Tuna is a staple food in and around Sicily and it comes in all manners of dishes and recipes.
Have you ever asked yourself why it’s so popular here?
It all comes down to an ancient and violent annual massacre that began on the Aegadian Islands. This tradition was called the ‘mattanza’.
Beneath the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas swim the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, the largest of all tuna fish and rivalling others like the Blue Marlin and the Swordfish as one of the world’s largest Perciformes. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna grow to be heavier than 450kg and can be larger than 2.4m long. Once a year, throughout the months of May and June these humungous fish swim past the coast of the Aegadian Islands in vast numbers. Throughout most of the year they live in the Atlantic but during these months they migrate through the Mediterranean to the warm watered coast of these islands, a perfect spawning point for the tuna. This is when the mattanza begins.
Starting possibly as early as the Bronze Age, the mattanza is a tradition that has been carried down through generations and had continued to do so until very recently. Now it is only played out once or twice throughout the season off the shores of Favignana, mainly for tourists. The term ‘mattanza’ supposedly comes from the Spanish word ‘matar’ which means “to kill”, since then it’s made its way into the Italian vocabulary as a synonym meaning “massacre”. This is fitting because whole schools of fish would be caught in a single trip; hundreds of fish during each catch were caught and killed for the duration of the event. Though the mattanza is likely much older, it wasn’t until the Arabs arrived in the 9th Century these vast numbers were achievable through a new technique called drift netting.
Drift netting involves setting up a series of nets stretching out to 16km in length; these are called an ‘isola’ meaning “island”. The nets are laid out in a fashion in which they progressively get smaller and smaller, this guides the fish into the final and smallest net in the series, the ‘camera della morte’ or “chamber of death”. Once the fish have reached this trap, a crew of around sixty fishermen haul these 30m deep nets to the surface as they chant the ‘cialoma’, a rhythmic aid to set the pace that is all part of the tradition. Once the chaotic mass reaches the surface the tuna fish are clubbed, speared and hooked in. This causes such frenzy that the fish automatically dive to escape their end, many are stunned and injured in the process leading to a slow and cruel death.
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is still very much a part of the local diet in Sicilian region, though the population of these fish has declined extensively and they are now listed as an endangered species. This is due to overfishing which, naturally, has led to the demise in this ancient and brutal tradition across the islands and perhaps that’s for the best.