“Dal Sulcis a Sushi”: Tradition and Transformation in a Southern Italian Tuna Fishing Community





taste Network, tradition, transformation, tuna, Italy

How to Cite

Johnston, K. S. (2014). “Dal Sulcis a Sushi”: Tradition and Transformation in a Southern Italian Tuna Fishing Community. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.764
Vol. 17 No. 1 (2014): taste
Published 2014-03-18

I miss the ferry to San Pietro, so after a long bus trip winding through the southern Sardinian rocky terrain past gum trees, shrubs, caper plants, and sheep, I take refuge from the rain in a bar at the port. While I order a beer and panini, the owner, a man in his early sixties, begins to chat asking me why I’m heading to the island. For the tuna, I say, to research cultural practices and changes surrounding the ancient tuna trap la tonnara, and for the Girotonno international tuna festival, which coincides with the migration of the Northern Bluefin Tuna and the harvest season. This year the slogan of the festival reads Dal Sulcis a Sushi ("From Sulcis to Sushi"), a sign of the diverse tastes to come. Tuna here is the best in the world, he exclaims, a sentiment I hear many times over whilst doing fieldwork in southern Italy. He excitedly gestures for me to follow.

We walk into the kitchen and on a long steel bench sits a basin covered with cloth. He uncovers it, and proudly poised, waits for my reaction. A large pinkish-brown loin of cooked tuna sits in brine. I have never tasted tuna in this way, so to share in his enthusiasm I conjure my interest in the rich tuna gastronomy found in this area of Sardinia called Sulcis. I’m more familiar with the clean taste of sashimi or lightly seared tuna. As I later experience, traditional tuna preparations in San Pietro are far from this. The most notable characteristic is that the tuna is thoroughly cooked or the flesh or organs are preserved with salt by brining or drying. A tuna steak cooked in the oven is robust and more like meat from the land than the sea in its flavours, colour, and texture. 

This article is about taste: the taste of, and tastes for, tuna in a traditional fishing community. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork and is part of a wider inquiry into the place of tradition and culture in seafood sustainability discourses and practices. In this article I use the notion of a taste network to explore the relationship between macro forces—international markets, stock decline and marine regulations—and transformations within local cultures of tuna production and consumption. 

Taste networks frame the connections between taste in a gustatory sense, tastes as an aesthetic preference and tasting as a way of learning about and attuning to modes and meanings surrounding tuna. As Antoine Hennion asserts, taste is more than a connoisseurship of an object, taste represents a cultural activity that concerns a wide range of practices, exchanges and attachments. Elspeth Probyn suggests that taste “acts as a connector between history, place, things, and people” (65) and “can also come to form communities: local places that are entangled in the global” (62). Within this framework, taste moves away from Bourdieu’s notion of taste as a social distinction towards an understanding of taste as created through a network of entities—social, biological, technological, and so forth. It turns attention to the mundane activities and objects of tuna production and consumption, the components of a taste network, and the everyday spaces where tradition and transformation are negotiated.

For taste to change requires a transformation of the network (or components of that network) that bring such tastes into existence. These networks and their elements form the very meaning, matter, and moments of tradition and culture. As Hennion reminds us through his idea of “reservoir(s) of difference” (100), there are a range of diverse tastes that can materialise from the interactions of humans with objects, in this case tuna. Yet, taste networks can also be rendered obsolete. When a highly valued and endangered species like Bluefin is at the centre of such networks, there are material, ethical, and even political limitations to some tastes.

In a study that follows three scientists as they attempt to address scallop decline in Brest and St Brieuc Bay, Michael Callon advocates for “the abandonment of all prior distinction between the natural and the social” (1). He draws attention to networks of actors and significant moments, rather than pre-existing categories, to figure the contours of power. This approach is particularly useful for social research that involves science, technology and the “natural” world. In my own research in San Pietro, the list of human and non-human actors is long and spans the local to the global: Bluefin (in its various meanings and as an entity with its own agency), tonnara owners, fishermen, technologies, fish shops and restaurants, scientific observers, policy (local, regional, national, European and international), university researchers, the sea, weather, community members, Japanese and Spanish buyers, and markets.

