Simon Courtauld

The tuna the better

The tuna the better

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A few years before his assassination in 1908, King Carlos of Portugal published a book on the tuna, its distribution and the various species of the fish. I am not aware of any other reigning monarch having written a book on fish, and it may have been Carlos’s most important legacy. In those days, the English name for tuna was tunny, and it is not entirely clear why or when it was changed to tuna. The word may be an import from the United States, since that is the Spanish–American word for the Pacific species of the fish caught off the California coast. From European waters we are familiar with the yellow-fin and blue-fin tuna, while the albacore and skipjack are inferior species often used for canning.

To those who revile Spanish fishermen, it is worth pointing out that they are environmentally correct in their catching of tuna on long lines, whereas the drift-nets more often used from British boats may trap dolphins as well as tuna. Nor will the drift-netted fish always be in prime condition: if bruised and damaged by being thrown around in a huge net, they will have to be sold for processing.

A great deal more damage is presumably done to the tuna flesh in the killing rituals which take place every year in Sicily. In spring, the fish gather in shoals and migrate inshore to breed. They are then trapped in netted enclosures, which are lifted to the surface to enable the Sicilians to gaff and club them to death in a brutal and bloody manner reminiscent of a Mafia revenge killing.

In spite of today’s fashion for fresh, often ‘seared’, tuna, the majority of the fish caught are canned, in oil or brine. It was not so many years ago that tuna (or, rather, tunny) was offered in restaurants only as part of an hors d’oeuvre. Mrs Beeton and Constance Spry give one recipe each: the preserved tuna, combined with mayonnaise, is mixed with grapefruit (Beeton) or cucumber (Spry). Other countries have, of course, done a bit better with their cans of tuna — the French with salade ni