AS dawn breaks over a horizon of crashing waves, distant twinkling lights and gigantic fishing nets strewn across the docks, fishermen huddle in groups anxiously awaiting their captain.
These are not your ordinary fishermen. They are divers who plunge into the ocean to spear eight-foot tuna head-on in a 3,000-year-old Phoenician trap-fishing technique called La Almadraba.
Welcome to Barbate, the gritty Andalucian town which has put the delicacy of wild bluefin tuna on the global culinary map.
While this old fishing port won’t win many awards for its beauty, you can’t help but fall for the charm of the locals and the tastiest fish you will ever tuck into.
The town isn’t only famous for its tuna. Until the late 90s it was called ‘Barbate de Franco’ after the dictator, who spent many summer holidays there, added his name in the 1950s in a bid to industrialise the town and create industry and jobs for the area.
It lost its controversial suffix in 1998 after a decree was passed by the Junta.
But back to fish. The meat of the bluefin is known as atun rojo (red tuna) due to the deep crimson-coloured flesh which is tender and sweet, but dense like steak and melts in your mouth.
Locals usually eat it raw, prepared as a tartare, as its unique texture and full flavour is best appreciated without heat.
The Japanese, the world’s largest buyers of tuna, can’t get enough of it. Around 80% is exported to the Land of the Rising Sun – filleted, frozen and air-dried within hours of being caught, ready to turn into sushi and sashimi.
The most expensive part, the barriga (belly), will sell for at least €40 per kilo. Other cuts once manufactured can go for up to €90. Morillo, the top of the head, is almost impossible to get in Spain as almost all of it gets hoovered up by the Japanese.
Barbate comes alive in May as the Almadraba season begins, when locals spend the full month paying homage to their blue-finned fish with Barbate Tuna Gastronomy Week as one of the highlights.
Its three sister towns which also operate Almadraba trap nets – Tarifa, Zahara de los Atunes and Conil – also celebrate the fish.
After the first full moon in May, the fishermen set up a complicated labyrinth of nets which catch the tuna as they migrate from the Atlantic to warmer Mediterranean waters to spawn. Their fat reserves keep them warm through the winter meaning the fish are succulent and full-flavoured.
The fish swim through different compartments of the nets until they reach the final area, locked in by the fisherman’s boats which form a ring around the net.
Next comes the most dramatic and breathtaking part of the process, ‘la levanta’, in which the burly fishermen hoist up the net and select the biggest fish, with some weighing more than 500 kilos.
The Almadraba system – meaning ‘to strike’ in Arabic – has been praised for its sustainability as there is no overfishing with a strict quota that the fishermen cannot exceed.
“There are boats which trap them and fatten them up and don’t care for the fish as much. We fish for a month and whatever we don’t catch is allowed to carry on the migration,” says Jose Maria, a Barbate-born diver and fisherman.
The 33-year-old explains it is a more humane way of killing the tuna.
“They die quickly from the spear so the fish are not tense or stressed, they don’t swallow water or choke.
“They say this is what makes it such a high-quality product. It’s regarded as the jamon iberico pata negra of the sea,” he tells me as we stand shivering by the port in the cold and clammy 6am darkness.
Jose knows a thing or two about the tuna business, as his parents own one of the most well-known fishing companies in the town, Almadraba Cabo Plata.
It’s all hands on deck from a young age for the almadraba fishermen as the skills of the ancient tradition are handed down from generation to generation of families, with the boys beginning their training at the age of 14 and starting work at 17.
“The majority of the men here have been trained by their fathers and their fathers before them. They have spent all their life at sea, explains Jose.
“It’s beautiful work and above all it’s a very respectful type of fishing. It’s a way of life more than a job,” he adds.
However, the job comes with a dangerous price, as Jose explains how he was once left struggling to swim to the surface after a swing from a tuna tale left him with broken ribs.
Later, as we tuck into a lunch of grilled tuna and manteca (melted pig fat) sandwiches – a typical dish in Barbate – Jose’s cousin Gonzalo regales us with the tale of his first tuna dive at the age of 17.
“I was just thrown into the water and left to find my own way,” he laughs.
“I was terrified because you have so many gigantic fish coming towards you and you don’t know which way is up, down, left or right.
“But if you show passion and courage the fishermen will give you a chance and give you the job,” he adds.
The job is certainly considered an honour in Barbate and it is clear as the fishermen walk through the bustling town that they have earnt the respect of every local who comes to chat to them.
Their faces beam as we make our way to the tuna festival, where a huge outdoor screen shows videos of their cousins fishing, as locals dance around it to upbeat reggaeton and salsa music.
If you don’t want to fork out a few hundred to get on the tuna boat and watch the fishing in action, it’s worth going to Barbate just for the gastronomy fair to follow the ‘tuna route’, in which each food tent offers a unique tuna tapa and a drink for just €3.50.
I never thought I would say this about a tuna festival, but with welcoming locals, a vibrant energy and some of the best food you will ever taste, it is truly an event not to be missed.