HEART + SOLERA

Spain at its most fiercely Spanish - with its theatrical and turbulent history, its people at their most vivacious, and food at its most raw and unapologetic

Spain has been high on the clever traveller’s most desired destination list for years now. Madrid’s reemergence as a world city, the monuments to modernity in Valencia and Bilbao and the conquering of the global food scene by the Catalonian chemistry boffins have all contributed to it being rightly considered the most exuberant and avant-garde destination in Europe. No longer the exotic European subcontinent it once was, Spain has embraced a furious programme of modernisation that has propelled it into the international scene and along the way slightly moderated its famous passion and taste for the dramatic. There is, of course, one notable exception, Andalucia, Spain’s most southerly and largest region where the flouncing, foot-stamping flamenco is still red hot, the bullfights bloody and the fiestas wilder and more colourful than ever. Not a museum of tired clichés or dated folk festivals as might be perceived but an enchanting area that remains true to its traditional roots yet is ready to strut into the centre of the ring. Andalucia is Spain at its most fiercely Spanish- a theatrical and turbulent history, the people at their most vivacious and fun loving and its food at its most raw and unapologetic.

Generations of artists and authors have found their muse amongst the dramatic and shifting landscapes of Andalucia. Most have been entranced by the unique confluence of Moorish, Christian, Jewish and Gypsy cultures that informs even the smallest details of life in the region. The centuries long battle for control of the Iberian Peninsula, waged between the Moors and the Christians, had the Catholic Kings prevail. The Islamic victory however was far more subversive. While it is easy to identify the Moorish influence throughout Andalucia it is in Cordoba where it is at its most striking. The UNESCO World Heritage listed, former capital of the Al Andalus Caliphate is a maze of twisting alleyways that reveal orange blossom scented courtyards, secreted tapas bars and spectacular monuments to an unusual past. In the hot southern sun the buildings of Cordoba glow an iconic Andalucian yellow offset with stark white. What Aegean blue is to Greece is what warm ochre is to Andalucia and it is said that the sand that lines the floor of its bullrings inspired the shade.

The centerpiece of the city and perhaps the only building in Andalucia to truly rival the famed beauty of Granada’s Alhambra is its exquisite Mezquita. Visit early and admire in serenity the converted mosque’s forest of striped pillars and archways that recall a time when it was the centre of Islamic enlightenment. The peace and tranquility of the tiled, perfumed patios and religious monuments are a world away from the lively and raucous nature of Cordoba’s other main lure, its tapas bars. The culture of tapas is part of daily life and around every corner is a bar that Hemmingway would be proud to prop up. Taberna de Las Beatillas (the tavern of the little nuns) is a local favourite and while the name might suggest dainty portions and austere surroundings the reality is very different. Hearty servings of Lomo de Buey are to be found amongst the taxidermy bull head’s and bleeding crucifixes. At Casa el Pisto, owner Dolores Acedo has been receiving guests for decades with flirtation andfalse modesty while keeping vigilant eyes on the small tapas plates swirling in and out of her famed kitchen. Come to Casa el Pisto to experience the Moorish influenced Cogollos al ajillo (lettuce hearts with crispy garlic), Alcachofas a la Montillana (artichokes cooked in sweet white wine) and Berenjenas a la miel (deep fried eggplant with honey).

In an indication that Cordoba is an increasingly sought after destination, the Hospes Group, known for their sympathetic restorations of landmark buildings, opened the hip Palacio del Bailio. At the hotel’s directional tapas bar, Senzone, El Bulli trained chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez Hernandez is modernizing traditional tapa in dimly lit, chic surrounds. Over the past decade the tapas style of dining has conquered the globe at a startling rate. The origin of tapas is uncertain, although it is generally agreed that the style hails from Andalucia. Tapa is the Spanish word for “lid” and it is thought to describe the old custom of serving a slice of ham to cover and protect the mouth of a wineglass. Whatever their provenance, tapas are an undeniable part of Andalucian and Spanish culture, much less a collection of recipes and more an expression of lifestyle. Tapas reflect the proud diversity of regional cuisine throughout the country and it is worth remembering this when attempting to compare the simpler, relaxed tapas of Andalucia to the cerebral, more elaborate style known as pintxo that reaches its peak in the Basque Country.

