The last mettanza

Image kindly supplied by the Girotonno

From May the 31st to 2nd of June 2019 a quite remarkable historical event is happening in Carloforte on San Pietro Island.

This unique event is known simply as the “Girotonno” but the story behind it is huge and fascinating.

San Pietro Island was uninhabited until 1736 when the Sardinian King made it a refuge for some coral fisherman from Genoa who were being outcast from Tabarka in Tunisia where they had been forced to work. As a result many of the traditions, language and food culture come from them and this is no exception.

Carloforte operates the very last “tonnara” in the world (the name for a group operating a traditional method of fishing by mettanza nets).  For several reasons it probably won’t last forever – so if you want to see this piece of living food history you really must come and experience it for yourself.

Since 1738 bluefin tuna have been fished here via the mettanza net system which was first created by the Phoenicians and refined by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century. They also ran a tonnara in the Egadi Islands of Sicily until a few years ago but now that has closed down.

Durning May and June as the tuna venture closer to shore in the warmer seas to breed the mettanza nets are set up just offshore of the beautiful Island of San Pietro in Sardinia. Because tuna move in shoals their routes and times are highly predictable and hence the timing of the Girotonno festival..

Footage taken during my visit in 2016

The mettanza itself is a series of netted boxes which gradually reduce in size and channel the fish into the final killing net. Once they enter the chambers they cannot come back and when the head fisherman of the tonnara decides the time is right they are moved into the final death chamber.

The decision pivots on a skilled calculation based on the number of tuna in the nets and most importantly the weather.

During the Girotonno there is a scale model of the system in town and they will explain how it works in more detail to you – I am not an expert on this.

The final killing is gruesome and bloody as the tuna are gathered up and speared in a frenzy of killing by the means of a long spear like implement with many fisherman in little boats and to be totally honest, being a city girl at heart, I am not completely comfortable with it. Lets face it no way of killing is pleasant and if I didn’t love meat and fish so much I’d be a vegetarian. I certainly applaud those that do – it’s just not for me so I try not to be squeamish but I have to confess that I don’t always succeed.

On the plus side I comfort myself with the knowledge that many tuna escape this fate and continue to travel onwards and it is therefore a more sustainable way of fishing.

Also the level of fishing bluefin tuna, even in this manner, is curbed by a restricted yield defined by the European Parliament and that is reassuring.

Plus and this is a big plus – they only fish here for two months a year and operate a very nose to tail food culture. So salted, fermented or dried – nothing is wasted and tuna appears in almost every meal all year round – year in year out.

Having said all that coming to the Girotonno does not mean that you have to see the fishing – it all happens far from town and you have to be very intrepid and indeed determined to seek out a local to take you out to the action.

Rent a boat or simply enjoy the view from the bar at Marinatour

What you can expect is to have a great time.

The town is in festival mode. There are many stands featuring locally made food and handicrafts, – look out for cork bark serving bowls, coral print ceramics, baskets, vintage items and Punt e Nu embroidery.

Spices Galore

There is plenty to amuse the children – a sweet little carousel on the square and a train ride through the town and many organised activities like sports and dancing.

The star events for me are the cooking competitions where chefs from many countries compete by cooking a tuna dish which is then discussed on stage. You can buy tickets to this on the day and you will be able to sample all the food, accompanied with a glass of wine and you even get to vote alongside the judges and experts.

An army of waiters delivers the food to you swiftly

There are also live music shows in the town every evening. For full details see the website www.girotonno.it

Outside of the festival – what everyone can experience in a summertime visit to Carloforte is the remarkable bluefin tuna meat and the food it produces. Characterised by being very red and fatty it’s a breed apart from the usual bland white flabby tuna we usually get in the UK or in tins. 

I promise you if you were blindfolded you would swear it was steak. 

These are the most typical and interesting tuna specialities that I would recommend that you try whist you are in town.

Musciame – a finally sliced salted tuna fish fillet

Finely shaved salted heart slices

Buzzonaglia – the dark oily offcuts of tuna – delicious!

Belu – which is a form of tuna tripe

Bottarga – salted tuna eggs

Various cuts of tinned tuna

Coarse tuna pate

Pickled tuna served with potato

They are usually served as a mixed starter in most restaurants in town in one form or another and they are all great so I am not going to specifically recommend where to eat them.

However I cannot emphasise enough that this is a once in a lifetime chance to eat bluefin tuna that is this good! My advice is to treat yourself and choose tagliata which is just very quickly cooked, quite rare fillet, simply fried with olive oil and a bit of rosemary.

Alternatively if you prefer your tuna well cooked try the tuna ventresca (tuna belly).

Please note that both these dishes will only be available in season for a short time and they are exceptional at Osteria Della Tonnara but be aware that you must book early or you will not get a table.

I must point out that I am not paid to say this – it is purely my personal opinion because this restaurant is exceptional at sourcing the tuna and that is key. I love lots of other places for other dishes in Carloforte but nobody does this dish like Chef Andrea Rosso (ironically named as the tuna is known as tonno rosso).

If I have tempted you to visit please read my other blog “On the way to San Pietro Island” where I explain how to get there, where to stay and even somewhere fascinating to eat on the way.

At the time of writing this article Vueling are selling return flights from the UK to Cagliari for about £200 which would fit with the festival dates.

Or you could drive to Marseille and get the overnight ferry to Porto Torres – such fun – I am going to do a blog about it soon. At time of writing you can get a one week trip with two people and your car for £128 return with Direct Ferries.

I am currently blogging from a little ship in Sardinia and if you would like any help with your trip please feel free to email me on carole@carolemason.co.uk

Carole Mason

Food and Travel - Author of Mae's Ancient Thai Food

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Carole Mason

If you would like to work with me or try my food please get in touch with me at carole@carolemason.co.uk