Flavors of the Sea

Discover the history of seafood cuisine on the Mediterranean coast, how fishermen's associations began, and how they have been reinvented.

Salt-Baked Sea BreamReal Academia de Gastronomía

Both fresh and canned fish are important elements of the Spanish diet. Spain is one of the world's biggest fish consumers, and tops the rankings in Europe, despite a decline in consumption over the last few years. According to the food critic José Carlos Capel, the Spanish market is made up of "seasoned ichthyophagists—fanatical guzzlers of marine species."

Adding gurnard to a fish stew (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

It is therefore no surprise that fish is the key ingredient in a large number of traditional dishes in the Spanish repertoire. Many of these creations stem from the fishermen themselves, who used their ingenuity to turn necessity to their advantage. On board the fishing boats, they would make a communal meal—el rancho—using the lowliest marine species to feed the whole crew fishing out at sea.

Fishermen's Guild, CalpeReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Country Rich in Fish

There are 8,000 shipowners in Spain, and 198 fishermen's associations, with around 30,000 members. The associations are nonprofit organizations that bring together professionals in the fishing industry, such as shipowners and workers. They date back as far as the 11th century. When they first began, the associations' aim was to group together in collectives to defend their interests against abuses by the monarch and feudal lords.

Fishermen fishing in the port (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Traditional Fishing Techniques

Let's take a look at some of the traditional and artisanal fishing techniques that have been passed down through the generations.

Fishermen fishing in the port (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Bottom Trawling

Bottom trawling entails dragging a large net shaped like a sack along the sandy seabed at depths of at least 55 yards (50 meters), so as not to damage the seagrass meadows. Although it is a non-selective method and none of the unwanted catch is returned to the sea, it is widely used across the Mediterranean. Hake, red mullet, sole, and blue whiting are just some of the species caught in the end of the net (the codend).

Fishing netsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Trammel Netting

Trammel nets are used in rocky areas and along the coastline. It is a selective method in which the mesh size and fishing season varies depending on the species targeted: white sea bream, dentex, gilt-head bream, sole, red mullet, or cuttlefish.

Ship's signsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Longlining and Seine Fishing

A longline consists of one line, called the main line, which can be miles long. Further branch lines, known as snoods, are attached to this main line, with baited hooks at the end. Bottom longlines, set along the seabed, catch large species such as conger eels, red sea bream, and grouper. Surface longlines are used to catch tuna, swordfish, and mako shark.

Seine fishing uses a vertical net that surrounds shoals of fish detected by sonar. The net is buoyed by floats and can be moved depending on where the fish are concentrated.

Fishing netsReal Academia de Gastronomía


Fish traps are types of cages and baskets that are placed on the seabed with bait inside. Fish can easily swim into them. But, once inside, it is difficult to escape. They are used to catch conger and moray eels, as well as cuttlefish, common octopus, and lobster.

Hand with baitReal Academia de Gastronomía

Other lesser-used techniques include gill nets, moruna nets (a type of standing net used in Spain), handlining or trolling, and shellfishing.

Almadraba in BarbateReal Academia de Gastronomía


An age-old fishing technique practiced by the Phoenicians and Romans, which has remained practically unchanged to this day.

AlmadrabaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The almadraba trap is set in springtime to intercept the migration of a species that is highly prized in the culinary world: the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). This fish spends the winter months in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and begins a long migration to the Mediterranean every spring to spawn. The trap is so complex it is sometimes compared to a giant castle built in the sea, or a city between the waves.

Almadraba in La AzohíaReal Academia de Gastronomía

It comprises a labyrinth of nets anchored to the seabed and made up of different compartments. It is almost impossible for fish to escape from this ingenious trap. Almadrabas were used in many regions: around the Black Sea, Libya, Sicily, Sardinia, Liguria (Italy), Provence (France), Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Portugal, and Spain.

Almadraba in La AzohíaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Of the numerous almadrabas set to catch tuna around the Spanish coasts, there are now only four in active use. They are all in Cádiz province (Zahara de los Atunes, Barbate, Tarifa, and Conil de la Frontera). There is also one surviving almadraba in La Azohía in Cartagena (Murcia). It was previously used to catch tuna but is now limited to catching other species such as bonito, frigate mackerel, and albacore.

Boats in BenidormReal Academia de Gastronomía

Benidorm: Home to the Almadraba Operators

Historically, Alicante province was a big player in this industry. There were large numbers of almadraba traps along its coastline, near Dénia, Benidorm, Calpe, Moraira, Altea, Xàbia, Villajoyosa, Alicante, and Tabarca island. The one off Tabarca was the last to disappear, in 1960. This unique form of tuna fishing was the specialty in Benidorm, which is now a tourist hotspot. Its residents have been masters of this fishing technique since the 18th century.

Piece of bluefin tuna (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

A very high percentage of the captains who operated the main Spanish almadrabas in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were from Benidorm. The use of both fresh and salted tuna has generated a unique set of recipes. These particular dishes are prepared at home by people with connections to almadraba fishing, where the cooking duties fall to older people.

Fisher and fish stew (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

A Professional Cuisine

The fishermen lived communally and established their own cuisine, which has been kept alive in their collective memory. The fish and rice dish known as caldero de barca is a prime example of this.

Dried chili peppers (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Not much food could withstand the damp or last for any length of time on board the boats. The fishermen loaded up with non-perishable food such as oil, rice, dried red peppers called ñoras, and noodles. They would also take flatbreads and some fruit. Cooking was done over coals. The fire needed constant attention, and the cooking pot was fixed to the stove so that it would not move with the swaying of the sea.

Fish stew (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The fishermen would usually eat from the same communal pot, taking one spoon at a time and then passing it on. Fishermen's fare has been safeguarded in their collective memory, passed down from generation to generation and into the present day.

Fish stew (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Caldero de Barca

This dish is named after the iron pot in which it is cooked. It started out as fishermen's fare, but today people make this delicious seafood recipe at home, and it has become a tourist favorite in restaurants.

Ingredients for fish stew (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

It was made with damaged fish that could not be sold at market. These would normally be rockfish (such as Atlantic stargazer, red gurnard, weever, or moray eel), or an oily fish such as rock salmon, which doesn't have as strong a taste as tuna but helps to flavor the broth. Sometimes crab or shrimp were used, depending on the season.

Gurnard (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The recipe has been through various incarnations over the years and today is served in restaurants, using gurnard as the main ingredient. There are three secrets to the recipe: using good quality raw ingredients, salting the fish for a good amount of time before preparing it, and making a great salmorreta.

Dried chili peppers (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Salmorreta is a thick sauce or paste. It is made from special, dried red bell peppers (ñoras), which are fried in hot oil, making sure they do not burn and turn bitter. They are then crushed in a mortar and pestle along with tomatoes and garlic. It is used as a base for a lot of rice dishes. There are many variations on the basic recipe, including adding pepper, saffron, parsley, vinegar, a few drops of lemon juice, or even fried fish roe.

Fish stew with rice (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The dish is served in two parts. First comes the fish, potatoes, and cabbage, accompanied by the fish fumet (a reduced and seasoned stock) and a tasty aioli, traditionally made by hand using a mortar and pestle. Then, there is an arroz a banda (rice cooked in broth), served without any pieces of fish in it.

Palamós Fishermen's GuildReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Reinvention of Fishermen's Associations

Fishermen's associations today have branched out from simply defending the interests of the industry, and have begun to modernize and reinvent themselves.

Palamós Fishermen's GuildReal Academia de Gastronomía

One example is the fishermen's association in Palamós (Cofradía de Pescadores de Palamós) in Girona, which has an educational workshop where people can watch the fish auction and see boats coming into port. It is a space for sharing culinary knowledge, helping to keep gastronomic traditions alive and ensure certain dishes are not forgotten, as well as discussing sustainability.

Santa Pola Fishermen's GuildReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Learning Exercise

Other associations have launched their own brands, including Peix de Santa Pola, which belongs to the association in Santa Pola, Alicante. They sell produce such as salmorreta, which is used as a base in many rice dishes. They also sell a stock that they make themselves from fish and seafood. It has a very intense flavor and can be used to make arroz a banda (rice cooked in broth), fideuà (a kind of paella made with noodles), fish stew, and other specialties.

They also educate people, allowing organized visits to their facilities and teaching the value of consuming the less commercial species of fish.

Fresh fish in boxesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Involvement in Tourism

Fishing tourism initiatives (known as pescaturismo) in the Valencia region enable tourists to share a day's work with fishermen. Participants learn about the work involved in fishing and can take part in scientific projects carried out on the boats, collecting data on sightings of birds or marine mammals, for example.

It is also a way to keep tradition alive, raising awareness of the profession's gastronomic legacy by sharing knowledge about different marine species and the recipes in which they are used.

Campello MarketReal Academia de Gastronomía

Public Fish Auction

The El Campello market in Alicante is exceptional. It is the only fish market in Spain to hold fish auctions that are open to the public. Fishermen sell their fish direct to the consumer.

It is impossible to buy fish any fresher than this: sea bass, sardines, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, rays, and all kinds of small and medium-sized fish species. It is a gastronomic luxury available to locals, visitors, and tourists alike.

Red shrimp (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Red Shrimp: From Tradition to Innovation

Chefs, fishermen's associations, and the hospitality sector come together to drive culinary innovation. One of the stars of Spanish cookery is red shrimp. This seafood is one of the most important culinary hallmarks of Dénia, a city declared UNESCO's Creative City of Gastronomy.

It is fished from around the nearby island of Ibiza, and local establishments cook it by boiling it in sea water. There is even a creative cookery contest for red shrimp, held inside the charming central market.

Fishing port (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Spain is totally integrated with its maritime surroundings, and its cuisine is in a league of its own when it comes to fish. However, its fishing industry is a great unknown. Spain's fishing fleet, fishermen's associations, and the people who run them play a vital role in the country's health. They don't just provide fresh fish to eat, they give people the opportunity to benefit from its exceptional nutritional quality and taste.

Credits: Story

Text: Angeles Ruiz García
Image: Angeles Ruiz García (photographer), David de Luis (photographer), Sandra Jiménez Osorio (food stylist), Toni Mayor (recipe creation), Taverna El Pòsit (production).

This exhibition is part of the Spanish gastronomy project, España: Cocina Abierta (Spain: Open Kitchen), coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and Spain's Royal Academy of Gastronomy (Real Academia de la Gastronomía). The section on culinary legacy was coordinated by María Llamas, director of the Alambique cookery store and school.


Lourdes Plana Bellido, president of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy and Carmen Simón, academic of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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