If there is one tapa that inspires a disregard of regional prejudices and causes Spaniards to stand united in pride, it is a paper-thin slice of rich, nutty Jamon Ibérico de bellota. By far Spain’s most prestigious product, it has a permanent seat in the pantheon of luxury food products alongside the white truffle and caviar. Like its aforementioned companions it is important to be informed when choosing to indulge in such a rarity. Jamon Ibérico de bellota hails from a plateau of extraordinary stout oak forests called dehesa that has its beginnings in far west Andalucia and runs parallel with the Portuguese border to the north. When discussing the quality of Jamon Ibérico, the breed of pig and the feed it has been raised on is paramount. De belotta is the top and denotes that it has been acorn fed and Ibérican is the particular breed whose unusual make up means that the fat is tightly bound to the meat yielding that famous melt in your mouth quality. Never refer to Jamon Ibérico as Pata Negra (black hoof). This general and imprecise label has led to confusion as the black hoof is not exclusive to Ibérico pigs and is one of many characteristics that mark the breed. When ordering Jamon Ibérico the need for precision becomes immediately apparent when presented with the hefty bill for slices of an unremarkable imposter and not the fatty, fragrant, hand- carved original that is worth every euro.

The austere collection of tin roller doors and concrete boxes that make up the town of Jabugo is a far cry from the operatic splendor of its cousin in Parma but it is in this unremarkable town that the world’s finest ham is produced. While it is not possible to buy direct from the ageing houses it

is possible to shop for Jamon Ibérico products, from from La Joya who have a shop front in nearby and pretty Aracena. The people of Andalucia’s dehesa, unlike other Andalucian’s, are quiet, reserved and unperturbed by the hype surrounding their internationally celebrated product. It can be difficult for the curious to learn more about the mysteries of Jamon Ibérico and the passport holders to unlocking its secrets are bespoke gastronomic guides, A Taste of Spain. Formed by a group of congenial and connected ex-food marketing professionals, they have built a reputation as the go-to people for tailor made tours and expert guidance for the hungry Ibero- phile.

The word most used to capture the essence of the Andalucian experience is, ‘intoxicating’. Many writers blame a sultry flamenca, the spectacle of the raging bull or a waft of orange blossom in the hot air. This writer suspects the blame should be placed plainly and firmly in the copious copitas of sherry. After a few glasses of nimble and dazzling fino sherry, served fresh and accompanied with toasted almonds, razor clams or briny olives it is hard not to feel swept away, alcohol content or not. Sherry, the single most underappreciated and abused wine in the world, calls Andalucia home. The ‘Sherry Triangle’ between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria is one of the oldest and warmest wine growing regions in the world. When Sir Francis Drake sacked the coastline of the region in 1587 he returned to England with a cargo of sherry. In that moment the English affection for sweet sherry began. The result of this patronage can still be seen in its reputation as being a sickly sweet concoction relegated to the musty rear of mahogany sideboards worldwide. The tweed wearing wine barons of the jacaranda lined Jerez de la Frontera, referred to as the Andaluz Ingles still bear witness to the area’s English connection. The town is devoted entirely to its namesake (sherry is an anglicisation of Jerez) and there are numerous bogegas in the centre of town to visit with perhaps the most interesting producer being El Maestro Sierra. Originally a family of barrel makers who turned out the large wooden vessels for sherry’s unique solera aging system, the entirely female owned and operated production is an oddity where large English alcohol conglomerates dominate. The courteous, pearl wearing matriarch of El Maestro Sierra, Señora Pilar seems to have taken style cues from her aristocrat neighbours but its in her description of her winning, bone-dry fino that her true señorita spirit reveals itself ‘It is subtle, complex and a little bit tricky…like the English’ she states in deadpan voice before bursting into peal of laughter. Sherry is broadly divided into two groups, the dry and delicate fino and the darker, sweeter, more familiar oloroso. Both types have had their dark days but one can only suspect that with the continued ascendancy of Spanish food its natural and perfect partner is about to enjoy a reassessment from the fickle wine market.

