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Spanish food - Mojama

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Leaving the sexy sophistication of Seville by the autovia towards Huelva, smart urban soon gives way to poor rural. EU regeneration grants have helped stabilise unemployment, and enterprising firms are investing in polytunnels to provide northern Europe with supermarket-friendly winter strawberries and asparagus. Tractors stranded in the middle of these polythene lakes that shimmer in the sunlight make farmers seem amphibious. Neglected farmhouses and for sale signs testify that the local youth is taking its chances in the cities. Huelva is the capital of Columbus territory - it was from here that local hero Christopher left in search of the land of opportunity.

The coast road loops around lagoons - perfect for hiding corsairs and kings' navies - taking us closer to Portugal and along the Atlantic Costa del Luz, the Coast of Light. This little-visited area of Spain is beautiful, with nature reserves that smell of pine and wild thyme. Whereas Sevillians summer in this area, tourists of other nationalities are few, preferring the Watneys Red Barrel and warmer sea of Torremolinos. The Costa del Luz deserves its name - the light is startling - but the main impression is one of 'otherness'. The region is too Atlantic to feel Mediterranean, Moorish rather than European, more maritime, less landlocked. Even our destination, Isla Cristina, turned out to be a surprise. It is not an island but a whitewashed, low-rise town with a grid of narrow streets.Tuna fishing boat

That Isla Cristina makes its living from fishing is immediately apparent. Following our noses, we stopped on the quayside and alighted into an oily puddle alongside the Barberi Nunez family mojama factory. The oldest brothers, Rafael and Salvador, are charming men, built like brick ship houses but with ready smiles. They'd been working since six o'clock that morning, when they'd bought 800 kilos of Atlantic tuna off the trawlers for processing into what the Spanish call "gold of the sea".

The making of mojama - dried, salted tuna - was taught to the Iberian tribes by the Phoenicians, history's original cash'n'carry traders. First came the manufacture of salt, made by flooding low-lying fields, then evaporating the briny water in the blistering sun. The same salt fields are still used today, although the bulldozer now employed for harvesting was introduced later, perhaps by the Romans. Next came the preserving of fish. Rafael gave us a demonstration: to us he was a gentle giant, to the tuna he was Vlad the Impaler. Fish after fish was thrown to the floor to be quartered lengthwise by a grunting Salvador. Tuna faces frowned disapproval and useless fins sailed nowhere at crazy angles as the floor was sluiced with blood. Strangely (for such a talkative country), not a word was spoken. With a matador's flick of the wrist, Rafael cut two beautiful fillets from either side of the tuna, leaving the rest to be processed for canning or Kit-e-Kat. Choice cuts were reserved for the locals who (sensibly wearing wellies) queued for tidbits for lunch.

As fast as Rafael filleted, Juan worked faster. A teenage cousin in blue fatigues and a red football scarf, Juan was the company salter. He made neat stacks of Rafael's work - 60 fillets to a layer lengthwise, then 60 across and so on for eight layers. Then he'd shovel salt over it from a pile big enough to make a gritter grin. The effect was arrestingly beautiful - very contemporary art - with the symmetrical stacks of sea-dark tuna fillets peeking from their blanket of cracked salt crystals. We were tempted to commission one for a new trendy fish restaurant called Stomach: Fillet, only to realise that Damien Hirst had already thought of it.

Juan was also responsible for the soaking tanks. After two days in salt, the fillets have to be washed in running water for 12 hours. Damien would fancy this bit, too. The fillets were drowned in deep bins through which fresh water was piped, creating an eerie installation he might entitle Do Dead Fish Drink? Suitably soaked, the fillets are then tied into wire clamps for air-drying. In the old days, every house in town would have had a hooked metal arrangement on its flat roof, where the soaked fillets of mojama would be left to dry in the breeze, and Lord only knows what the town must have smelt like then. Nowadays, the brothers have large cold-storage rooms where they hang forests of fillets through which they blow air at a constant 14°C. After three weeks in the drying rooms, the mojama will have lost half its weight, its colour will have deepened to darkest garnet and its flavour will be an intense memory of the Atlantic.

The Spanish love mojama as tapas, thinly sliced like serrano ham and served with a drizzle of oil and some chopped tomato. We weren't too sure - the concentrated taste overwhelmed everything and made our beer taste of tuna. But back home, we realised its true potential: finely grated over a plate of lightly oiled spaghetti, with a chopping of parsley and a glass of red, mojama has become our great savoury standby, a curious survivor of an ancient art.

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