Rianxo (A Coruña) is a beautiful village in Arousa Norte area with a long seafaring tradition that is lost in time. Located in the largest of the Galician estuaries, this town is a benchmark in sardine fished with the traditional art of xeito. It is also said that it is the place of origin of the best xouba (little sardine), the blue fish most associated with summertime: as the traditional saying recalls, “Polo San Xoán, a xouba molla o pan” (for Saint John’s Day, the sardine dips the bread).
The sardine is a pelagic fish characterized by its bluish colour, with greenish and silver reflections on the belly, and its slender shape. It lives in shallow waters (usually between 5 and 50 meters deep), where it forms large banks that approach the coast in late spring and summer, in the spawning season.
Its sexual maturity comes in the first year of life, when it reaches a size of 13 centimetres, although this species can reach a length of 25 centimetres. Before reaching the point of its maximum development, sardines are usually called xoubas in Galicia, being especially appreciated in the local gastronomy.
One of the fishing gears used to catch this fish is the traditional xeito, in which the Rianxo fishermen´s guild, with 117 exploitation permits (permex) authorized for this art in 2021, is the one that has the largest number. Last year was a bad season for sardines, with a low level of catches: in total, the guild sold 926kg of xouba and 26,250kg of sardine, with a total of 30 vessels that were successful, with an average of two people working on each boat.
The best moment of captures is usually from mid-May to July, although in good years it can last until the beginning of August, explains the chairman of the Rianxo fishermen’s guild, Miguel Ángel Iglesias. It is precisely in the month of July when this fishing village hosts a gastronomic festival dedicated to xouba, an occasion to discover and enjoy this tasty blue fish in traditional preparations and also innovative proposals.
The key is in the taste
According to Iglesias, the most distinctive trace of this local fish is its flavour. “Our xouba has another substance, because it has a little more fat than the other ones”, says. He also adds that, taking into account its quality and established reputation, “it is a fish that has a name made in the market.”
From a gastronomic point of view, the sardine and the xouba are very versatile fish, so they admit an infinite number of presentations and accompaniments. Some of the most common preparations are empanadas (made with corn or wheat flour), but also pickled, stewed, with cachelos (boiled potatoes) or according to the simple and tasty presentation typical of the Saint Jonh’s Day festival: grilled and accompanied by a piece of cornbread.
The secret of xouba of Rianxo is its flavour: “Ours has another substance because it has a little more fat than whatever it was,” says the elder patron of the fishermen´s guild
Living with these more traditional options are innovative proposals that invite you to play with flavours, combinations and new textures. Some examples are the different recipes for marinated xoubas, which can be made raw in vinegar (such as anchovies) or using other ingredients such as gazpacho of green tomato and jalapeños, orange and salmon caviar.
In order to value the product, certify the origin and control the traceability of the xouba of Rianxo, the fishermen’s guild is working on the creation of a brand. The future quality label is conceived for all areas: to be used in fresh produce, preserved and even in the field of catering.
The xeito, an ancient and selective fishing gear
Most of the sardine catches in Galicia are made with the purse seine, and a small amount with the xeito, which is a very old fishing gear and one of the most selective that exists. Considered within the drift gear, the xeito is made up of a rectangular cloth stretched between two trallas: the upper one (which consists of a buoy flotation system that allows the draft at variable depth) and the lower one, which is weighted with sinkers. . It must remain attached to the boat by means of a rope of variable length, leaving the other end free.
This is a fishery regulated by specific management plans for this species and gear, which fix issues such as the size of the mesh, length of the cloth and catch limits. They also impose the minimum size that the fish must have, which is 11 centimetres.
This type of fishing, in which Rianxo stands out, is a very selective gillnet art that generates very few discards. Among other characteristics, the peculiarity that it allows to extract the fish in good condition stands out, something especially important in the case of the xouba, as it is smaller and more delicate than the sardine. “When it comes to unravelling it, it takes a lot of work, you have to be more careful and treat it with special affection because, if not, it will unravel”, points out the older boss, adding that “even to take it to the fish market you have to put it on ice because It takes a long time, it also ends up unravelling ”.
The first known documentary mention of xeito fishing in Galicia dates from the 15th century
Iglesias especially highlights the “artisan” character of success, since “among all the fishing gears it is the only one that did not change at all” with the passage of time. According to Elisa Ferreira in her work Fishing and Regional Economy in Galicia (which is part of the monograph entitled Fishing in the Middle Ages), the first known documentary mention of xeito (jeito) in the community dates from the 15th century, specifically from the year 1418. In any case, it is possible that the practice predates this reference.
More than 600 years old for a type of fishing in which today we continue to work, maintaining the artisanal practice and working to guarantee the quality of the product. And it is that, according to Iglesias, in the fishing world you have to work by vocation: “I was hooked”, he acknowledges, while expressing his conviction that “if the bureaucratic issue were easier, perhaps he would sign up more people”.