Forty-three reasons to be the home of bluefin tuna

- Chefs

A logbook by Sensei Hiroshi Umi.

The city played a key role in the expansion of the Phoenician Empire, was the birthplace of Isaac Peral (the precursor of the submarine and other inventions), while this is also the land of delicious octopus, stew and michirones, a casserole made from dried beans. Cartagena stands atop five hills, in the style of Rome, and is a land replete with daring, visionary figures. It was here that a top-secret liqueur with 43 ingredients was first created, whose golden anatomy and silhouette now grace bars worldwide, exported to 70 adoring countries. Its skilfully devised and inimitable flavour came about in 1946 thanks to the discerning Diego Zamora Conesa, whose elixir laid the foundations for what is now the Zamora Company distilling empire.

The third generation of the dynasty now occupy the boardroom, and have seen fit to set up a grand restaurant in the city which was their launchpad to the world. Like a ship nestled in the port, between the idyllic vision of the yachts and the city wall, there stands Cuarentaytres (’43’ spelt out in Spanish), which also serves as a sophisticated store stocking the liqueur in question, and above all a first-class catering establishment. And tuna (from Murcia itself) is very much part of the story…

Having decided to get involved in the restaurant trade, the Zamora family engaged the team from Cabaña Buenavista (two Michelin Stars, three Repsol Suns, in nearby El Palmar) to run the kitchen, deciding the dishes, recipes and approach. In charge are the chefs Pablo González and Adrián Costa, who in turn delegate and share duties with the local chef Pedro Ortega, on his return to his homeland. “This all started up five years ago, when the Zamora family had the idea of giving back to the city all that it had given them, as a sign of gratitude. And I signed up a little after that. Everything has been done 100% as originally planned. We have simply transformed the premises gradually, and the realisation has grown of how important it is for the city to continue the distillery and the Licor 43 museum with the first, original shop window, and most likely there will be more to come,” Gonzalez explains.

Cuarentaytres: “Murcianising” bluefin tuna

“What is the gastronomic concept? Region, region, region and product, product, product. And what is our region’s most important but also unknown product? Bluefin tuna. I let people see that thanks to Fuentes, we are the world’s largest producer. So we are rooted in Cartagena, we have six or seven cuts on the menu… and Cuarentaytres is the home of bluefin tuna. In Murcia we don’t serve tuna like in Asia, but with other local dressings. We Murcianise it, naturalise it. There’s no need for it to be the same kind of tuna with soy or wasabi. Why not dress it with escabeche?” González argues.

Flooded with natural light and the calm of the harbourside promenade, Cuarentaytres is divided into several open-plan spaces, with room for such special celebrations as a wedding or other memorable event. As soon as you cross the threshold, you dive into the world of the famed liqueur and its variants. The jaw-dropping presentational narrative and decor come courtesy of the Cartagena-based firm Talasur. The restaurant, meanwhile, with its glazed and air-conditioned terrace, which will be an irresistible draw this summer, features charcoal grills, private rooms, 2,000 square metres of restaurant, with space for 180 diners, and even a cocktail bar. Average price: 40-50 euros. There is (for the moment) no room for a tasting menu.

Bluefin tuna. Subtlety. Little intervention.

Local cheeses, paellas (including a splendid tuna version with fish stock and garlic shoots), artichokes, aubergines with cream, barbecue and other meat dishes, freshly caught fish from the market, octopus, razor clams and plenty more besides. Fresh, unadorned cooking, free of ostentation. Tasty, fun, good to share… And the cornerstone of the menu is our titan of the seas. Interpreted with respect. Little intervention. Subtlety. As fresh as can be, caught that very morning. “It’s all about showcasing the product with very little,” they explain. Tuna belly sashimi, with toasted sesame, white sesame and a light Asian chimichurri;  a truly profound noten, cooked at low temperature in escabeche with creamed carrots; sparkling spicy diced bluefin tuna loin with chilli paste fermented with koji, or pulled tuna rolls, served in wicked brioche; and with humble delicacy, the tenderest of cheeks cooked Bordeaux-style, and served with a light tarragon Parmentier. Another mainstay is the board of local salted fish, with real traditional roots.

Cuarentaytres is a melting pot of sailors, business folk, those who are after a few tapas or a Cartagena souvenir in the form of a bottle, as well as those planning to ask their beloved’s hand in marriage. All of which has been going on since last November under the attentive gaze of chef Pedro Ortega, who was a co-player of Adrián Costa’s at Quique Dacosta, and has now come back home like a prodigal son. His profile made him the perfect candidate, and his return was swiftly inked in. As the son of the famed local chef Alfonso Ortega, he is even more enthusiastic about the venture. “I spent a long time away (mainly in Hong Kong, Madrid, Denia, Almeria…) and I was really keen on starting up a project in my homeland, all the more motivated to get behind a Cartagena-based business like Zamora Company,” the chef declares. “Pedro is the key figure here. Our role is to provide some help, vision, image…”, González explains.

Another hint of destiny indicates that this strikingly refurbished Cuarentaytres building formerly served as the Chamber of Commerce. Now, culinary creations can even be combined with mixology featuring the liqueur. And to round off any lunch or dinner, an Asian coffee is a must. Another hallmark of Cartagena. Carefully layered condensed milk, fine coffee, a dash of brandy, lemon zest, cinnamon… and Licor 43, of course.