Local discourses surrounding tuna and taste articulate human and non-human entanglements in quite particular ways. In San Pietro, as with much of Italy, notions of place, environment, identity, quality, and authenticity are central to the culture of tuna production and consumption. Food products are connected to place through ecological, cultural and technological dimensions. In Morgan, Marsden, and Murdoch’s terms this frames food and tastes in relation to a spatial dimension (its place of origin), a social dimension (its methods of production and distribution), and a cultural dimension (its perceived qualities and reputation). The place name labelling of canned tuna from San Pietro is an example of a product that represents the notion of provenance. The practice of protecting traditional products is well established in Italy through appellation programs, much like the practice of protecting terroir products in France. It is no wonder that the eco-gastronomic movement Slow Food developed in Italy as a movement to protect traditional foods, production methods, and biodiversity. Such discourses and movements like Slow Food create local/global frameworks and develop in relation to the phenomenon and ideas like globalisation, industrialization, and homogenisation.

This study is based on ethnographic fieldwork in San Pietro over the 2013 tuna season. This included interviews with some thirty participants (fishers, shop keepers, locals, restaurateurs, and tonnara owners), secondary research into international markets, marine regulations, and environmental movements, and—of course—a gustatory experience of tuna.

Walking down the main street the traditions of the tonnara and tuna are palpable. On a first impression there’s something about the streets and piazzas that is akin to Zukin’s notion of “vernacular spaces”, “sources of identity and belonging, affective qualities that the idea of intangible culture expresses, refines and sustains” (282). At the centre is the tonnara, which refers to the trap (a labyrinth of underwater nets) as well as the technique of tuna fishing and land based processing activities. For centuries, tuna and the tonnara have been at the centre of community life, providing employment, food security, and trade opportunities, and generating a wealth of ecological knowledge, a rich gastronomy based on preserved tuna, and cultural traditions like the famous harvest ritual la mattanza (the massacre). Just about every organ is preserved by salting and drying. The most common is the female ovary sac, which becomes bottarga. Grated onto pasta it has a strong metallic offal flavour combined with the salty tang of the sea. There is also the male equivalent lusciami, a softer consistency and flavour, as well as dried heart and lungs. There is canned tuna, a continuation of the tradition of brining and barrelling, but these are no ordinary cans. Each part of the tuna is divided into parts corresponding loosely to anatomy but more closely to quality based on textures, colour, and taste. There is the ventresca from the belly, the most prized cut because of its high fat content. Canned in olive oil or brine, a single can of this cut sells for around 30 Euros. Both the canned variety or freshly grilled ventresca is a sumptuous experience, soft and rich.

Change is not new to San Pietro. In the long history of the tonnara there have been numerous transformations resulting from trade, occupation, and dominant economic systems. As Stefano Longo describes, with the development of capitalism and industrialization, the socio-economic structure of the tonnara changed and there was a dramatic decline in tonnare (plural) throughout the 1800s. The tonnare also went through different phases of ownership. In 1587 King Philip II formally established the Sardinian tonnare (Emery). Phillip IV then sold a tonnara to a Genovese man in 1654 and, from the late 18th century until today, the tonnara has remained in the Greco family from Genova. There were also changes to fishing and preservation technologies, such as the replacement of barrels after the invention of the can in the early 1800s, and innovations to recipes, as for example in the addition of olive oil. Yet, compared to recent changes, the process of harvesting, breaking down and sorting flesh and organs, and preserving tuna, has remained relatively stable.

The locus of change in recent years concerns the harvest, the mattanza. For locals this process seems to be framed with concepts of before, and after, the Japanese arrived on the island. Owner Giuliano Greco, a man in his early fifties who took over the management of the tonnara from his father when it reopened in the late 1990s, describes these changes:

We have two ages—before the Japanese and after. Before the Japanese, yes, the tuna was damaged. It was very violent in the mattanza. In the age before the pollution, there was a crew of 120 people divided in a little team named the stellati. The more expert and more important at the centre of the boat, the others at the side because at the centre there was more tuna. When there was mattanza it was like a race, a game, because if they caught more tuna they had more entrails, which was good money for them, because before, part of the wage was in nature, part of the tuna, and for this game the tuna was damaged because they opened it with a knife, the heart, the eggs etc. And for this method it was very violent because they wanted to get the tuna entrails first. The tuna remained on the boat without ice, with blood everywhere.

