It has been a while since I wrote a blog post but there’s always an excuse, this time researching and writing a new food and travel book. It will be at least another year before it hits the shelves, so meanwhile here’s a taste of the first chapter: Almeria
I knew this corner of Spain decades ago, but there has been a hiatus. When I returned this November I found a buoyant city, fast-moving on the gastro front, within easy reach of the stunning natural park of Cabo de Gata, visible on the horizon below. The previously run-down city is blooming, and barely touched by tourism – for the moment.
You can’t miss Almeria’s crowning glory, a spectacular 10th century Moorish alcazar, and the largest Arab fortress in Europe. Years ago I explored it when the whole area was considered very dodgy, and this time I find myself peacefully alone among the ancient stones, jasmine, fountains and palm-trees. It’s the morning after Halloween which the Spaniards – and particularly the Almerienses – have taken to with gusto, so the city slumbers.
The views from the ramparts are stunning, from the turreted walls which continue down a canyon and up a hill opposite to the sparkling bay, the port with its ferries that whisk workers back to north Africa, and the mosaic of flat roofs below in the Barrio de la Medina, the original Moorish quarter. Behind loom the dark schist forms of the Sierra de Alhamilla, a mountain range that runs west through lunar-like terrain to join the Sierra Nevada.
Down in Almeria’s town centre, I of course make a beeline for the newly renovated Mercado Central just off the broad and rather elegant Paseo de Almeria. The slick-looking market is packed with local produce; of course much of the fruit and vegetables come from the hideous invernaderos – polytunnels – that feed all Europe, all year round.
They’re a blight on the landscape, and the Moroccan workers at El Ejido, the polytunnel ‘capital’ do not get great treatment or pay. But the result is that we can eat asparagus, peppers and tomatoes in winter, and their passive solar heating (they all face south) is far better than Holland’s equivalent, fuelled by electricity.
Other than glossy vegetables, there are robust local wines (Laujar de Andarax is a big producer) and even olive oil from Tabernas – something I find surprising given that the little town is the stage-set location for dozens of spaghetti Westerns and about as arid as you get.
In fact Almeria has a long history of hosting celluloid hits; the legendary celebrities who have passed through the town, above all in the 1960-70s, goes from Brigitte Bardot to Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif (both in Lawrence of Arabia), John Lennon, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Max Von Sydow. There are plenty more, and you can follow a location trail though town, or investigate the walk of fame next to the Teatro Cervantes.
Back at the market, the most mindblowing section lies downstairs – seafood! Almeria is renowned for being home to every creature that swims in the Med, most of which find their way to the fishing-port of Garrucha, about an hour up the coast and to Roquetas, to the west. There are small scarlet prawns, great hunks of tuna, red mullet in abundance, silvery anchovies, anglerfish, mackerel, dogfish, octopus and squid.
Seafood soup is a typical local dish that combines a good half dozen varieties, hardly surprising given the range and quality of Almeria’s piscean splendours. And of course there’s ample pescaito frito (fried fish), that Andalucian classic.
So let’s cut to the chase. To taste all this I head across the Paseo into a grid of narrow streets lined with tapas bars, little restaurants and mansions from Almeria’s 19th century heyday. As I am staying at a hotel bang in the middle of it all, a late-night tapa or two becomes a straightforward endeavour.
So, the hit-list:
1. Valentin – For a seafood dinner I’d recommend this elegant restaurant which also has a relaxed tapas bar open to the street (below). Service and quality of tapas are first rate, though cost slightly more than other taverns. Their seafood rice (paella) is a triumph, and service invariably cheerful, as in most places in laid-back Almeria.
2. Across the street you can’t go wrong at the 30-year old classic, Marisqueria Baviera which has spawned two branches down nearby side-alleys – both heaving on weekend evenings. Shellfish is one speciality here as well as excellent fried fish, and even wagyu beef. Sit at the bar for the action and order a copa with any of the succulent tapas. Sea-snails (below) are excellent. Very reasonably priced too.
3. Casa Puga, Almeria’s oldest tavern (it dates back to 1870) is a city landmark and still does a great job at keeping the inhabitants well-imbibed and well fed. The quality of their traditional tapas is surprisingly good (it’s even in the Michelin Guide 2017), but it’s the atmosphere that counts here. They are particularly proud of their wine from the nearby Alpujarras, Albuñol.
4. Just up the street from Puga, Nuestra Tierra Taberna is a relative newcomer to the scene yet striding ahead thanks to a wide range of healthy, unusual tapas like the roasted vegetables below using local ingredients. Their clientele is young and hip, and the wines on offer are mainly from the Almeria province. They will soon move to larger premises a few doors up the street, opposite the extremely mediocre Bar Encina (avoid!).
5. Chic and very Basque in style (as is the owner), the Joseba Añorga Taberna is hidden away in the lovely arcaded Plaza de la Constitucion, just a few steps from the buzzing Calle Jovellanos. Very stylish, it serves beautifully presented pintxos by owner-chef Joseba Añorga. Lots of foie gras as below, with apple purée, so hold on to your livers. A fantastic wine-list too.
Finally, very different from all the above, so hors catégorie as the French would say, is the Bar Bahia de Palma, calle Mariana 17 – between the main cluster and the Cathedral. It is a real local favourite, packed with bullfighting memorabilia, unpretentious, and offering a limited choice of homecooked tapas. But they’re good! Like the migas below, prepared in Almeria style of course.