From Humdrum to Gourmet: There was a time when eating tuna fish was not considered a gourmet experience. Canned tuna was a standard luncheon selection for school children and weekend casseroles. Demand for tuna was small: In 1950, the worldwide catch totaled 660,000 tons (approximately); today the desire has increased geometrically, and the world catch recently reached an excess of 7 million tons.
From Trash to Treasure
In the 1970s, Bluefin tuna was considered trash fish. It was used in cat food and sport fishermen paid to have it hauled off their boats. In the mid-1990s the reputation for Bluefin tuna in Japan was so bad that it was referred to as neko-matagi, food too low for even a cat to eat. Today it is the most expensive fish in the sea.
Historically, sushi was a way to store food. The fish was salted, covered or stuffed with rice and left in a barrel for a year and the fermented rice became gooey. At dinner time, the rice was discarded, and the fish consumed. As populations grew this process was too slow so the Japanese applied pressure or put vinegar in the rice to speed the fermentation. The process was efficient for some fish, but this speedy process was not good for the Bluefin – because of its high fat content.
After the war, Americans helped the Japanese develop a taste for fatty beef, but Japan had little room for cattle ranches and had to import the beef (which it continues to do to this day). They began to look for similar flavors from the ocean – and Bluefin tuna found its place in the market as the beef of the sea.
Not All Tuna is Bluefin
Not all tunas are created equal. For many years Bluefin were overfished and not given the opportunity to reproduce. Sustainability was not part of the Bluefin tuna fishing culture.
Misleading the customer is part of the tuna problem. Supermarkets sell tuna in cans and pouches and while it may be labeled tuna it is not really tuna. If it is categorized as light meat, it is likely to be skipjack (a cousin of the tuna). Approximately 70 percent of the tuna in cans is skipjack which is plentiful and cheap. Because it matures quickly – sustainability is not an issue.
Albacore with a mild taste and firm chunks of meat is labeled “white meat,” and about 30 percent of the canned tuna falls into this sector. Because of the fishing methods, sustainability and mercury content may be an issue.
Restaurants are likely to be selling Yellowfin (aka AHI, Hawaiian word for tuna. Ahi is also used for bigeye) and not Bluefin. Yellowfin may be overfished making pole-caught fish the best choice for sustainability considerations.
At a Sushi bar you may be buying maguro (Japanese for tuna). Unfortunately, the menu is more likely to describe the part of the fish being sold and not its origin or heritage. Toro traditionally was cut from the buttery soft belly of the Bluefin tuna while otoro comes from the belly close to the head and chutoro is cut from the middle or back of the belly and is less fatty than otoro.
Bluefin is Exceptional
Bluefin is rare and expensive. A single bite-size piece of Bluefin otoro can be priced at $25. If your sushi tab arrives with a $10 charge for two pieces of otoro – you are not getting Bluefin. Bluefin usually has dark red flesh with the appearance of raw beef, while skipjack is lighter in color and Yellowfin is pale pink in color.
The increase in the demand for tuna has raised concerns about global fishing increasing the demise of the species, ruining the condition of the oceans and raising concerns about what “exactly” is on my plate.
There are very few companies authorized to capture the wild Bluefin tunas in the Balearic Sea and the permission is granted only after the tunas have migrated from the Atlantic and laid their eggs. The fishermen from Balfego (one of the area’s largest fisheries) identify the schools of tuna and capture them under a net while the boat creates a circle to catch them. The net is closed and the Bluefins know that their environment has changed.. they begin a search for an exit. At this time, they are not extracted from the water as the idea is to keep them alive and swimming.
After the netting process in concluded, another boat arrives with a transport pool and it is attached to the ring surrounding the captured tuna. Professional divers with whistles that simulate the dolphin radar enter the water and direct the tunas from the initial enclosure to the transport pool and the tunas move from the net space to the pool. The entire process is videotaped to ensure precision in tracking exactly the number of Bluefin captured. A few minutes later the video is watched with official controllers on board and the exact numbers recorded. The documents are signed by inspectors and observers to ensure accuracy.