The tonnara operated within clear social hierarchies made up of tonnarotti (tuna fishermen) under the guidance of the Rais (captain of tonnara) whose skills, charisma and knowledge set him apart. The Rais liaised with the tonnarotti, the owners, and the local community, recruiting men and women to augment the workforce in the mattanza period. Goliardo Rivano, a tonnarotto (singular) since 1999 recalls “all the town would be called on for the mattanza. Not only men but women too would work in the cannery, cutting, cleaning, and canning the tuna.” The mattanza was the starting point of supply and consumption networks. From the mattanza the tuna was broken down, the flesh boiled and brined for local and foreign markets, and the organs salted and dried for the (mainly) local market. Part of the land-based activities of tonnarotti involved cleaning, salting, pressing and drying the organs, which supplemented their wage. As Giuliano described, the mattanza was a bloody affair because of the practice of retrieving the organs; but since the tuna was boiled and then preserved in brine, it was not important whether the flesh was damaged.

At the end of the 1970s the tonnara closed. According to locals and reportage, pollution from a nearby factory had caused a drastic drop in tuna. It remained closed until the mid 1990s when Japanese buyers came to inquire about tuna from the trap. Global tastes for tuna had changed during the time the tonnara was closed. An increase in western appetites for sushi had been growing since the early 1970s (Bestore). As Theadore Bestore describes in detail, this coincided with a significant transformation of the Japanese fishing industry’s international role. In the 1980s, the Japanese government began to restructure its fleets in response to restricted access to overseas fishing grounds, which the declaration of Excusive Economic Zones enforced (Barclay and Koh). At this time, Japan turned to foreign suppliers for tuna (Bestore). Kate Barclay and Sun-Hui Koh describe how quantity was no longer a national food security issue like it had been in post war Japan and “consumers started to demand high-quality high-value products” (145).

In the late 1990s, the Greco family reopened the tonnara and the majority of the tuna went to Japan leaving a smaller portion for the business of canning. The way mattanza was practiced underwent profound changes and particular notions of quality emerged. This was also the beginning of new relationships and a widening of the taste network to include international stakeholders: Japanese buyers and markets became part of the network.

Giuliano refers to the period as the “Japanese Age”. A temporal framing that is iterated by restaurant and fish shop owners who talk about a time when Japanese began to come to the island and have the first pick of the tuna. Giuliano recalls “there was still blood but there was not the system of opening tuna, in total, like before. Now the tuna is opened on the land. The only operation we do on the boat is blooding and chilling.” Here he references the Japanese technique of ikejime. Over several years the technicians taught Giuliano and some of the crew about killing the tuna faster and bleeding it to maintain colour and freshness.

New notions of quality and taste for raw or lightly cooked tuna entered San Pietro. According to Rais Luigi “the tuna is of higher quality, because we treat it in a particular way, with ice.” Giuliano describes the importance of quality. “Before they used the stellati and it took five people, each one with a harpoon to haul the tuna. Now they only use one hook, in the mouth and use a chain, by hand. On board there is bleeding, and there is blood, but now we must keep the quality of the meat at its best.” In addition to the influence of Japanese tastes, the international Girotonno tuna festival had its inauguration in 2003, and, along with growing tourism, brought cosmopolitan and international tastes to San Pietro.

The impact of a global taste for tuna has had devastating effects on their biomass. The international response to the sharp decline was the expansion of the role of inter-governmental monitoring bodies like International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the introduction of quotas, and an increase in the presence of marine authorities on fleets, scientific research and environmental campaigns. In San Pietro, international relationships further widened and so did the configuration of taste networks, this time to include marine regulators, a quota on Bluefin, a Spanish company, and tuna ranches in Malta.

The mattanza again was at the centre of change and became a point of contention within the community. This time because as a practice it is endangered, occurring only once or twice a year, “for the sake of tradition, culture” as Giuliano stated. The harvest now takes place in ranches in Malta because for the last three years the Greco family have supplied the tonnara’s entire quota (excluding tuna from mattanza or those that die in the net) to a major Spanish seafood company Riccardo Fuentes e Hijos, which transports them live to Malta where they are fattened and slaughtered, predominantly for a Japanese market. The majority of tuna now leave the island whole, which has profoundly transformed the distribution networks and local taste culture, and mainly the production and trade in tuna organs and canned tuna.

