At this time of year, my thoughts invariably start to turn to tuna. Not some sad image of greyish-pink mush in a can though. What I have in mind is the massive slabs of glistening scarlet bluefin on the stalls in the market in Barbate on the Costa de la Luz.
This small, slightly shabby, seaside town on the Atlantic coast in the west of Andalucía is certainly not a secret – indeed, it is jammed with mainly Spanish visitors in July and August – but it’s not your typical holiday resort either. There is only a handful of low-key hotels, none of which is likely to trouble any list of charming places to stay – although there are plenty of appealing options in the immediate vicinity, from glamping to boutique hotels and complexes packed with facilities. Most of the regular holidaymakers from other parts of Spain stay in apartments, either family-owned or rented.
For decades, General Franco spent his summers there, and the town was known as Barbate de Franco until the end of the 20th century, which is not exactly the sort of celebrity endorsement any destination would covet.
It is still a proper fishing town, albeit one with that just happens to have a string of splendid beaches attached, where people come to windsurf, dive and paddleboard – except when the vicious Levante wind is blowing. And then there is the nature reserve of La Breña and marshlands of Barbate, which sprawls around the town and along the cliffs to the west towards Cape Trafalgar, where you can spend an idyllic day hiking, cycling, horseriding or birdwatching.
Of course, it is a wonderful area to spend a summer holiday, but spring is the best time to visit if you ask me. While it is warm enough for full-on sunbathing, it is the food you are really coming for, because this unprepossessing little place is a bit of a gastronomic hotspot.
Barbate – and the neighbouring towns of Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes and Tarifa – really come alive from late April to early June, when the almadraba tuna season is underway. This is the traditional fishing method that was introduced by the Phoenicians more than 3,000 years ago and involves a labyrinthine tunnel of nets that are used to catch a strictly regulated quota of the bluefin as they migrate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Once a day in the early morning, the final net is raised to the surface, a thrilling moment of thrashing and splashing that I have witnessed from a wobbly viewpoint on the deck of one of the fishing boats. The new company Cádiz Atlántica organises all sorts of trips along the coast, both on and in the water if you fancy it (en.cadizatlantica.com).
In Barbate, you have to eat at El Campero, which has an astounding almadraba tasting menu, matched by equally astounding sherries – sherry is of course only made in this corner of Spain. I usually meet up there with Annie Manson, who runs cookery workshops and food and sherry tours (including one in May based around almadraba tuna) from her traditional house in the hilltop white village of Vejer de la Frontera, which is a short drive north of Barbate and one of the prettiest in Spain (anniebspain.com/courses/ultimate-almadraba-tuna-tour).
“It’s almost impossible to eat badly in Barbate because it’s all geared towards the Spanish and no Spaniard ever eats badly,” she says. “You can find delicious tapas even in the tiniest bar and it’s all good honest food. Even El Campero isn’t aiming for Michelin stars.”
While Barbate has hung onto its workaday vibe, other parts of the Costa de la Luz are becoming very chic indeed. A few miles down the coast, just south of Zahara de los Atunes, is the strip known as Atlanterra, an area with luxury hotels and spectacular villas flanking fabulous beaches. It is here that the London-based Spanish chef José Pizarro and his partner Peter Meades have just launched their latest venture at Iris Zahara, a stunning contemporary clifftop property where groups of up to 10 guests can enjoy all manner of gastronomic experiences (josepizarro.com/iris-zahara). “It is a place that makes me very happy, where I can really relax,” says Pizarro. “The light is amazing, not to mention the produce and the restaurants.”
If you need any more encouragement, Barbate and the other almadraba towns hold food festivals at different times throughout the spring. Bars create elaborate tuna tapas, which are usually available with a glass of sherry, wine or beer for a ridiculously reasonable price. Drifting from one bar to the next, trying the special tapa in each with a glass of ice-cold fino in hand, is one of the best ways to spend a weekend in Spain, believe me.
Where to stay
Madreselva (0034 956 447730; califavejer.com/en/hotel-madreselva) is a gorgeous little boutique hotel with 18 rooms in Los Caños de Meca, six miles west of Barbate. Doubles from £60 including breakfast.
What to eat
Tuna belly, loin, tataki, sashimi and more at any bar, with an obligatory blowout meal at El Campero (restauranteelcampero.es).
The Barbate Tuna Gastronomic Week takes place from April 27 to May 2 (turismobarbate.es).
How to get there
Barbate is 57 miles from Jerez and Gibraltar airports. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Jerez from Stansted and Tui (tui.co.uk) from Gatwick. British Airways (britishairways.com) flies to Gibraltar from Heathrow and Easyjet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh.