My recent post, about gofio, made me think more seriously about food and whether I get a bit too obsessed by “eating local,” and how food is a part of our travel experience. I have several friends in the blogging community who focus on food, but it isn’t so important for me – or is it? I have to confess that I was disappointed with eating experiences in Fuertventura for instance, so did it color my perception of the island?
My first memory of eating there is one of the best, and it’s never a good thing to start off that way. During the very first days of my wanderings I spotted a road sign which showed I was close to Giniginamar. How could I not follow a sign to a place which sounded like something out of Mary Poppins!
Ten minutes from the main road I found a wee fishing village, quite unspoiled expect for some attempted modern buildings, and the inevitably abandoned ones, on the outskirts. And right there, on the pretty beach a bar with a half wrap-around terrace. whose menu indicated that there was a touch of the “foreign” admid its traditionally Canarian fare, I lucked out on my very first island foodie exploration. I settled back with a cold drink, and ordered lapas, one of my favorite local dishes, though by no means available in every fish restaurant.
Lapas are limpets. Like whelks or squid, done right they are ambrosial, done wrong they have the consistency of old rubber. These were very much right, served, as per tradition, in the half shell, and amply coated with the very best mojo verde I’ve ever tasted, and just that right chewiness to make each bite bring out the flavor of the ocean. I even ordered bread to mop up the sauce, which is something I avoid, and for this reason …… it generally leaves no room for desert! This time was no exception, and I’d had my heart set on blueberry pancakes, which are no way something one generally finds in the Canary Islands. I resolved to return another day to try them, but somehow never did.
Of Fish and Groundhog Day
A few days later I explored my local hometown. Gran Tarajal is an odd combination. It is, so far as I could confirm, outside of the tourist resorts and the island capital, Puerto del Rosario, the only town around which offers anything like a shopping experience: that is, where you can buy clothes, furniture, computer supplies and such everyday stuff, and which also boasts two reasonable (by local standards) supermarkets. In other words, it’s a “real” place, used by locals, but which also receives a smattering of both foreign residents and tourists. The latter to be found usually wandering up and down with somewhat perplexed expressions, and the former to be found addressing the world at large in loud voices in seafront bars as proof of their “international status.”
I very deliberately passed by a couple of places, and chose the seafront bar which was advertising “genuine” Canarian food. I suppose that I expected something different because I was on a “new” island. Afterall, on La Gomera I’d discovered mellow, smoked cheeses, sweet palm syrup, tasty watercress soup and the distinctive almogrote (cheese paté). I’d eaten all before, but in situ they were fresher and tastier and more enjoyable. So, I asked what was good. “Grilled fish with papas arrugadas,” said with a wide smile.
I sighed a little, but went along with the recommendation, since there was nothing else on the menu which seemed novel. It was excellent, fresh, garlicky, juicy; the mojos were just fine; the potatoes wrinkled and salted to perfection; the service was perfect, speedy and friendly; the place was nice, traditional and cool in the early afternoon sun outside. They even had a kennel on the terrace and water for dogs, which really impressed me. The price was reasonable. I was happy with everything.
The trouble was that thereafter it became rather like “Groundhog Day.” It happened the next week in Las Playitas. Even in a beach bar on the shimmering, white sands of the very touristy Morro Jable on the southern tip of the island, they were pushing the grilled fish, and it was done to perfection, if expensive, and the service was terrific. On a far quieter beach in the north-west, Los Molinos, with one shack which had so much potential, but which was dirty and where the service was surly and resentful, I defied the waiter (mainly because of his attitude) and ordered my fish fried and not grilled. The food was the best thing about the nasty place, thankfully. I was starving!
“But you haven’t tasted fish until you’ve been to Cofete!” they told me. So I went, bumping for an hour over a dirt track, through beige mountains, wondering if I really could change a tire and if I had no signal to call the insurance company. The bumping was worth it, even in my old van, for the view that emerges when you round the last bend, over the last hill is, quite literally, breathtaking. Dusty mountains roll down to the ocean, and pristine, seemingly endless, yellow beach stretches along the west coast, fringed by the white tips of waves, as they break on the shore. This is a protected area, so no tourist development, just a few ramshackle rural dwellings and sheds. It’s not unlike “The Beverley Hillbillys.”
