I had my first, genuine guachinche experience without even knowing it. Perhaps my ignorance made it more enjoyable. I wasn’t so much tickled by the fact that I had finally tracked down a guachinche, as that I’d just eaten a feast, accompanied by a very decent red wine for the princely sum of €5. Yes, €5 ….. and no, it wasn’t 20 years ago, but just a few years back. The only dish I definitely now remember (and you will understand why) was tripe cooked in some sort of spicy sauce. Now, tripe might be the only form of food I don’t like, but I’ll always give anything a second try, and it looked so different from the slobbery, white stuff I remember my grandad woofing down, I was up for it, and thankful I did because it was delicious, as was every other dish of what seemed like an endless stream which kept coming that afternoon.
Unlike the mysterious muflon, guachinche sightings are not rare, but….distinguishing the genuine from the imposter, and finding one at the right moment – ah, there’s the mystery.
And what is a guachinche you ask? I suppose you could say that a guachinche is a category of restaurant. They evolved because local fincas needed an outlet for their excess wine production. Many island vineyards are, what the English would call market gardens, as opposed large business concerns. Today, the grapes are sold to coperatives who actually produce the wines. Whilst wine production flourished (which is an understatement) in the 17th century, and has undergone a huge revival in the last ten years or so, years in between were less prosperous for various reasons, yet these farmers made too much for their own consumption.
Thus the guanchinche was born from necessity, and I suspect from a general liking of neighborhood get-togethers. They sprang up wherever was convenient for the small-holder, in garages, sheds, back yards, or even in private houses.
Naturally enough, “real” restaurants became jealous of the success and popularity of these make-shift establishments, with whom they couldn’t compete, and so legislation became necessary to control them. These days in theory they are allowed to open only three months of the year, serve only their own wine and/or water (no beer or soft drinks, note), no more than three dishes, and no deserts other than fruit….in other words they are not in direct competition with restaurants or bars. Food is merely an accompaniment, or something to absorb some of the alcohol. Children are not to be encouraged, since the first business of the establishment is drinking and not eating….according to some folk.
Although wine is produced all over the island, almost all are in the north…..so you can see that there is a problem if you live in the south, namely drinking and driving. There are, these days, a good number of bars/restaurants which borrow the word guachinche, but which don’t conform to the above guidelines, and that is half the problem in tracking them down. I even went so far as to buy a book, which is certainly leading me to some interesting places, but many of which clearly aren’t true guachinches.
The Canary Islands, like the rest of Spain, has a long tradition of cheap eateries, bars, tascas, tipicos, whatever name you choose, everywhere, village or city, has them, the tables and seating used to be rough wood, some still are, and others now are plastic, right down to the cloth which covers the table…if there is one. There is nowhere like them in my home country, England, for whilst pubs almost all now serve food, they didn’t do so in my young day, and eating out if you weren’t exactly flush just wasn’t possible. So whilst some establishments might look pretty much like guachinches they aren’t. If they serve beer, if they serve a variety of food, if they open more or less normal hours, then they are, as one owner of such a place said to me, “A tribute to the traditonal guachinche.” All of which is not to knock the wanabes, because they are usually excellent value for money, and have hearty food and jovial ambience…..and at least they have regular opening hours.
Last winter, driving down into La Laguna after a chilly drive across the caldera from the south of Tenerife, my friend took me to what looked like a private house on the outskirts of the city, which was a guachinche she knew. Puzzled by the lack of cooking smells and general movement she leaned over the wall to speak with a woman who was leaving by the back door. It turned out that she was the owner, but had decided not to open that day because she had to go to the dentist – and therein lies the problem. A guachinche can open whenever the owner desires, since it isn’t his main occupation nor is it exactly a part of the “service” industry in the way a bar is.
Take the other week for instance: some friends and I went to the annual Cheese Fair in Pinolere in the Orotava Valley, a zone rampant with guachinches, as evidenced by all the rough, handmade signs we saw, some just scraps of cardboard (a sure sign it was the real deal), pinned to gateposts and stuck on walls. The closer to Pinolere, the more there were, and we looked forward to a cheap and tasty culinary experience after a mooch around the Fair. After our fill of cheese tasting, we left eager for our local dining adventure.
First try was the very same guachinche I mentioned in the first paragraph, where we’d lunched so well the week of the annual Craft Fair a couple of years before. We ambled down the road to find it closed, not entirely unexpected, as you may, by this far in my wee tale, have gathered. We questioned locals, some of whom didn’t even know it existed, and finally found out that it opened only once a year, at the time of the Craft Fair, clearly business that week is such they rid themselves of their excess wine. This day it was indistinguishable from any other house on the quiet road in the tranquil village.
We were directed to another. Healthy vines flourished on terraces below a large house with a wooden pergola, the rustic gate was closed, even at around 2pm – all good signs. We pushed the gate a little and could see signs of much activity….ah, not so good, they were getting ready for a wedding reception and weren’t open, but helpfully gave us directions to a highly recommended establishment lower down the valley.
By now the afternoon was dragging on, and our appetites sharpening, so we decided to drive down and to stop at the first cardboard sign we spotted. This was a good plan despite it involving a U-turn on a winding country road, it took us down a vertical, narrow street and out onto a country lane. We thought we’d lost our way, but gleefully spied it hidden behind foliage. Shivering, being used to southern warmth, we plonked our behinds down at one of the basic tables, wondering why, despite the late hour it was so very quiet. We soon found out. They had been robbed during the night and were struggling to provide any sustenance that day. We might have a long wait. Downward and onward, then.
We stopped by a tasca known for its good food to one of us, only to be shocked by the prices and the queue, and hightailed it right out. By now we’d given up hope, and were willing to settle for some tapas at a gas station (some of which do amazingly good and cheap ones by the way). The road had brought us back almost to the autopista when we spotted a hand-painted sign stuck on a wall, and made a sharp right turn in its direction. A few yards and we were outside what was clearly a finca, with enough parking for a couple of dozen cars. Suspiciously, we strolled up to the door and peaked inside.
We were greeted by a cheerful chaos, as dozens of family groups enjoyed their Sunday lunch, “Eh, guachinche, GUACHINCHE,” remarked my local friend, Cristina. Only one other family was ahead of us, and since they were a big group we got seated almost right away as a small table came free. I left the ordering to Cristina and leaned back to take in the surroundings. The place was a big terrace, filled with plastic tables with paper cloths, although the walls boasted some traditional knick knacks. Every table was filled with families or groups of friends, really wound down and enjoying wine, food and laughter without ceremony. When a young guy at the head of one, long table perched on the wall and began to strum his guitar and then sing, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Quickly plates of juicy sausages, french fries and grilled meat were placed before us, and, of course, a small carafe of their surprisingly good wine…..sadly only a half carafe because of, you know, drinking and driving. The service was jolly and very quick. The food plain but perfect and plentiful.
As guachinches go Guachinche El Ramal was enormous, strong plastic sheeting provided walls, and overhead was corrugated metal. The views from the portion of its terrace which was uncovered were quite spectacular, if you ignored the usual ramshackle-ness of the foreground.
It was unpretentious and totally relaxed. People were there to enjoy the food and the drink and each other’s company. Now, I’m not at all adverse to fine linen, nouvelle cuisine or cystal glasses. I just like food, and everywhere and every type of dining has its place, but our guachinche hunt this day was worth the wait and the effort, and I’m looking forward to the next one!