promoting his town to the sun-seekers of northern Europe, and soon he was drawing in the crowds.

With the English came the bikini—the revolutionary two-piece was banned by the fascist dictators of both Spain and Portugal, and there were epic scenes of local Guardia Civil agents wrestling with scantily-clad young women.

Mayor Zaragoza turned a blind eye to the fashion statement but the higher authority, the governor of the autonomous community of Valencia, put his foot down and enforced the law.

In 1953, Zaragoza decided to take the matter to the caudillo, Spain’s supreme leader, the Generalissimo, Francisco Franco.

The former miner mounted his Vespa and rode eight hours straight to Madrid. Once there, he dusted himself off and appeared before the fascist dictator, his trousers spattered with oil from the two-stroke’s exhaust.

He simply said, “Necesitamos divisas y el turismo nos las trae.” Franco told him to bypass the higher authority, and keep bringing in the foreign currency. “Anything you need, speak to me.”

Pedro Zaragoza died in 2008, aged eighty-six. During his lifetime, Benidorm developed a skyline reminiscent of Miami, since the mayor knew it was cheaper to build upwards, and became the home of stag & hen. ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Benidorm.’

The most prized species in the culinary pantheon of fish—aleta azul, or bluefin tuna, known to the locals as atún rojo.

The Spain I visited was the exact opposite of the North European fleshpots, a country of conservative, hard-working people, making the ocean work for them. Spain grows and sells fish all over the world, taking advantage of the warm Mediterranean waters.

In parts of the south such as Conil and Zahara de los Atunes, the almadrabas are still set, in a complex maze that draws the bluefin to the câmara de la muerte—the death chamber.

It is there that the nets are slowly hauled aboard, and their precious haul of tuna, worth over fifty dollars a pound, taken on board. A three hundred pound fish means fifteen thousand bucks, and bluefin can weigh five hundred pounds—the largest specimen ever documented weighed almost fifteen hundred pounds.

Bluefin are top predators, and play a key role in regulating the food chain, so capture is also carefully regulated—ICCAT, the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, keeps a watchful eye on fishing; the European Union sets quotas, and in some areas bans fishing altogether.

This has created a pressing need  for farmed bluefin—a Japanese company has now begun selling rojo reared completely in captivity.

But in the Spanish lonjas, you still see the big boys for sale, and I suspect they’re captured in the traditional way.

Otherwise, why would the signs say atún de almadraba?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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