The food in Andalusia goes well beyond traditional pescaíto frito (fried whitebait) and that is evident at El Campero, in the coastal town of Barbate, near Cádiz. Its menu changes every year to include a large variety of fish and meat cuts, but one item never fails to be served: the highly prized blue-fin tuna caught using the ancestral almadraba trap system.
No tuna part goes to waste at El Campero, hence the fish’s moniker is “the pig of the sea”. Up to 24 different types of cuts are prepared —from tuna belly to tuna collar or morrillo (another highly prized part). They are the main ingredient in all kinds of dishes, heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine in the form of sashimi, sushi and a varied repertoire of tempura preparations.
This influence was indeed brought by the Japanese, who travel every year to Barbate to cut, freeze and take the fish back home but El Campero does not forget its roots, with tapas and dishes like mojama (cured tuna), atún encebollado (tuna with onions) or tuna tripe with black pudding.
The manager and alma mater of El Campero is self-taught chef Pepe Melero. He inherited the business from his father, a farmer who in 1965 left the fields to become a barman and who would be happily surprised with the popularity of El Campero, recently renovated to expand the busy and popular tapas area.
Worthy of note is El Campero’s interesting list of natural wines, both from Spain and abroad. Its didactic approach means there are all kinds of details about vinification and production about wines like Majuelo de la Rad, made by Rioja wonderkid Pedro Balda (€43) or whites like La Mar Salada by Ismael Gozalo (€18.50) and Alfredo Maestro’s Lovamor (€18.30), among others.
Aside from this nod towards curious and die-hard aficionados, the wine list features local Tierra de Cádiz producers and the main growing regions in Spain. A place of honor is reserved for Sherry Triangle wines, a perfect match for the food served at El Campero and which can be enjoyed by the glass.
Service is efficient and polite at the three separate spaces in El Campero —tapas bar, terrace and restaurant. Melero, who manages this small army of uniformed waiters, purchases thousands of kilos a year of almadraba tuna, a traditional net fishing method with 3,000 years of history. The fish are captured on their way towards the Mediterranean as they cross the Gibraltar Straight during the months of April and May.
That’s a good time of the year to visit El Campero and see ronqueo (the cutting process) live but other months are also perfect to enjoy this delicacy —Melero freezes the tuna at temperatures below 60ºC so it is available at his restaurant all year round. And the great thing is that there’s no need to spend a small fortune; prices in the restaurant area are high but sitting at the tapas bar is a great experience that shouldn’t set you back more than €30. Y.O.A.