In 2012, ICCAT and the European Union further tightened the quotas, which along with competition with industrial fisheries for both quota and markets, has placed enormous pressure on the tonnara. In 2013, it was allocated a quota that was well under what is financially sustainable. Add to the mix the additional expense of financing the obligatory scientific observers, and the tonnara has had to modify its operations. In the last few years there has been a growing antagonism between marine regulations, global markets, and traditional practices. This is exemplified in the limitations to the tuna organ tradition. It is now more common to find dried tuna organs in vacuum packs from Sicily rather than local products. As the restaurateur Secondo Borghero of Tonno della Corsa says “the tonnara made a choice to sell the live tuna to the Spanish. It’s a big problem. The tuna is not just the flesh but also the interior—the stomach, the heart, the eggs—and now we don’t have the quantity of these and the quality around is also not great.” In addition, even though preserved organs are available for consumption, local preserving activities have almost ceased along with supplementary income.

The social structures and the types of actors that are a part of the tonnara have also changed. New kinds of relationships, bodies, and knowledge are situated side by side because of the mandate that there be scientific observers present at certain moments in the season. In addition, there are coast guards and, at various stages of the season, university staff contracted by ICCAT take samples and tag the tuna to generate data. The changes have also introduced new types of knowledge, activities, and institutional affiliations based on scientific ideas and discourses of marine biology, conservation, and sustainability. These are applied through marine management activities and regimes like quotas and administered through state and global institutions. This is not to say that the knowledge informing the Rais’s decisions has been done away with but as Gisli Palsson has previously argued, there is a new knowledge hierarchy, which places a significant focus on the notion of expert knowledge. This has the potential to create unequal power dynamics between the marine scientists and the fishers.

Today in San Pietro tuna tastes are diverse. Tuna is delicate, smooth, and rich ventresca, raw tartare clean on the palate, novel at the Girotono, hearty tuna al forno, and salty dry bottarga. Tasting tuna in San Pietro offers a material and affective starting point to follow the socio-cultural, political, and ecological contours and contentions that are part of tuna traditions and their transformations. By thinking of gustatory and aesthetic tastes as part of wider taste networks, which involve human and non-human entities, we can begin to unpack and detail better what these changes encompass and figure forms and moments of power and agency.

At the centre of tastes and transformation in San Pietro are the tonnara and the mattanza. Although in its long existence the tonnara has endured many changes, those in the past 15 years are unprecedented. Several major global events have provided conditions for change and widened the network from its once mainly local setting to its current global span. First, Japanese and global tastes set a demand for tuna and introduced different tuna production and preparation techniques and new styles of serving tuna raw or lightly cooked tuna. Later, the decline of Bluefin stocks and the increasing involvement of European and international monitoring bodies introduced catch limitations along with new processes and types of knowledge and authorities. Coinciding with this was the development of relationships with middle companies, which again introduced new techniques and technologies, namely the gabbie (cage) and ranches, to the taste network.

In the cultural setting of Italy where the conservation of tradition is of particular importance, as I have explained earlier through the notion of provenance, the management of a highly regulated endangered marine species is a complex project that causes much conflict. Because of the dire state of the stocks and continual rise in global demand, solutions are complex. Yet it would seem useful to recognise that tuna tastes are situated within a network of knowledge, know-how, technology, and practices that are not simple modes of production and consumption but also ways of stewarding the sea and its species. 

Ethics Approval

Original names have been used when participants gave consent on the official consent form to being identified in publications relating to the study. This is in accordance with ethics approval granted through the University of Sydney on 21 March 2013. Project number 2012/2825.


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Author Biography

Kate Sarah Johnston, University of Sydney

Kate Johnston is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. Her thesis, entitled Following Tuna: sustainability, regulation, community, explores the concepts and practices of sustainability and the sea as a valuable but controversial food source and using the case study of tuna fishing in Italy it looks at how environmental issues and cultural practices and traditions are negotiated. She has recently return from fieldwork in Italy amongst traditional tuna fishing communities predominantly in Sardinia and Sicily.


Kate began her undergraduate degree in environmental science before transferring to social science and majoring in Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. She completed a masters at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. She has presented several conference papers on diverse topics relating to food and culture. As well as undertaking a PhD she is currently a freelance writer and communications consultant working in Sydney's food industry.