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From Cantabrian anchovy producers to battling Essaouira fishermen, we head to three places where fishing has barely changed in centuries »

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The anchovy producers

Santoña, Spain

In Santoña, less than an hour up the coast from Bilbao in northern Spain, the air often smells of salted fish. Santoña is the centre of Cantabria’s anchovy industry, which hauls in 20 million kilos of fish every year around late April. Around 1,500 people in the area are employed in the process of catching, salting and canning the famed anchovies.

Most of the 60 or so brands based along the Cantabrian coast have been passed through generations. We head to the Sanfillipo factory, which was set up by Ignazio Sanfillipo in 1896 after the local anchovy population was exhausted in his native Sicily. It’s now run by his great-granddaughter Bárbara Sanfillipo and her brothers, who keep their prized brine recipe a trade secret, but will tell you that their curing method is alla vera carne. “It means little salt and lots of meat,” explains Bárbara, who says that the fish need to be salted within hours of being caught.

During fishing season, 80 women work at cutting off the anchovies’ heads and placing the fish in large tins with salt solution, ready for the maturation process. From fishing to eating, the whole process can take up to two years.

Sanfilippo’s longest-serving employee, Emilia Fernández, is due to retire after 21 years processing anchovy in Santoña. “I loved it from the day I started,” she says, and she remains unbothered by the smell of fish. “When I go home, my husband and kids can smell it, but it really doesn’t bother us – maybe because we’re from Santoña.”

The industry is lucky to still be going, after overfishing led to a ban on catching anchovies between 2006 and 2010. “We paid a heavy price for mistakes in the past,” says skipper Pablo Argos, one of the fishermen who supplies Sanfilippo. Like many here, his grandfather, father and uncles were all fishermen, too.

Argos sets out each day at 9am with his 14 crew in the Ermita Pilar, named after Argos’s mother. They head north from the Basque Country, checking their sonar devices for bocarte, as anchovies are called locally. “When one of us locates fish, we alert the other boats, because we work in groups,” he says. Once a school of fish is sighted, a small boat is lowered to cast the seine (haul) nets around thousands of the small, silvery pata negra. If things go well, six hours after setting out, they’re unloading back at port.

When the anchovies are finally tinned and ready to eat, the smell of a freshly opened can is not dissimilar to good Ibérico ham. Many consider Sanfilippo to be the finest quality anchovies on the planet – but, as Bárbara says, “We’re not doing much different from what my great-grandfather did way back.”

Santonã is just 45 minutes’ drive from Bilbao; Norwegian flies to Bilbao from Oslo. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com

The battling port

Essaouira, Morocco

With its carpet of blue wooden felucca boats, seagulls and kids jumping off the old Skala fortifications, harbours don’t come much more evocative than that of Essaouira. While kite surfers and get-away tourists have replaced the hippies that visited in the 1960s (Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones holed up here), the port, like the famous medina, has barely changed – except that life is getting a whole lot harder for the traditional fishermen.   

For much of the 18th and all of the 19th century, Essaouira was Morocco’s principal port, ferrying goods from Timbuktu and beyond to Marrakech. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, Essaouira became the centre of the world’s biggest sardine industry, with a booming canning industry well into the 1980s. Morocco is still the world’s number one sardine exporter, processing 600,000 tonnes a year, but most of the sardine-processing industry has moved to the larger coastal town of Safi, up the coast, while the much larger Agadir has long usurped Essaouira as a fishing centre. The town’s famous fish market recently closed, and there’s even been talk of moving Essaouira’s port 15km south to Sidi Kaouki to make way for a luxury marina.

Simo has been fishing these waters for more than 35 years to feed his wife and four children. “These days, we have some social security, but the prices of tools and fuel have doubled in 10 years,” he says. “What else can we do? It is hard but we are thankful for what we have.”

While many would-be fishermen have become kite-surf instructors or run cafés and surf shops, the hardy few stick together. They work from 7pm until 7am, fishing in depths of up to 600m on regularly choppy seas. “Some of the men can even distinguish one seagull from another”, explains Rachida, whose gift shop on Rue de Skala is just steps from the craggy Atlantic rocks. “They might say, ‘One is missing today, is he hurt?’ It’s an incredible connection.”

Fishing now provides a living for just 500 families in a town of around 90,000. Youssef, whose brother Adil was also a fisherman, explains, “It’s cold, it’s dark, the waves can soak you to the bone, it can be risky. This is the wild Atlantic. The wind and currents are very strong, and it can be lonely, but there is a camaraderie between the fishermen. We are family.” The fishing way of life in Essaouira seems to be endangered – see it while you still can. 
Essaouira is two hours’ drive from Marrakech; Norwegian flies to Marrakech from Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com

The seafood capital of Europe

The Algarve, Portugal

While much of the Algarve has become better known for golf and resorts, it’s sometimes forgotten that it’s the centre of one of Europe’s biggest traditional fishing industries. So-called “artisan” fishermen make up 50 per cent of Portugal’s total and, despite the introduction of commercial vessels, you’ll still find the morning’s catch being hauled ashore from brightly painted, hand-built boats all along Portugal’s southern coast. Portugal has the highest per capita consumption of seafood in Europe, with the 57kg eaten per person each year, more than double the European average.

At Armaçāo de Pêra, just west of Albufeira, the fishermen take off in wooden boats right from the beach, and mend their nets alongside reclining tourists, while around 80 per cent of Portugal’s clams are fished in the Ria Formosa. The four low islands in this nature reserve are easily reached on regular ferries and offer a chance to step back in time to a vehicle-free world of shanty houses and beautiful beaches. The fishermen live on Culatra and once they’ve brought in the catch, you’ll find them mending their nets, playings cards or having a game of dominoes in front of their huts.

For fishing on a slightly larger scale, the focal point for much of the Algarve industry is Olhāo, which is home to the traditional Bela sardine brand and Conserveira do Sul, an award-winning producer of canned fish. But its most famous attraction is its riotous fish market, with more than 80 stalls in two seafront buildings. The air is ripe with the smell of fresh fish and the sound of haggling; tuna steaks the size of your thigh are carved to order, while glistening clams and prawns are scooped up for weighing.

At O Horta, on the main promenade across from the market, you can watch the world go by and tuck into pork and clams – the Algarve version of “surf and turf”. In keeping with the area’s reputation, Olhão is trying to attract tourists with a five-star hotel in the new marina – but its real selling point is still its centuries-old relationship with the sea.
Olhõa is just 20 minutes’ drive from Faro airport; Norwegian flies to Faro from Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and London. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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