The boats with the captured Bluefin move slowly to L’Ametlla del Mar where the catch is transferred to a Balfego fixed pool. The Bluefin are fed and kept happy until they are harvested –upon request from a buyer.
The tunas arrive thin, because they are captured after they have finished their Atlantic swim and laid their eggs. When they have settled into their new pools, they are starving. They are fed a natural diet of mackerel, squid, sardines and anchovies, the same food they would have devoured in the wild. The problem with this practice, is that now the stocks of some of these food sources (i.e., sardines and anchovies) are disappearing from the Mediterranean as they are being eaten by the Bluefin tuna. The fish eat up to 4 percent of their body weight during the first few weeks in the sea farm where they are kept 4-12 months, gaining 15 – 100 percent of their body weight.
When a buyer is identified, the tunas are hand-picked by a diver who checks their weight and fat content and only 40-50 fish are extracted daily three times per week. The tunas are shipped to the shore, packaged and flown whole (on the same day), to international markets, enabling the product to arrive at its final destination on the same day (or one day later), but always in the fastest possible method.
Bluefin Pedigree Traceable
Consumers ordering Bluefin tuna from Grup Balfego in a restaurant, receive a bar code that enables them to learn the tuna’s history and pedigree as Balfego is a pioneer in the design of a traceability system for the tuna. This enterprise runs Spain’s biggest tuna ranch at L’Ametlla de Mar, on the Catalan coast and was started by two cousins, Manel and Pere Vicent Balfego (5th generation Spanish fishermen) who developed a code that is assigned to each tuna and each of its parts. The code accompanies the tuna (and its parts) from the sea to the plate enabling consumers to know exactly the species they are eating, the weight of the fish, date of harvest, documentation of capture, microbiologic analysis, fat percentage and final client.
Balfego also maintains a world map on its website – enabling consumers to know which restaurants are participating in the program. If the client has not consumed the tuna within a week, they are deleted from the restaurant list – until the next order. It is not surprising that restaurants with Michelin stars are among the loyal consumers of Balfego Bluefin tuna.
The Bluefin fishery is one of the highest priorities to the Spanish fisheries industry and the Spanish Management authority reports catches directly to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (CCAT), an inter-governmental fishery organization responsible for the conservation of tunas and tuna-like species in the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent seas.
The largest Bluefin ever caught weighed almost 1500 pounds and was 13 feet long. They are warm blooded – unlike the majority of fish
Bluefin Arrives in New York City
To introduce restaurant and other food/beverage executives, international and local chefs and culinary media to the unique qualities of the Balfego Bluefin, a whole tuna was flown to Manhattan and the system for the sea to table connection to the tuna was explained to hundreds of attendees.
The perfect beverages to pair with Bluefin tuna include Tio Pepe (from Jerez, southern Spain), Naveran Brut Cava and Blat Vodka.
Tio Pepe is considered to be the world’s best-selling Fino. Once opened, it remains delicious for 4-5 days when it is served cold from the refrigerator. It pairs well with chorizo, olives, nuts, Manchego cheese and Bluefin tuna, prawns and shrimp.
Naveran Brut Vintage Cava is an estate-bottled sparkling wine that was started by the Naveran family in 1901. The three indigenous grapes: Xarello (for body), Macabeo (aromatic intensity) and Parellada (acidity). Can be served as an aperitif or with dessert. It pairs well as soft cheeses, Bluefin tuna, white meats (pork and chicken) and lends itself for special occasions.
Blat Vodka from Spain is considered to be the only vodka that is completely 100 percent free of impurities that is achieved through a singular (and patented)distillation and purification process. The vodka is made from 100 percent (non-GMA) French wheat (gluten free and Kosher) in the Franco-Russian style. It pairs well with Bluefin tuna as well as caviar, smoked fish (i.e., salmon, smoked mackerel), pickled herring, dried or smoked beef and steak /venison tartare.
Noted for its focus on sustainability, Balfegó’s harvests, ranches, studies and sells Bluefin tuna, through a system that ensures the continuity of the species. The company was represented by Juan Serrano, Executive Director, Montse Brull, Jose Andres and Manel Balfego, co-presidents for the company. For additional information, click here.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.