The last tonnara in the world!
This unique event is known simply as the “Girotonno" (the turn of the tuna) but the story behind it is huge and fascinating.
The Girotonno is held in the town of Carloforte which is the only town on San Pietro Island (accessible from a ferry from the mainland of Sardinia).
Every May a quite remarkable historical food event happens here - let me tell you why.
Image courtesy of Girotonno - getting in the mettanza nets
San Pietro Island was uninhabited until 1736 when the Sardinian King made it a refuge for some coral fisherman from Genoa who were being outcast from Tabarka in Tunisia where they had been forced to work. As a result many of the traditions, language and food culture come from them and this event is no exception.
Carloforte operates the very last “tonnara" in the world (the name for a group operating a traditional method of fishing by mettanza nets). For several reasons it probably won’t last forever - so if you want to see this piece of living food history you really must come and experience it for yourself as soon as possible.
Since 1738 bluefin tuna have been fished here via the mettanza net system which was first created by the Phoenicians and refined by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century.
They ran a tonnara in the Egadi Islands of Sicily until a few years ago but now that has closed down and this is the final one.
During May and June as the tuna venture closer to shore in the warmer seas to breed the mettanza nets are set up just offshore of the Island. Because tuna move in shoals their routes and times are highly predictable and hence the timing of the Girotonno festival.
The mettanza itself is a series of netted boxes which gradually reduce in size and channel the fish into the final killing net. Once they enter the chambers they cannot come back and when the head fisherman of the tonnara decides the time is right they are moved into the final death chamber.
The decision pivots on a skilled calculation based on the number of tuna in the nets and most importantly the weather.
During the Girotonno there is a scale model of the system in town and retired fishermen will explain how it works in more detail to you - I am not an expert on this.
The final killing is gruesome and bloody as the tuna are gathered up and speared in a frenzy of death by the means of a long spear like implement with many fisherman in little boats. To be totally honest, being a city girl at heart, I am not completely comfortable with it.
Lets face it no way of killing is pleasant and if I didn’t love meat and fish so much I’d be a vegetarian. I certainly applaud those that do - it’s just not for me so I try not to be squeamish but I have to confess that I don't always succeed.
On the plus side I comfort myself with the knowledge that many tuna escape this fate and continue to travel onwards and it is therefore a more sustainable way of fishing.
Also the level of fishing bluefin tuna, even in this manner, is curbed by a restricted yield defined by the European Parliament and that is reassuring.
Plus and this is a big plus - they only fish here for two months a year and operate a very nose to tail food culture. So salted, fermented or dried - nothing is wasted and tuna appears in almost every meal all year round - year in year out.
Having said all that coming to the Girotonno does not mean that you have to see the fishing - it all happens far from town and you have to be very intrepid and indeed determined to seek out a local to take you out to the action.
What you can expect is to have a great time...
The port is right in the middle of town and there are plenty of boats to hire
The town is in festival mode. There are many stands featuring locally made food and handicrafts, - look out for cork bark serving bowls, coral print ceramics, baskets, vintage items and Punt e Nu embroidery.
There is plenty to amuse the children - a sweet little carousel on the square and a train ride through the town and many organised activities like sports and dancing.
The star events for me are the cooking competitions where chefs from many countries compete by cooking a tuna dish which is then discussed on stage. You can buy tickets to this on the day and you will be able to sample all the food, accompanied with a glass of wine and you even get to vote alongside the judges and experts.
Have fun voting at the Girotonno cooking competitions after sampling the food
There are also live music shows in the town every evening. Outside of the festival - what everyone can experience in a summertime visit to Carloforte is the remarkable bluefin tuna meat and the food it produces. Characterised by being very red and fatty it’s a breed apart from the usual bland white flabby tuna we usually get in the UK or in tins.
I promise you if you were blindfolded you would swear it was steak.
These are the most typical and interesting tuna specialities that I would recommend that you try whist you are in town.
Musciame - a finally sliced salted tuna fish fillet
Finely shaved salted heart slices
Buzzonaglia - the dark oily offcuts of tuna - delicious!
Belu - which is a form of tuna tripe
Bottarga - salted tuna eggs
Various cuts of tinned tuna
Coarse tuna pate
Pickled tuna served with potato
They are usually served as a mixed starter in most restaurants in town in one form or another and they are all great so I am not going to specifically recommend where to eat them.
However I cannot emphasise enough that this is a once in a lifetime chance to eat astounding bluefin tuna that! My advice is to treat yourself and choose tagliata which is just very quickly cooked, quite rare fillet, simply fried with olive oil and a bit of rosemary.
Alternatively if you prefer your tuna well cooked try the tuna ventresca (tuna belly).
Please note that both these dishes will only be available in season for a short time and they are exceptional at The Osteria del Andrea.- but you must book a month ahead or you will be unlikely to get in.
I must point out that I am not paid to say this - it is purely my personal opinion because this restaurant is exceptional at sourcing the tuna and that is key. I love lots of other places for other dishes in Carloforte but, in my opinion, nobody does this dish like them.
If I have tempted you to visit please feel free to ask me for advice about how to get there, where to stay etc.
There is a great market in the middle of town every Wednesday
Local produce abounds....
The salt flats are sadly no longer in production but they make a scenic home for the many flamingos that live here.