Mojama (dried salted tuna), a typical tapa in Seville (Andalusia). Fernando Madariaga / © ICEX
The suitable climate conditions and rich fish stocks around the Spanish coasts, as well as the need to preserve fish (amongst other reasons, to meet inland demand), have favored fish salting in Spain since time immemorial. There are indications that salt fish was produced here by the Phoenicians and, during Roman times, it was prepared in the same factories as the famous garum, a sort of sauce made from fish crushed in brine and fermented in the sun. The warm coasts along the east of Spain (Valencian Community and Murcia) together with the very windy coasts of south-east Andalusia offered the right climate for salting fish.
Of special interest is the dried salted tuna called mojama (from the Arabic musama), a much-esteemed product from the bluefin tuna caught by the traditional trap-net system in the Strait of Gibraltar. It is produced, mainly in fishing villages in the provinces of Cádiz and Huelva (Andalusia), from this excellent tuna flesh, which is first cured in brine, then several days in sea salt and, finally, aired. During the process, the fish shrinks considerably, turning a reddish-brown color and becoming firm in texture. After trimming, it is ready for sale. The taste is different from that of fresh tuna, being very strong and full of the sea. It should not be overly salty. Other areas producing dried salted tuna are Almería (Andalusia), Murcia and the Valencian Community, all on the eastern and south-eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain. Mojama is usually served as a tapa in very thin slices with a few drops of virgin olive oil, sometimes accompanied with roasted almonds, or with salads. In the producer areas, it is also an ingredient in local recipes.
Other traditional Spanish salt fish include the products from Murcia made from Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda), bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), porbeagle (Lamma nasus), mackerel (Scomber scombrus), grey mullet roe (Mugil cephalus) and others. After salting and drying in the sun, the fish obtains a marked briny flavor and a texture that varies from species to species.
Fish roe is also salted, especially that of the bluefin tuna and the grey mullet, resulting in an exquisite delicacy with a characteristic flavor.
Dried sardines are a classic salt fish product in Spain. They are mainly produced in the towns of Isla Cristina and Ayamonte in Huelva (Andalusia), and are mostly consumed in the Valencian Community, Catalonia, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, and the Balearic and Canary Islands. Whole sardines (Sardina pilchardus) are used, with the head, skin, innards and bones. The traditional pack is a large, round wooden case, although today salted sardines are also sold in vacuum packs or in cans as fillets in olive oil. The flavor is strong so these fish are often served with olive oil or raw tomato to mitigate it. They can be eaten straight from the pack or barbecued.
Finally, although the raw material does not come from Spanish waters, mention must be made of salt cod (bacalao), a product that occupies a place of honor in the history of Spanish gastronomy. The cod to be found on the Spanish market is Gadus Morua or Atlantic cod, from the cold waters of Terranova or the North Sea. Cod is the most widely-consumed white fish in Europe and a great favorite in the regional cuisines of Spain, especially those of the Basque Country and Catalonia. It was precisely the Basque fishermen who, centuries ago, used to catch it in the frozen northern seas. The salted fish was then sent from the Basque Country to the rest of Spain, generally transported by mule, and played an active role in trade amongst the different regions. For centuries, it was a staple food and one that came to be closely linked to Catholic traditions such as Lent and vigils. The salt-drying process lasts for several months and results in a flat, triangular product that can be easily transported. Smaller, lean pieces without bones are sold separately.
Salt cod is an amazingly versatile food. It features largely in the latest auteur cuisine as well as in popular regional dishes. In Basque cuisine, it is an essential ingredient in bacalao al pil-pil (in a sauce that binds the gelatin from the fish skin with the oil in which it is fried), Biscay-style cod (with a sauce made of onion, tomatoes and red peppers), cod omelet and bacalao al ajo arriero (with garlic and red and green pepper). In Catalonia, it is popular in exqueisada (a salad of salt cod marinated with onion, tomatoes, peppers and olives), bacalao a la llauna (with pimentón - a Spanish type of paprika, garlic and white wine), and with samfaina (a tomato, pepper and eggplant salad). From Andalusia come the remojón granadino (a salad of salt cod with orange and olives) and a cod, cabbage and chorizo stew. Other regional dishes are the Extremaduran bacalao en escabeche (cod in a pickle sauce), or Aragonese bacalao al chilindrón (with chili pepper, tomatoes and red and green peppers) and cardoon with cod, atascaburras from La Mancha (salt cod with garlic, oil, walnuts, hard-boiled egg and potatoes), and many more.