Barbate has had, it’s fair to say, a bit of a bad rep. This small harbour town on the windswept coast of Cádiz province was notorious a few years back as a hotbed of drug-running and illegal immigration. Thankfully however it’s the good things about Barbate that now bring most people here - namely the town’s glorious beaches, its buzzing local produce market, a clutch of top-class restaurants…and specialist producer of seafood conservas Herpac.
The history of cured fish in Spain
Southern Spain’s rich culture of preserved and cured fish dates back centuries, if not millennia. The Romans ran a factory making garum, their favourite fermented-fish sauce, at Baelo Claudia behind Bolonia beach, near Tarifa. (The ruins can be visited.) Nowadays Barbate has several fish-curing companies - but Herpac is at once the best-known, the front-runner, and the standard-bearer.
On a day-trip from nearby Vejer de la Frontera, my first stop was the company shop on calle Ancha, an Aladdin’s cave of fish-based products from jars of tuna loin in olive oil and vinegar-cured anchovies to cured grey mullet roe, sea-urchin ‘caviar’, and mojama, the famous air-dried tuna delicacy that is to Cádiz what acorn-fed ibérico ham is to Salamanca.
If atún is very much the name of the game in Barbate, it’s mainly thanks to the giant shoals of tuna which, from April to June, swim along this coast and are fished by the ancient system of fixed nets known as almadrabas.
I made my way out of town towards an industrial estate where for the last decade Herpac has had its HQ, a state-of-the-art factory sprawling over 7000 square metres. Originally founded in 1986 by brothers Paco and Diego Pacheco (‘HERmanos PACheco’, hence the name) Herpac is now run by various members of the family’s two branches
– one of whom is commercial director José María Vázquez Varo, who gave me a tour of the building.
On the wall of the foyer was a large-scale map showing the routes taken around the world’s oceans by the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) confusingly known in Spain as ‘atún rojo’ (red tuna). The fish spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, returning to the Med via the coast of Cádiz, where the almadrabas are waiting for them. Dramatic photos showed the frenzy of the levantá, when the nets are raised and the mighty fish dispatched in situ before being rushed off to market. (As much as 90% of the catch goes straight to Japan.)
From the rooftop the view was of the Breña marshes, a protected natural space, and the pinewoods behind Barbate, source of what may be the world’s finest pine-nuts. Inside the building production was in full swing, but the atmosphere was of calm and cleanliness. On the main factory floor the ronqueo was underway - this being the skilled butchery technique by which the bluefin tuna is deconstructed into its various cuts (some of which have curious names such as parpatana, tarantelo, mormo, and morrillo). Further on were the salting rooms where cuts of ventresca (belly) or solomillo (sirloin) were suspended in large vats of brine. Inviting me to peer into one of these vats, José Maria explained that in Roman times the fishy liquid left over from curing would have formed the basis for garum. Another section was devoted to smoked fish - never a big tradition around these parts, but Herpac have blazed a trail locally with their own smoked salmon, tuna, and sardines (which are sold in the UK by Brindisa).
A highlight of the day, for me, was a glimpse into the darkened rooms where slabs of mojama hung to air-dry in a chilly twilight world. This prestigious delicacy is still surprisingly little known outside Spain, despite having been a star of the Brindisa portfolio for years. At home I like to serve it as part of a luxury aperitif, in thin slices with a handful of fried almonds on the side and, if at all possible, a glass of fine amontillado sherry within easy reach.
A true family business
Among a line of employees packing mackerel fillets into tins, José Maria pointed out an elderly gentleman working away diligently like everyone else. It was Paco Pacheco, my guide’s 78-year-old father-in-law and one of the company’s two founders, who likes to come in occasionally to keep an eye on things.
Finally we reached the sanctum sanctorum - a vast refrigerated hall where a batch of tuna lay in ranks as if in a morgue, their shiny skins the greyish-silver colour of pewter, their mouths gaping open to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth. These beasts weighed in at around 150kg each. ‘But that’s nothing’, declared José Maria, showing me a photo on his phone, taken earlier this year, of a 420kg specimen with José Maria himself standing beside it, dwarfed by the enormous fish.
This is an operation that combines craft values with impressive scale. Soaring demand, both from the Far East and from a new wave of Spanish restaurants specialising in almadraba-caught tuna, means that year on year Herpac must acquire ever greater quantities of ‘atún rojo’. But bluefin is not the only fish: the company also makes excellent conservas of Atlantic yellowfin tuna, caught by Spanish boats off the coast of Africa, and of other oily-fish species like maruca (ling) and melva (frigate mackerel, popular all over Andalucía). Prices vary hugely across the 100-strong range, but quality is second to none.
On the day of my visit I’d booked a table for lunch at El Campero, José Melero’s famous restaurant and a genuine gastro-temple where rare sherries are paired with locally landed tuna in all its myriad forms. Emerging from the restaurant at five in the afternoon, I swore there’d be nothing for dinner. Even so, back in Vejer later that evening, I couldn’t resist it. I sliced a little Herpac mojama, sizzled up a few almonds, cracked open a bottle of fine old amontillado, and drank a toast to the good things of Barbate.
Brindisa sells the Herpac Boquerones which are high quality anchovies soaked in white wine vinegar. You can buy them here.
Tienda Herpac, c/Ancha 92, Barbate (Cádiz)
Poligono Industrial El Olivar s/n, Barbate (Cádiz). The company offers 75-minute guided tours of the factory.