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The secrets of the 'snoring' tuna

Cuts. Upper and lower loins, belly and parts of the head are among the finest cuts of tuna.
Cuts. Upper and lower loins, belly and parts of the head are among the finest cuts of tuna. / SALVADOR SALAS
  • MERCAMÁLAGA

  • Several of the stalls at the main wholesale market in the province carry out the spectacular artisan butchering of bluefin tuna, one of the most popular delicacies in the world, every morning

The cutting-up of an Atlantic bluefin tuna isn't something most people see very often, but that doesn't mean it doesn't often happen. At Mercamalaga just outside Malaga city, one of the biggest wholesale markets in Andalucía, whole tuna fish are cut into pieces using artisan methods almost every day, but only a few people are there to see it. One of the market stalls which does so on a daily basis can be found in module number 6, Ramón Adreu Alvarado. It is run by Rafael Jiménez Sánchez from Rivadepa, one of the biggest shellfish wholesalers.

"We have been doing it for about a year now. We generally cut up between three and eight tuna a day, depending on demand. Most of it has been pre- ordered," says Fernando Jiménez, who is in charge of the process and has been doing it for three years, after being taught by a much older colleague.

Fernando explains that the traditional way of cutting the tuna up is known as 'el ronqueo', which sounds rather strange because it comes from the same root as 'roncar', or 'to snore' in English.

Fernando Jiménez cuts up a 150-kilo bluefun tuna at Mercamálaga.

Fernando Jiménez cuts up a 150-kilo bluefun tuna at Mercamálaga. / SALVADOR SALAS

"It comes from the noise the knife makes when it scrapes against the backbone. That's when it 'snores', he says, although people mostly identify the term with the manual method of extracting the parts of the tuna which can be eaten.

"The idea is to cut the tuna as cleanly as possible to get the most out of it," continues Fernando, who uses four knives of different sizes for the job and usually spends less than ten minutes on each fish.

For the fish and shellfish stalls at Mercamalaga, the 'ronqueo' is a task carried out early in the morning, even before the first customers arrive, which means before 5am.

The idea is to have it prepared for when the siren sounds to indicate that the fish stalls in this market are open for business, says Rafael Jiménez.

Last year Mercamálaga sold 38.29 billion kilos of fish and shellfish (32.65 billion of fresh fish, 2.47 billion of frozen fish, 2.15 billion of fresh shellfish and 1.02 of frozen shellfish).

The 'ronqueo' starts with the head, from which parts of the interior are used; the 'morro' and 'morrillo' are in the upper part of the head, and are very popular due to their high fat content and intense flavour.

Although in Cadiz it is traditional to also use the 'facera' or 'carrillada' of a tuna, which come from the face, this is not the case at Mercamálaga. They don't use the 'parpatana', a piece extracted from behind the tuna's jaw, either.

Among those watching Fernando Jiménez is renowned Malaga chef José Carlos García, who owns the Michelin-starred restaurant of the same name on Muello Uno.

"It's not the first time I have come to a 'ronqueo', but it is something that always attracts me and I didn't want to miss this opportunity," he says. Standing beside him is the owner of the restaurant Asador Iñaki, Iñaki Teijón, and Rafael Jiménez, who owns the Ravidepa stall.

Dissection,step by step

The three watch closely as the tuna is cut into pieces in the traditional way. The one before this weighed 200 kilos. Fernando starts by separating the roe, then continues with the four loins, the two upper and two lower. First he begins to remove the 'ventresca', or stomach. It comes from the so-called 'lomo blanco'. It is much fattier and very popular with many consumers. It is during this process that the knife scrapes against the backbone and makes the 'snoring' noise.

Rafael Jiménez, Álvaro González and chef José Carlos García.

Rafael Jiménez, Álvaro González and chef José Carlos García. / SALVADOR SALAS

Once the stomach is removed, Fernando starts to separate the upper loins from the lower ones and the 'tarentelo', which is the part between the stomach and the 'cola blanca' or white tail.

In just nine minutes, Fernando has completed the process of cutting up the tuna, before the curious and expectant gaze of José Carlos García and Iñaki Teijón. Meanwhile, at the stall they are arranging the merchandise ready to sell, and preparing several orders ready for delivery.

At exactly 5am the siren sounds to signal the start of the day. The doors to the fish and shellfish section of the market are opened. Today, customers can buy the best cuts of the tuna: loins, sirloin, central part of the loin, stomach, tarentelo, black tail, which comes from the upper part, white tail, which is from the lower, and parts of the head.

Rafael Jiménez rejects parts such as the roe, spine and the white and black 'espinetas, which are pieces of the tuna which would also be used in places such as Cadiz.