Driving through picturesque seaside villages along the western coast of Portugal, the ocean's influence on the landscape is everywhere. White-washed houses sport louvered shutters to deflect the glaring sun. Trees and vegetation lean inland as if sculpted by the wind. Sun-bleached seashells pave driveways and footpaths. And fish is found in unexpected places.
My boys, who were quite young then and restless from the ten hour road trip, giggled from the back seat. "Why does everyone wash their fish here?" one of them asked. I wasn't sure what he meant until I caught sight of a clothesline. Hanging between the socks and knickers were splayed sides of salted fish, curing in the heat of the sun and swaying in the salty breeze. The ubiquitous bacalhao (salt cod) were easy to pick out and I guessed that the smaller, dark slabs were tuna.
Arriving at our destination in the Algarve, we were weary and hungry. A restaurant was chosen based on its proximity to our hotel. With stomachs rumbling, we were led onto a terrace, perched high on the side of a cliff overlooking a coved beach, and beyond, an emerald green sea from which ancient limestone formations rose up like pillars.
Distracted by the view, I ordered a tuna dish which I assumed would be cooked. I was surprised to be served what looked like thin slices of raw tuna. The Portuguese are known for preparing fish a hundred ways, but never raw.
Tasting the tuna was revelatory--salty, silky, pungent and fishy, but clean--like the ocean itself. The accompaniments: slices of boiled, waxy potatoes, hard boiled eggs, minced onion and fruity, green olive oil were the perfect foil for the aggressive tuna.
Before leaving, I inquired about the tuna and learned that it was salt-cured and sun-dried; a traditional preparation called mochama. When I asked where I could buy it, I was told that it could not be bought, that it had to be made.
Its taken me a long time, but I finally did make it.
Eleven days ago, I buried slabs of fresh tuna loin in sea salt. Nine days ago, I soaked them in cold water. Seven days ago, I hung them to dry in a spare refrigerator. Today, I cut thin slices of mochama, and ate them, accompanied by potatoes, eggs, onion, and olive oil.
For a moment, I forgot that its a cold and dreary day. In my head, I was back in a land of emerald sea and warm salty breezes, where people hang their dinner out to dry with their laundry.
salt cured tuna
Mochama (Portugal), mojama (Spain), and mosciame (Italy) should be made from very fresh tuna (sushi quality). Cut the loin lengthwise with the grain into portions that are up to 5" wide and no more than 2" thick. On a whim, I brushed half of the portions with sweet soy (equal amounts of soy sauce and brown sugar, brought to a boil) during the first three days of drying. I found that this untraditional finish enhanced the final product.
In a deep, nonreactive dish, spread out a 1/2" thick layer of sea salt. Lay tuna portions on top, leaving a space between each. Cover tuna with 1/2" thick layer of salt. Cover and refrigerate for 2 days.
After 2 days, remove tuna from salt and rinse well. Place tuna in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside in the refrigerator for 2 days, changing the water 6 times during the soaking period.
After the tuna soaks for 2 days, remove from water and pat dry with paper towels. Thread a coated wire through one end of each portion and bend the end into a hook. Hang in the refrigerator to dry, allowing plenty of room between each portion for good air circulation. After 7 days, it is ready to use.