I sat myself down at the only unoccupied table on the terrace of the bar, overlooking a kind of corral, where goats fixed their unwavering stare on customers defying us to order goat, perhaps? Suddenly there was snorting and clattering, and a small troop of donkeys were driven through what passed for a car park and into the corral, where they brayed intermittently as folk gawked at them. It got even more like the Wild West as an old guy atop a small hill next to the bar began shouting and yelling, apparently at a shepherding dog, unseen, which washerding his goats, so the waiter told me. I ventured my usual question, “What’s good today.” It was grilled fish.
It was sama this time. It was good. It was pleasant sitting in the sun in which amounted to a shed in a farmyard. A part of me despised the chaos, the plastic barrels, pallets and dirt, and my other self told me that if I was in Borneo or Burma I would likely be finding the surroundings “colorful” or “authentic.” Perhaps my judgement is a throwback to childhood and my granddad’s equally chaotic market garden and his same tendency to hoard bits and pieces which might come in handy some day. Ah, well, if there is one thing about grilled fish – it s a healthy choice!
It came to me that it was natural that Fuerteventura had relied on the ocean for sustenance for hundreds of years, since the land was so barren and unaccommodating. Though there were surprising oases of green, farming here must have been harder than anywhere else on the archipelago, so naturally they must have turned to the seas more than other islands had done.
Of Cheese and Goats
If folk on the coast turned to the ocean, then folk inland had turned to the animal which can supply so much, despite arid conditions, the goat! When the Spanish arrived in the early 15th century, they were surprised by the thousands of goats owned by the native Guanche population. Nowadays, it’s visitors who are amazed. There are goats, quite literally, wherever you go; swarming over seemingly inhospitable hillsides, balancing impossibly on rocks, chewing their way across sand dunes, and risking life and limb grazing by roadsides, even the main roads. I was told in the town hall in Gran Tarajal that there were 90,000 on the island now. Fellow bloggers I met up with for lunch one day said they had been told 120,000, so, let’s just say – a lot.
Goats make excellent stew. It’s one of my favorite dishes, done the way I like it, which is to say, with the fat cut off. I’ve never been a fan of fat, unless is crisped to death as in bacon or pork crackling. In Fuerteventura they seem to like it fatty, perhaps a tradition going back to the necessity of not wasting anything in that precarious climate. I’m not dissing it, just not for me.
Which brings me to cheese…….. I am, defiantly and unrepentantly a cheese addict. Happily for me Canarian cheeses are almost exclusively goat’s cheeses, lower in cholesterol than cow’s cheese, so I’ve been munching away to my heart’s content. Of all Canarian cheeses, those from Fuerteventura constantly win international, national and inter-island prizes, and easy to understand why. The fresh cheeses are denser and creamier than those I’d had on other islands, the cured ones are less bitter, and the semi-cured, of course are somewhere in between. I loved them without reservation.
Curious about how the cheeses were produced, after my forays into the process in Asturias last year, and Tenerife the previous year, I visited Queseria la Pastora near La Pared on the west coast. Regulations are such that I wasn’t able to actually see the actual cheese making taking place, but I did have a very amiable chat with one of the owners of this family business, which has been producing cheese on these arid hillsides for generations. All told they have fifteen hundred goats, and some three hundred sheep. I was able to visit one of the goat pens, and even by the measure of the goats I’d been seeing throughout my stay I felt kind of overwhelmed! And I could see that there were other pens with dozens and dozens more further back. These goats are very carefully cared for and always kept safely in pens. In fact some of the ones I’d seen roaming about, apparently, do so illegally. In fact goats are said to bear part of the responsibility for the desertification of the island. Looking at the picture of the sheep, you get an idea of the aridity of these mountains, no red earth here, just tumbleweed and wind blasted hills.
