Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tuna and Salt

"In the Old Testament it is mentioned that Jerusalem fish markets were supplied by Tyre [home of the Phoenicians], and the fish they sold was probably salted fish, since fresh fish would have spoiled before reaching Jerusalem." writes Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History, which I just reread.

Salt is a wonderful book! It covers many topics including history, cuisine, commerce, and exploitation of laborers. It presents facts about salt in many civilizations and political situations including the ancient Mediterranean world, China through the ages, American Indians, the colonial era in the Caribbean, the motives for building the Erie Canal, and lots of others.

One theme that recurs is about the interconnections between tuna fishing (and in fact all fishing) and the procurement of sea salt. Instead of a review of the book, I'm just going to think about what Kurlansky said about tuna, what I can learn about the current state of tuna, and what I've said in my many posts about tuna in the past.

Tuna in the Ancient World

"Ancient Phoenician coins with images of the tuna have been found near a number of Mediterranean ports. At the time, bluefin tuna, the swift, steel-blue-backed fish that is the largest member of the tuna family, might have attained sizes of over 1,500 pound each, but this is according to ancient writers who also believed the fish fed on acorns." (p. 45)

Phoenician coin showing a tuna. (source)
The Phoenicians, Kurlansky points out, were among the earliest merchants of both salt and tuna. He explains how tuna appear seasonally throughout the Mediterranean and have been fished there since ancient times.  Their life cycle involves adult fish swimming from their usual home in the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. These migratory fish pass between North Africa and Sicily, by Greece and the Bosporous, and they eventually make it to the Black Sea.

The Phoenicians had ports in all these locations, from which they fished tuna, and near which they often made the salt needed for preserving these fish. Later in history, the Roman physician Galen "said that the best salt fish he knew was called sarda, but he also praised the tuna salted in Sardinia or in Gades, Spain, and salted mullet from the Black Sea. Sarda may refer to the small tuna now called bonito.... " (p. 68)

Note: I wrote a post about Kurlansky's Salt in 2008: Salt: Demons, Guardians, Inventors.

Mediterranean Tuna

At the time Kurlansky wrote, the migration of bluefin tuna continued as it had for millenia, and they could still be caught in off Sicily in huge nets up to 4 miles long, following the ancient traditions. The tuna are driven into the nets and eventually slaughtered -- currently by a scuba diver. "Twenty-five hundred years ago, in The Persians, Aeschylus, describing the Greek destruction of the Persian Navy, said it was like slaughtering tuna. The large bluefin, even though tired out from the weeks of manipulation, thrash and struggle. The Mediterranean turns black with their blood, and the foam of the water turns scarlet as they are stabbed, gaffed, landed, and shipped to Japan." (p. 418)

Fishing boats that we saw in Sicily in 2007.
More recently, however, the fish have been coming close to extinction. The bluefin tuna catch in the Mediterranean was valued at £400 million, and the catch is probably too large for the population to be sustainable. Mediterranean tuna farming involves capturing smaller fish and raising them in ponds: this has resulted in even more pressure on the species.

"Some scientists estimate that up to 20,000 tonnes of tuna are illegally caught each year. As a consequence of this, the Mediterranean tuna industry is feared to be on the verge of collapse." (source)

Sicilian traditionally prepared tuna eggs called bottarga and a variety of salted tuna have been the traditional product of the area near the city of Trapani, Kurlansky writes. "Typical of Sicilian towns, Trapani has a Phoenician-Roman-Norman-Arab-Crusader history." A traditional dish is made with bottarga grated "over spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and chopped parsley. The eggs come from the bluefin tuna that enter the Strait of Gibralter once a year and swim past westrn Sicily to their Mediterranean spawning grounds." (p. 416)

The Camargue, a vast salt marsh at the delta of the Rhone River in France, is famous also for fish and salt. In the village of Les Mejanes in the Camargue, we ate Salade Niçoise when we were birding there a couple of years ago. It included all the classic components: tuna, potatoes, green beans, anchovies, boiled egg quarters, olives, tomatoes, and in addition a decorative piece of toast and radish flower. I've written many posts about making Salade Niçoise because I love it.

Another location that's discussed in Kurlansky's book is the Mediterranean coast of Spain. We spent a month there in 1996, in an apartment overlooking the sea. I was fascinated by the market where fresh Mediterranean fish was sold along with a variety of fruit, vegetables, bakery goods, and many local specialties. Here's a somewhat unclear picture of my preparation of Salade Niçoise made with fresh tuna in my kitchen in Alicante:

Tuna in Japan

"These days Sicilians don't eat their bluefin tuna in any form; they sell it fresh for dazzlingly high prices. Ninety percent of the local catch is landed one hour after being killed and instantly sold and flown to Japan." (Salt, p. 417)

At a small sushi restaurant in Tokyo some years ago, we saw this large piece of tuna that had been purchased that morning at the Tsukiji Market. Tuna at Tsukiji come from fishing ports worldwide as Kurlansky mentions. It's consumed especially at sushi restaurants where the chefs demand the best quality fish. I have no way of knowing if this fish came from the Mediterranean or from some other tuna fishing site.

The next photo shows the action at Tsukiji market from the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." I loved the scenes set there, and the interviews with the vendors who sell to Jiro's son. Jiro himself stopped going to the market when he was 70 years old.

Kurlansky's book dates from 2002, so of course he didn't know of the recent closing of the famous fish market, which has moved to another location.

Tuna In My Kitchen

In the course of writing blog posts on my own cooking, I've posted dozens of photos of the tuna I use -- both canned and fresh -- and what I make from it. I enjoyed thinking about how eating tuna places me in a long history of appreciation of the often huge fish. But also about how sad it is that after all this time, humans have almost finished off the once-plentiful bounty of the ocean. Maybe I should be embarrassed to eat this delicacy --

Tuna and white bean salad. Using pantry ingredients, I can almost always make this.

Salade Niçoise at my table, with placemats from Provence.
Tuna on my pantry shelf: from Costco. 


Debra Eliotseats said...

You know I love all food related books so thanks for the info. I love that you included the photos and your thoughts on tuna! :) It is a staple I don't use enough.

Jeanie said...

Always interesting, your food posts. And definitely sad to think the tuna population is dwindling so. I love it.

Claudia said...

Bluefin tuna is so expensive I don't have any problem avoiding it. A very interesting post, Mae and I've reserved that book at our library.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I also love Salade Niçoise and when in Nice, learned to love it even more in the form of a pan bagnat. In either form, it's such a great combination of flavors.

Tina said...

I think most of the fish are being overfished these days. An avid fisherman at work tells me how the commercial nets will grab up everything when they are after one variety, the results are so many variety caught up die and aren’t even sold, just discarded. What a waste.

That’s an interesting coin with the tuna on the back.

Beth F said...

Tuna is a mainstay in my kitchen and the thought of it disappearing is sad. Salad Nicoise! Yum.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I think I may have this one loaded on my Kindle but if not I'll check it out. It sounds interesting. ;-)