This Tiny Sardinian Island Town Is Doing Nose-to-Tail Tuna
Carloforte is famed for its bluefin tuna, where salted tuna hearts, slow-cooked tripe, dried bottarga, and oil-drenched offcuts are the backbone of its traditional island cuisine.
All photos by the author.
"This town was built on tuna," fishmonger Daniele tells me, cradling a pair of vacuum-packed fish hearts. His shop sits on one of the hushed streets typical in Carloforte—just off Sardinia's southwest coast on the tiny island of Isola di San Pietro—stocking the salted and tinned tuna products that hail from the fishing village.
Nobody lived on the island until 1736, when a community of Genoese coral fishers got kicked out of Tabarka in Tunisia, where they'd been sent to work. The then-king of Sardinia gave them refuge on Isola di San Pietro, and they brought their seafaring know-how and tabarkino dialect, still spoken by locals. Typical dishes there echo the settlers' Italy-via-North Africa route, like cascà alla carlofortina, a couscous dish spiced with clove and cinnamon, topped with eggplant and chickpeas.
But the throngs of Italian tourists in Carloforte's waterfront cafés are quick to suggest a different local delicacy: tonno rosso. The bluefin tuna is fished off the island every year from May to June using the tonnara, a complex system of anchored nets that channel the fish into an enclosure. "The tuna enter the sea from Gibraltar, arrive to Corsica, and come down here to Sardinia," Daniele explains, tracing their path on a map of the Mediterranean that hangs on his wall. The historically brief fishing season—now coupled with strict quotas for fishing boats—means fresh tuna has only ever been available on the island for a month afterward. Locals made a habit of using up every part of the tuna, conserving all sorts of cuts and organs under salt or oil to last through the winter.
I head to Al Tonno di Corsa, a restaurant sheltered from the bustle of sightseers in a peaceful, pastel-hued laneway, welcoming punters with a stack of giant cured tuna roe—the bottarga—on the service counter. It opened in the 1980s, hoping to revive the traditional tuna preserves that were then becoming forgotten. "Originally, there were no fridges, so the philosophy of the cuisine of tuna here is very linked with the conservation of the meat. We wanted to make food that was typical to the island, that you find in people's homes," says owner Secondo Borghero. "When I was a boy, in every house there were spaces to make these things and pantries to keep the conserved fish ingredients."
Lunch kicks off with a starter of their house-made tuna goods: sliced musciame, a prosciutto-like salted fillet; intensely salty shaved heart; and buzzonaglia, a jarred mix of flaky offcuts kept in olive oil. After that, I go for the belu—strips of tuna tripe cooked with tomato, white wine and potato—and cassulli, a pasta similar to gnocchi served with a rich, basil-spiked, tomato-tuna sauce. It's a house specialty that Borghero invented, as well as a tuna pâté, to use even more of those otherwise undesired cuts.
It's my first time trying bluefin tuna. As an Aussie, it's always been synonymous with the demise of ocean ecosystems, and to be avoided. It strikes me as odd that everyone advising a traditional tuna meal in Carloforte hasn't mentioned the massive issue of sustainability. I ask Borghero what he thinks about the plight of tuna.
"It needs to become part of the logic of consumption that tuna has a seasonality. Just like in winter, you shouldn't be eating peaches. It's the same with fish." The raw, prime tuna cuts are on offer during summer—after that, he'll only serve the preserved items. "We wait for a year to have fresh tuna again. You have to follow the biological cycle. Raw tuna has become fashionable, but fish for us was always cooked or salted. A lot of people ask me for tartare, and I tell them we don't have it. At first they say, 'Well, it's impossible that a tuna restaurant doesn't have tartare,' but many are happy because they discover something new."
He says nothing about just not eating it, though.
Back in the day, embracing the tuna offal and all wasn't just about being thrifty, but understanding how a cooking style can enhance different cuts. "The tuna is a very big fish, so it's just like an animal from the land—with a veal, the shank isn't the same as the fillet. You make the best use of the prime material if you have a recipe that starts with the base, then you know the ingredient more deeply," says Borghero. He explains the three types of tuna meat: the pink, delicate areas; the brick-red ones; and dark brown parts, where all the capillaries reach. "Those are good for the pâté and the sugo for the pasta. It has a strong flavour and gives the dish structure."
After leaving picturesque, tranquil Carloforte, I learn the tuna harvest can be a bloody, brutal spectacle. It's not really clear if that's in keeping with ancient fishing methods, or if it's a display for the sake of tourist attention. There's a murky tension between maintaining culturally significant food traditions and addressing sustainability goals.
The carlofortino custom of embracing secondary—but no less delicious—tuna cuts is certainly no fix for the trouble we've put tuna in, but it's surely a more respectful approach to eating all types of fish. We've welcomed crispy pig's ears, bone broth, and slow-cooked oxtail—why not take a nose-to-tail attitude to the fruits of the sea, too?