Cheese-lover or not, there is a limit to the amount of cheese one can eat, even for me, at least plain cheese. Ask for it at an inland bar, and it comes cut into wedges, often served with olives, and it’s delicious, especially with a glass of Canarian wine – easier to find the noted Lanzarote wines here than those of Tenerife. Fuerteventura has no history of wine. But I began to wonder about cooking with cheese, where weren’t there a dozen unique and original cheese dishes? Perhaps there are in the swish hotels of the more upmarket tourist areas. I know that Tenerife’s hotels boast innovative and ambitious chefs, but so do many small bars and restaurants, and in tiny La Gomera, where I had expected only cheese and fish, the food had surprised and delighted me.
Learning My Lesson
I actually came across it “back home” in Gran Tarajal, meeting Jack and Andy from BuzzTrips for lunch one day, I was late and they, wisely, had already discovered Tapaventura overlooking the beach, one of the places I’d been trying to avoid. Chic furnishings and uniformed waiters had put me off. I didn’t doubt the quality, but suspected vaguely “international” cuisine. How wrong I’d been. Jack and Andy, you see, are more concerned with the quality and originality of their food than with being obsessively “authentic.” In Tapaventura they used goat’s cheese to top tasty veggie parcels, and they used sweet potatoes to make the thinnest, tastiest fries you can imagine. The mix of original and traditional was perfect, the prices were excellent value for money……and, yes ……. I became a regular for the rest of my stay.
Another day, hungry and looking for temptation, not to mention, afraid of making an exhibition of myself if I was offered grilled fish again, I fled to Corralejo. Now Corralejo is the tourist resort I remember from 20 years or more back, white sand dunes and turquoise seas in the north of the island. It was a small village with a big hotel, which somehow didn’t seem to intrude on village life as much as you might think. I went to reaquaint myself in the first week of being in Fuerteventura, inwardly groaned at the masses of concrete, turned around and+ got the hell out of there. Friends told me I’d over-reacted, that the old village at its heart had been modernized prettily and was worth a visit. So I went, and they were right. The original core of the village has been semi-pedestrianized, and there were loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – but guess what……so many were advertising fresh fish and papas arrugadas. Finally, I slid into a cool, welcoming Italian restaurant called Tantaluna, and enjoyed an absolutely divine seafood pasta, there I was mopping up with the bread again!
This was, without doubt, the best meal I had in Fuerteventura, which is not to say that there is anything in the slightest wrong with the wonderful grilled fish or the to.die.for cheese. It’s simply that this dish contained a variety of flavors, each mouthful different, so that I almost shiver now at the memory.
When I get bored with food, my go-to dish is pizza, and who would have thunk it, but just a couple of doors down from Tapaventura I had one of the best I’ve ever had. Chunky, crunchy base so laden with topping I could hardly cope….. but somehow I managed!
What Fuerteventura’s eaterys do well, grilled fish, goat strew & cheeses, they do exceptionally well, this is the good; but, generally speaking, with the exceptions mentioned, when I tried something a bit different, it was disappointing. Goodness, as a confirmed burger-lover, I tried a couple, and let me tell you that McDonalds do better! This was the “meh,” the soggy bocadillos, the tasteless *insert chosen nationality* food. Everywhere has them, I had a very meh sandwich in Valle Gran Rey in La Gomera only two days ago, but they seemed to be a higher proportion of the whole in Fuerteventura. The only bad was the Bar Pon in Los Molinos, and even there the food was fine, it was the filth and bad attitude that made it a negative experience.
And Then There is Tinto de Verano!
I reserve a special mention for the numerous places which do wonderful, tasty and quenching tinto de verano! This mixture of red wine and lemonade or fizzy water is more refreshing than you can imagine. Given Fuerteventura’s climate it’s clearly a year-round favorite, and nowhere was it colder and more thirst-quenching than in Bar Las Playas right next to the bay in Las Playitas, where it comes in a very chilled pint glass…..they know what their customers like and need!
In many ways Fuerteventura today reminded me of the Tenerife of around 30 years ago. That I came across places which didn’t take credit cards confirms that. Tourist exploitation is a fairly new thing, and the numerous abandoned projects speak of the hard times this global recession has brought, so perhaps when things pick up again it will drive a new search for originality and diversity. No doubt about the quality, the cheeses and fish of Fuerteventura were absolutely first class, but when I remember it, food won’t be the first thing to come to mind.