The bluefin tuna of the caliphs sampled at El Envero

- Chefs

A logbook by Sensei Hiroshi Umi.

In the homeland of salmorejo and expertly stewed oxtail, there is still a place for exquisite bluefin tuna as the cornerstone of a menu. As demonstrated here at El Envero, the restaurant we visited to find out how our titan of the oceans is handled and interpreted under the gaze of chef Manuel Valera and the owner of the establishment, a wonderful host by the name of Fernando Villena.

The city of Cordoba, with its evocative mosque and infernal summers, famed jewellers and friendly conversationalists, conceals an outstanding restaurant in the district of El Brillante. Because El Envero speaks of its owner’s passion for wine, and refers to the process in which the grape changes chromatically from girl to woman, while likewise metaphorically reflecting the maturity of its founder and its intimate clientèle.

Bluefin tuna, the star of the menu

It could also refer to the change in colour of the tuna itself, its silvery skin giving way to the vast redness within, the marvel of the kitchen. “The spirit of this place was designed above all to serve as a place to meet up with friends, to discuss business, to enjoy and debate life and its issues, the doubts and concerns that surround us… Better than seeing a psychologist. And as the backdrop, a highly thoughtful and painstaking culinary approach to share and express ourselves, with tuna which, from the very first, as with the Iberian pig, has been the star of the show, because we love this produce and the quality we get from Fuentes, which is what has made our name,” explains Villena, a one-man band with a finger in every pie, above all the property business, and who since 2011 has also been busy in the hospitality trade with El Envero.

The chef, recruited to the cause this very year, goes by the name of Manuel Varela, and has spent time at Choco (also in Cordoba, with a Michelin star) and Nerua (another star, deep within the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum). He now returns home as a prodigal son, with a host of avant-garde ideas in his pockets, but above all with reverential respect for the ingredients he uses.

“I’m Cordoba through and through, born 40 kilometres from the city in Bujalance. I found my vocation through communal cooking, barbecues with friends, because I was always a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen, the one who took care of it all, the rice, the nibbles… I studied for my Higher Level Catering qualification at the Gran Capitán Catering School in Cordoba, and followed that up with a master’s. This is my second stint at El Envero, having been sous chef for six years. This was my home, my stepping stone in establishing myself in the kitchen, and now I’ve come back. I aim to revive recipes that my mother and my grandmother cooked, adapting them to modern times,” Manuel points out.

Tartar, sashimi and a special recipe using the tuna backbone

For our chef, “Fuentes bluefin tuna is one of the jewels of our menu. Our philosophy is produce, produce and produce, principles which tuna represents to perfection. Here in Cordoba we have a fairly hot climate, and so we serve tuna mainly cold, as tartar or sashimi, in salads, although in the winter we often bring in other dishes such as a tuna marmitako casserole with a Japanese twist… Another really popular recipe is a dish we serve with the tuna backbone, a demi-glace to glaze some wonderful belly with a jus reduced for 48 hours, prepared over holm oak charcoal from the Sierra Morena. But the best-seller is the tartar, with a light dressing, so that the flavour of the fish remains to the fore,” the Andalusian chef explains, with his permanent smile and affable manner.

As the antechamber to the main room, a chilled out area to enjoy a chat, sample some tapas and crack open a bottle of wine, a preamble presided over by the decorative calligraphy and beautiful drawing of a tuna by a local artist. An establishment which has already earned the approval of the Michelin Guide in the form of a Bib Gourmand award. “I’m a big fan of salted produce, but bluefin tuna is the king. We give it all our tender loving care. As with an Iberian pig, we use every last bit. You take a piece of tuna, chargrill it, sautée it or combine it with anything, and it’s a real pleasure. And you can pair it however you like. For as long as we can rely on such outstanding suppliers as Fuentes, we will continue to serve up tuna to the best of our ability,” adds Villena. A delight fit for a caliph.

Local wines and recipes

Alongside all this talk of tuna, we should also make mention of the recipes from Cordoba which give the place its sense of self, grounding it in local principles: mango salmorejo, oxtail lasagne, local hazelnut mazamorra with hake roe, apple and radish, creamy Iberian ham and farmyard chicken croquettes, the kid and cuttlefish so typical of the south, delights sourced from the magical and delicious mountains of Los Pedroches, Russian salad made with prawns, spider crab and EVOO mayonnaise, Iberian pork cooked in the style of roast beef, and even torrija with local pecan nuts (a booming crop brought in from the USA, and now really taking off in the basin of the River Guadalquivir).

And always wine, that magical liquid ally, with Montilla-Moriles the sacred land, to pair with our beloved bluefin. “Even the dressing of the tuna sashimi uses an amontillado reduction,” mentions Varela. And it is with the generosity of Cordoba, both its wines and its hosts, that we drink a toast, just before tucking in to the tuna tartar with fried egg and five Japanese peppers, a dish which exemplifies the idea that the purity of the most humble origins achieves the grandeur of the most sublime.