Having just completed the first Secret Andalucia tour, my mind is still full – of colour, landscapes, spirited chat, laughter, beauty, history and above all flavours. Boy did we EAT! It was the first tour I’ve led in Andalucia, following an itinerary that I devised to take visitors off the beaten track and deep beneath the surface of this magical region. And above all to sample authentic Andalucian cooking.
Timed to coincide with the publication of my latest book, Andaluz – a Food Journey through Southern Spain, it took us to five of the 20 featured restaurants. The chefs who contributed recipes were of course delighted to see the result in print which is really my ode to Andalucia, in blazing colour and over 300 pages long.
Malaga port where the tour kicked off
From Malaga, comfortably installed in our little orange bus, my clients and I cruised along the coast to Almeria then circled inland via Guadix to Granada, with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada constantly visible. Our last leg took us west to Antequera and finally back down to Malaga, a total of about 600km (375 miles) in six days. It worked perfectly, giving us enough time in each place as well as a riveting kaleidoscope of Andalucia’s landscapes – from coast to desert to mountains.
First stop in Malaga was, naturally enough for foodies, the Mercado de Atarazanas, one of Spain’s most mouthwatering covered markets, not quite as extensive as Valencia’s but easily on a par with Santiago de Compostela’s. Forget Barcelona’s Boqueria, now overrun by tourists.
After veering inland to Frigilliana, a picture-postcard pueblo blanco, we had lunch at a restaurant with arguably the best terrace views in Andalucia, where we lapped up November sunshine and views to Africa, The inspired, highly creative lunch with Middle Eastern accents easily matched the panorama.
In Almeria our enjoyment started at its majestic, sprawling Alcazaba (fortress), Europe’s second largest Islamic monument after the Alhambra. But of course food was soon back on the agenda, this time with us in the driving seat. Our tapas class led by the cheerful Mariela and her husband kept us on our toes but was also huge fun, spliced with glasses of Rioja and plenty of time to devour our creations. Here’s the chef inspecting our mini-pizzas with anchovies – delicious.
One of the greatest blights in the province of Almeria is its unavoidable polytunnels in which fruit and veg are grown year round, tended by underpaid and exploited African immigrants. These blanket an endless stretch of coast and even creep close to the Cabo de Gata Natural Park – one of our side-trips which took us to visit a hugely talented potter in the crafts village of Nijar.
We recovered at a simple beach chiringuito where we indulged in heaps of ultra-fresh seafood for which Almeria is famed. Sweet little clams and juicy Garrucha red prawns, a renowned delicacy, kicked off before we dived into this luscious arroz caldoso de marisco – a soupy seafood rice-dish. A killer.
Next ‘secret’ feed was south of Granada in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.. After a very informative visit to an organic olive-oil press and guided EVOO tasting, we bumped down into the valley to a local venta (typically Andalucian, ventas hark back to the days of roadside inns serving wholesome home-cooking). This one was truly hidden in a beautiful riverside setting.
Still blessed by autumnal sunshine, we sat at a garden table to indulge in a pork-fest, a meat instilled in Andalucia’s DNA ever since the Inquisition. Homemade morcilla, salchicon and chorizo were followed by a humungus board of grilled lamb and pork – carving skills fully tested (pic below). The side-dish of migas is also typical; meaning ‘crumbs’, it is left-over bread, broken up then fried (roughly) with peppers. chorizo and garlic. And yes! Another tasty main course materialised, this one of sloppy rice, chicken and spare ribs. By now we were nearly under the table.
Not surprisingly, this homely restaurant turned out to be incredibly popular – we later discovered at least 150 people eating inside at gargantuan family tables (it was the weekend); high decibels and not one tourist in sight. But the coup de grace was yet to come. Presented for dessert with a platter of fried egg and chips, boiled eggs and a potted mint plant, we were flummoxed. In fact no- o. Every item was sweet in this brilliantly executed display of trompe l’oeil desserts. The ‘chips’ incidentally were fried slices of apple, the earth of the mint plant a chocolate sponge. Ole!
Granada of course had far more classic though equally memorable joys, notably lunch at the Alhambra parador and dinner in a beautiful carmen of the Albayzin with peerless views of the spotlit monument.
On the road to Antequera, another ‘secret’ experience involved tasting Europe’s only organic caviar at Rio Frio, a little known sturgeon farm, and being informed about production. After two teaspoonfuls each – we went to heaven.
Next – organic honey made by Manolo at a beautiful, wild, private cortijo in the hills behind Archidona. