I grew up eating canned white tuna so when I moved to Italy and encountered bluefin tuna, packed in olive oil, I was shocked. The meat was dark with a meaty texture and rich flavor. It was like tasting a steak, when I was used to hot dogs.
Between spring and summer every year, bluefin grow robust and migrate to spawn in the Mediterrean's coastal waters. They have been caught there for centuries with an ancient Greek method refined by the Arabs. Nets that form a series of three chambers are suspended along the bluefin migration route to take advantage of currents, which guide the fish into large net "rooms" that close behind them. The third room, known as "the death chamber," is flanked by boats with fishermen who harpoon the tuna and hoist them aboard in a bloody ritual called the mattanza.
Italy's tuna fisheries are located off the coasts of Sicily and Calabria. Many of the fishing boats sail from the southwestern seaport of Pizzo di Calabria, where my favorite brand of tuna, Callipo, has been canned since 1918. The boats fish not far from port and return daily. Some tuna is sold fresh from the wharf (largely to Japanese buyers), and the rest is cooked and packed in olive oil. The packing is done by hand, each steak cut to fit its can - some of the cans are huge. Recently I astonished an audience at a Macy's cooking class with a two-kilo, about four-and-one-half pound, can that I'd carried from Italy. Once processed, the tuna is rests in its can for six months, in order for its flavor to mature.
In Italy, lovers of tuna should look for cans with the red label which every cannery uses to distinguish tonno di tonnara (tonnara being the name of that three-chambered net), or for the yellow label that signals ventresca (the belly of the tuna - fatter, richer and softer fish). Unhappily, regulations prohibit importing this everyday Italian delicacy to the United States. But if your market carries tuna packed in olive oil, grab it. Keep it on hand to make a classic Tuscan Tuna and Beans when you simply can't face that bland water-packed stuff any longer.
November 7, 1996