Sherry is not the only Andalucian product to suffer from an image crisis, its olive oil has also had problems extolling its virtues. This low qualityreputation has been vigorously encouraged by the wily, marketing genius of oil producers from the other Mediterranean peninsula. The skirmish between the Spanish and Italian producers has raged with both sides engaging in questionable practices. Anyone who has seen the depressingly endless monoculture of inferior olives in Spain or has been hoodwinked into buying ‘Made in Italy’ labeled oil where the only thing Italian about it is indeed, the label, can attest to this. Change is on its way however and Andalucia with its rich array of indigenous olive varieties is beginning to rediscover its terroir. Leading the charge is Pedro Gómez de Baeza with LA Organic, a Slow Food friendly consortium that is producing outstanding oils like single origin extra virgin from fruity and elegant Arbequina and Picudo olives. Madrid based banker Gómez de Baeza realised the potential of Andalucian olive oil from the reaction to the yield from his hobby grove of 300 year old trees at his family estate, La Amarilla. Cleverly engaging the star power and sleek design of Phillipe Stark and the blending abilities of famed enologist Michel Rolland he has established a bourgeoning Spanish high quality oil powerhouse.

Olive oil country is centered in Jaen in the north of the region however to view the ancient olive trees head to the soaring mountains around the famed white town, Ronda. Seemingly rent asunder by an angry act of God the ravine-straddling town is a parable of the tragic drama of Andalucia. It was the scene of vicious retribution during the Civil War that saw the defeated flung alive from its cliffs. Modern bullfighting was born in its antique Plaza de Toro and the place to experience one of Andalucia’s iconic dishes, the Rabo de toro (oxtail) is next to where the animal has its celebrated death, at torero locale, Pedro Romero.

Andalusia’s historical importance owes much to its unique geography enjoying both an Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline. Its Mediterranean frontage, the Costa del Sol, has long been a playground for northern Europeans in search of reliable sunshine and the comforts of home, although it is the lesser-known Atlantic facing Costa del la Luz that holds the real allure. Its raw wilderness, wind lashed beaches and weathered fishing villages contrast sharply to the ill-conceived development, English pubs and banana boats that are the hallmarks of its compatriot. The Costa del la Luz is Europe’s last frontier before a visible African shore and the roaring Atlantic.

At the centre of this neglected coastline is Cádiz, the most historically important city you have never heard of – once the world’s most significant port, Spain’s third largest city and the gateway through which flooded the riches and curiosities of the New World. It is reputed to be Europe’s oldest inhabited city and it is no surprise that Phoenician, Moorish and Spanish seafarers have all prized the city’s thin jaunty peninsula as a natural harbour. When the Spanish empire began to crumble so did the fortunes of Cadiz and the once mercantile centre has been in terminal decline ever

since. It seems the gaditanos (natives of Cádiz) have the survival strategy for any economic downturn. Despite having the highest unemployment rate in Europe and limited prospects for a turnaround they have the reputation for being the country’s most resourceful and quickest with a quip. These attributes are at their most colourful at the city’s antique stone Moroccan style fish market (currently being restored and slated to reopen in 2011). Each vendor has a carefully self-styled public persona so look out for ‘the strong man,’ a 120kg plus body builder replete with gold dumbbell necklace (and the market’s finest boquerones) or the tuna knife wielding ‘Moustache of Cádiz’ who makes Dali look sane. An ‘only in Spain’ fact to remember is that their fish markets open at the civilized hour of 9 AM, so if the night before dinner commenced at midnight, relax, order another cerveza and dismiss any ideas of a dawn visit. Come to the Mercado of Cádiz to witness the ruthless Spanish love affair with seafood and see firsthand the wriggling, prehistoric-looking morass of a deep Atlantic haul.

You need the navigational skills of Cortes to negotiate the labyrinthine streets of Cadiz but attempt to make your way to the Barrio de la Viña adjacent to the Havana-like La Caleta beach. La Viña is the most interesting quarter of the old city, not least because it is fiesta central for the city’s famous Carnival celebrations every February. The area mostly moves at a relaxed pace but the potential that one of its bars will explode into a hedonistic party is ever present. The most original bar in Cadiz is Casa Manteca. Like the city, it is crammed, a little tattered but full of personality. Owned by a former bullfighter this corner is bar dedicated to the revered flamenco Camaron de la Isla. It is the place to interact with the other, less famous, but no less charismatic personalities of the city. Look out for the ‘la Chiquito de Cádiz’ a local flamenco singer who patrols the barrio in suit and red tie ready to perform for a kind word and a glass of sherry. The trading heritage of the gaditanos is hard to suppress and outside Manteca down on their luck men are often selling freshly shucked oysters and spindly sea urchins from massive piles atop plastic tables. As if the freshness of the oysters could not sell themselves the sales pitch focuses on their aphrodisiac properties. Blondes beware though you may find a note with a phone number and ‘you’ll need this for later’ amongst your offering.

From Cádiz follow the Costa del la Luz south along the sparse landscape to arrive at Zahara del los Atunes, one of a collection of authentic fishing villages embedded in the dunes. Zahara de los Atunes is a rough to its core fishing village in the initial stages of metamorphosis into an enclave for Madrid’s style set. Kicked off by the bohemian coterie of Penelope Cruz it is easy to see how the wild, windswept romance of the place has enchanted visitors into becoming residents. One such example are Jaime Mato Casaño, José Fuentes Carrión and Laura López Campo the young owner/chefs of Albedrío who after stumbling upon the village traded careers in the galaxy of Michelin starred restaurants in the north to set up their quirky treasure of a restaurant. A menu of perfectly executed Spanish classics that walk the line between the avant-garde style of their training and the more rustic Andalusia kitchen with effortless style. Book in advance in summer and order the Huevos de Campo and the Aztec chocolate soup with chestnut ice cream, then wash it all down with their curious gin degustation. If Albedrío alone doesn’t inspire an Andalucian sea change then a glass of tinto de verano at beachfront bar El Balleno Verde as the sun slips into the Atlantic and the African coastline obscures out of view is sure to do the trick. In the end the adage holds true, it is impossible to not be intoxicated by Andalucia, the guardian of the Spanish soul.

A Taste of Spain www.atasteofspain.com culinary@atasteofspain.com Ph: +34 856 07 96 26

Albedrio Calle Pajares, 9 Zahara de los Atunes Tel. 956439386

Casa Manteca Calle Corralón de los Carros 66 Cadiz Tel. 956213603

Casa El Pisto Plaza de San Miguel, 1 Cordoba Tel. 957 478 328

El Maestro Sierra Plaza de Silos 5 Jerez de la Frontera Book to make an appointment Tel. 956342433 www.maestrosierra.com

Hospes Palacio Del Bailio Senzone Tapas Bar Ramirez de las Casas Deza 10 – 12 Cordoba

www.hospes.es

Jamones La Joya Jabugo, Industria, 2 y 4, El Repilado Jabugo Tel. 959 122 850

LA Organic (La Amarilla)

www.laorganic.net

LA Organic olive oil is available in Australia at David Jones, jones the grocer, Hudson Meats and Macro Wholefoods Market

Pedro Romero Restaurante Calle Virgen De La Paz 18 Ronda Tel. 952 871 110

Real Iberico For more information about Jamon Iberico and where to find it www.realiberico.com

Taberna de Las Beatillas Plaza de las Beatillas, 1 Cordoba Tel. 957483336

 

© Vogue Entertaining and Travel, September 2009, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora

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