By: Sydney O’Shaughnessy
Off the eastern coast of Spain near the port of Valencia, the Barbara rocks over Mediterranean swells. Captain Salva and deck hand Oscar work together to retrieve their lobster nets. The men readjust their feet with each passing wave.
Salva winds the net sprinkled with fish and lobsters up out of the cobalt blue depths. “Very good!” he exclaims when a lobster the length of an arm is pulled from the sea. He is exceptionally happy with today’s catch.
Boats like the Barbara are the first step in the journey of obtaining fresh fish. After being caught, the fish are purchased at an auction and sold to the customers within two days. The fishermen recognize the health benefits of eating food that is absent of preservatives and locally harvested.
Two hours away in the port, small, iridescent fish splash into buckets on the bobbing floor of Playa la Mata, a family owned and operated fishing boat. In this leg of the journey, fishermen sort the fish depending on their size and type after being delicately extracted from the tangled nets.
Felipe Giménez, captain of Playa La Mata, sits with his back to the bow and uses his well-trained fingers to slip a fish out of the net and lobs it toward the appropriate bucket. Missing by an inch, he loudly exhales. Fortunately, one of his twin sons donned in yellow rubber boots and overalls is close enough to pick up the fish and drop it into the bucket for his father. Fishermen like Giménez and his family play an important part in feeding Valencia.
“Clean eating is important,” Giménez says. “What you feed your body, your body will give you back.”
The voyage of a fish from the sea to the plate is a sustainable process in Valencia, where the locals prefer their fish as fresh as possible. Yet, fresh fish is more expensive than processed fish and is losing popularity due to the Spanish recession.
Giménez began fishing at the age of 14. Now, 35 years later, he is the Capitan of Playa la Mata and employs his twin sons and brother. Their day begins when the family leaves the port and throws the nets into the indigo water at 5:30 a.m. Together, they wait for a couple hours in the small, crowded deck of his boat. Giménez loves working with his family because the business “stays all at home.” He thinks that eating fish is important because it is “the most natural thing” a person living in Valencia can consume.
“Meat is not as healthy as fish,” Giménez says. “You eat a fish and you know what is in it, that’s not the same with hamburger bought at the supermarket.”
However, since the Spanish economy is not as strong as it used to be, buying fresh fish is becoming a struggle. Many consumers seek the affordability of processed supermarket fish. These economic decisions are affecting the lives of the local fisherman who make their money by selling their catch at La Lonja.
“Today, we have enough to survive,” Giménez says. “When the economy is good, we make good money. Now, there is not a lot of extra money for my family.”
Giménez and his family load their fish into their bins and douse them in salt water. They gather with the other fishermen at La Lonja, the auction area, at 4:45 p.m. to begin selling their catch for the day.
At La Lonja, dozens of teal bins filled with fish are placed along the conveyor belt, waiting to go out for bidding. The fishermen joke and laugh with the potential buyers and with each other. There is no hostility in the air. Soon, the conveyor belt roars to life and sloshes the seafood into motion.
A loud laugh erupts from the last row of bidders in La Lonja. Angelo Rito Raja is rarely seen without a big smile stretched across his face. He owns the restaurant Cantina La Lonja de los Pescadores and buys all of his fish from the local fisherman. He understands the physical toll it takes to be a fisherman and runs his business in accordance to their lives.
“Being a fisherman is not an easy job,” Rito Raja says. “This place is their place. We open for them, they need the help.”
As the fish cycle by on a conveyor belt, Rito Raja bids using an electronic clicker. He sits with his clicker in his hands and explains the different kinds of fish for sale. Mollera, boqueron, and bacaladilla are small fish that are best to fry. Sepionet and other squids are sold alongside lobster and salmonete.
After about an hour of buying fish, all of the bins are given to their respected owners. Most of the buyers transport their purchases to various markets spread throughout Valencia so that the public can buy it from there.
Rito Raja carries his purchase to his restaurant that is located 50 feet away from the port and La Lonja. In Valencia, like all seafood loving places, there are hundreds of different ways to prepare fish. But Rito Raja insists that one way surpasses the rest.
“The best way to cook fish is in the oven,” Rito Raja says. “Cook it with white wine and it is nice and juicy. Very delicious.”
His wife, Flora, greets him at the door with a red lipstick smile and kind eyes. She rushes around the restaurant checking on customers and refilling drinks. Together, they create a friendly and welcoming environment for all of the people who stop by. Breezy conversation flows around the cold drinks for the fishermen and settles into the walls around the tables. Outside the tables are full of customers.
Niña Castelló sits casually in her sun soaked chair and inhales the smell of the fish. She wipes the sweat from her brow and delicately takes one of the fish the chef at Cantina La Lonja de los Pescadores prepared and squeezes it apart to extract the spine. She slips the fleshy meat of the fish into her mouth and smiles.
“This is the best fish I have ever had,” Castelló says. “I live in Valencia and this is the best yet.”