October 25 2009
It often occurs to me, as I peer into the warm, spookily lit glass coffin full of unidentified frying objects in my local chippie, that – as a nation – we hardly deserve to be surrounded by water. Perhaps we should just let the Spanish take all our fish, on the understanding that they will coat the bits they don’t want in batter or breadcrumbs and send them back to us.
Our coastline is peculiarly bereft of simple fish restaurants. You might find nice chunks of fish in swanky London restaurants, but often at hefty supplements on their turbot-charged menus. In mitigation, the UK boasts Peter Jukes’s exemplary Cellar restaurant in Fife; Mark Hix’s fun, informal restaurant in Lyme Regis; and the eccentric but superb Company Shed, near Colchester. These noble few, however, are exceptions to a rather depressing rule.
It is on Spain’s Atlantic coastline where the fish-eater is happiest. Percebes, the delectable barnacles which cling tenaciously to the rocks of Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, can be sampled in any of the restaurants clustered around the harbour in La Coruña; the menus in the Basque Country invariably feature salt cod or hake cheeks in pil-pil sauce (like a hot mayonnaise flavoured with guindilla chilli, parsley and garlic: try Bernardo Etxea in San Sebastian); and, much further south, the coastline near Jerez has an abundance of fabulous seafood from the cold, clear, deep waters of the Atlantic.
From Jerez I journeyed to the fishing village of Barbate in search of a tuna-rich lunch. The local speciality is mojama, wind-dried red tuna, and El Campero (pictured) serves a lot of it. The smart, spotless restaurant demonstrates the freshness of its fish in the fridge under the counter, and it is exceptional stuff. The mojama (for which the perfect foil is chilled Tio Pepe) I sampled was firm yet yielding, with an intense, savoury flavour for which the culinary buzzword umami might have been invented. A tartare of tuna was sublimely delicate, and some lightly cooked little slices of loin showed just how versatile and delicious is the flesh of the atún rojo; which, I suspect, is why it is in such short supply. Fish is a religion in this part of Spain; lunch is its sacrament.
In fact, fish is important all over Spain: the best fish market in any European capital is in Madrid, which is several hundred miles inland. A fleet of huge, refrigerated lorries with saltwater tanks – just as important as the seaborne fleet – drives through the night to make sure that the market is well stocked with the freshest seafood. If it were not – and here is the difference between Britain and Spain – then the Spanish housewife would probably bring down the government.