Marzamemi – tranquil after the end of the Mattanza:
Despite my aspirations as a food and travel writer, I knew nothing about the mattanza and tuna fishing in Sicily until my recent visit. Ostensibly our trip to Marzamemi was for the benefit of the art students in our group who were looking for subject matter to draw. But, for me, Marzamemi was enlightening for another reason. Our first stop, to a large warehouse selling tuna products and other local artisan foods held a clue with the old photos on the wall of children sitting happily on the back of slaughtered tuna
The bluefin tuna, is the rarest and most sought after type of tuna due to a combination of water, temperature and salinity that gives the fish a unique flavour. It is most prized in Japan and over 80% of Sicilian bluefin is sold for sushi and sashimi.
The traditional method of catching and slaughtering this fish now seems rather barbaric. For hundreds of years, fishermen in Sicily used dense nets to fish for tuna in a process known as the mattanza. This took place in May and June, when the giant fish swam past the coast of Sicily. A series of vast nets were lowered into the water to catch the passing fish in successive nets which were gradually restricted in size and raised toward the surface, where the fish were slaughtered with large spears. One of the interesting things about the mattanza was the team effort of the numerous fishermen involved in each catch. The process was led by the ‘rais’ who directed the work of the men in the other small boats. Because a mattanza is the catch of an entire school of fish, dozens of tuna could be captured. And, for that reason the term mattanza is now vernacular for ‘massacre’ in the Italian language.
The bluefin tuna is an endangered species and as a result, subject to severe fishing restrictions. The Tonnare in Marzamemi is closed and the village is now more of a tourist destination than a working fishing centre, although since tuna fishing was always seasonal there are still working boats in the harbour. I am no expert on responsibility for sustainable fishing or the depletion of stocks of a particular variety but wonder that this fish is still caught at all if it is an endangered species.
What is left in Marzamemi is a pretty, tranquil village, pristine and charming. But, something of a ghost town.