Fish Farming Gets Eco-Friendly at Veta la Palma
Traditional fishing in Veta la Palma state. Photo by: ©Veta La Palma
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
How does a ‘finca’ in the vicinity of the Coto Doñana National Park, home to 250 species of birds, become a pioneer in the business of sustainable fish farming? Paul Richardson finds out.
‘Sustainability’ is one of the buzz words of our time. But few commercial operations I have come across are quite as seriously committed, not just to using the term but to putting it into practice, as Veta la Palma. Starting out with a novel idea – rearing fish in a semi-wild state, with the minimum impact on a unique ecosystem – this finca in south-western Andalusia proves that ecological values and commercial acumen can perfectly easily go hand in hand.
Heading south out of the city of Seville, following the course of the Guadalquivir towards the river mouth, is like entering a surprising and beautiful new world. The wide river curls lazily among marshy flatlands that stretch to the horizon. Further south lies the vast expanse of the Coto Doñana National Park, one of the last strongholds of the Iberian lynx. Even here, outside the limits of the Park per se but within the so-called Espacio Natural de Doñana, the richness of the local flora and fauna, and the wild, faintly unsettling loveliness of the landscape, are as clear as the skies on this warm February day.
Outside the scrappy agricultural town of Isla Mayor, narrow dirt-tracks wind through fields ankle deep in water – this happens to be one of the most important rice-growing regions in the whole of Europe. Half an hour later we reach the gates of Veta la Palma, and finally what looks like a small hamlet of white buildings hoves into view: the farm’s on-site offices and technical installations.
At 11,000 hectares this is certainly the largest finca in the environs of Doñana, and one of the biggest private properties in the province of Seville. (The farm measures at least 20 km from one end to the other, and it’s worryingly easy to lose your way among Veta la Palma’s labyrinth of raised tracks.) During the Franco years it was owned by Argentinians who raised beef cattle here. Come the Transition, fearing expropriation, they sold up in 1982 to a wealthy Seville family, owners of the rice company Hisparroz. Though it may have seemed a good idea to plant rice, agricultural activities were soon prohibited in much of the finca under Spain’s new environmental legislation. (Ultimately, just 400ha of the farm’s 11,000ha are planted with rice.) Another plan was needed.
Tides and pumps
It took a few years, but eventually something clicked. No-one can remember just who thought of farming fish at Veta la Palma, but there was a certain logic to the idea. For as long as anyone can remember there have been fish in these esteros, as the flooded fields of this marshland are known locally, and savvy local fishermen who knew where to find them. But the new project took things much, much further. Former paddy fields would be used to raise fish on a large scale, both on an extensive and semi-extensive basis. Water would be brought in from the river, employing the tides and powerful pumps, and allowed to flow along an existing network of canals. Rearing fish intensively is an industrial process looking for maximum yield in the shortest possible time. Veta la Palma would take other considerations into account, notably the welfare of the fish, the care of the local ecosystem and, not least, the quality of the finished product as a gourmet alternative to both unsustainable ‘wild’ fish and the low-grade conventionally farmed variety.
A modern building in wood and plate glass, used for receptions and meetings, also forms a first port of call for visitors to the estate, with charts showing its prodigious variety of bird, plant and animal life. Here I am met by Miguel Medialdea, the man responsible for Veta la Palma’s quality control and environmental standards. Pointing out a scale model of the estate, Medialdea explains in broad-brush terms the functioning of its 70ha balsas (reservoirs), used for extensive rearing of shrimp and grey mullet (mujol in Spanish, or albur in the Andalusian argot), and of the much smaller ‘semi-extensive’ channels inhabited by sea bass, corvina and gilthead bream. (The farm also keeps a small herd of cattle, and horses, following the tradition of the marsh dwellers of Doñana.)
In an ideal world in which the human race managed the planet’s resources wisely, there would be no need for an enterprise like Veta la Palma. But the plain fact is that the world’s oceans are chronically depleted, there is less and less ‘wild’ fish on the market, and the alternative, supplied in vast quantities by commercial fish farms, (piscifactorías in the nicely expressive Spanish term) leaves a great deal to be desired. Veta de Palma has carved out a niche somewhere between the ‘wild’ product and the conventionally farmed version, but has pitched itself much closer to the former than the latter.
The operation’s lynchpins are quality, on the one hand, and respect for the environment on the other. What is extraordinary is how nearly these two goals can sometimes coincide. Fish food used in the farm’s semi-extensive systems (fish in the extensive balsas are left to feed on naturally occurring organisms) contains no dioxins, antibiotics or GMOs. The animals grow more slowly than under intensive methods, taking 30 months to reach what usually takes just 18 months, and have much more space to swim in, making for firmer and tastier flesh. The company extracts a maximum of 1500 tonnes of fish per annum – a fraction of what might be possible under a more nakedly profit-driven regime.
Environmental quality is also crucial, and the finca’s ecosystem is in rude health, says Medialdea. In the twenty-odd years since the project kicked in, biodiversity on the finca has soared. Water returned to the Guadalquivir is much cleaner than when it was first pumped into the channels, thanks to the oxygenating capacities of the 250-plus bird species currently to be found on the estate.
Spanish chefs of the calibre of Martín Berasategui, Ferrán Adrià, Dani García, Pedro Subijana, and Fernando Córdoba have been quick to latch on to Veta La Palma and its products. Dan Barber, chef at New York’s Blue Hill and a champion of organic and sustainable ingredients, became a big fan after visiting the estate as part of a gastronomic tour of Spain. Perhaps the most energetic defender of the brand however is Ángel León, chef at the newly Michelin-starred restaurant Aponiente in Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz). León loves the landscape of Veta la Palma, which he describes as ‘a paradise’. The chef discovered the place when he was looking for a way to make embutidos (Spanish sausages) based on fish instead of pork. The estate’s grey mullet, unlike all the other fish species he had tried in his experiments, had a quantity of body fat that made them perfect for what he calls his ibéricos del mar. His fishy chorizo, butifarra and salchichón were recently launched at the Madrid Fusión food congress – as was León’s original ‘sea gin and tonic’, flavoured with plankton and samphire from the Veta la Palma estate.
From the start, the company’s idea was that quality would be its best weapon for breaking into foreign markets. Veta La Palma currently sells its fresh fish in Italy, France, Portugal, and the UK (where it about to close the deal on a high-profile promotion in a famous food store). The USA is also ‘responding well’, in Medialdea’s words. (In case you wondered, cold technology and high-speed communications mean that a sea bass fished on the estate can be on an American fishmongers as little as 24 hours later.) About a fifth of total production goes abroad, but this figure is set to rise considerably over the coming years.
Returning to Seville, I nearly lose myself again among the dirt-tracks of the marshes. The silence is broken only by the faintest of breezes, rustling among the reeds. To left and right are flocks of pink flamingos, recently returned after their wintering in Africa. An eagle swoops across the track. It is a scene of nature in its purest state. Yet a few metres further on, a fisherman is casting his round net in the balsa, bringing it up full-to-bursting with camarones (shrimps) – a peerless delicacy, especially when served with a glass of cold fino sherry. Nature and business; ecological sensitivity and gourmet values. It’s a rare piece of synergy, but Veta la Palma has got it spectacularly right.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.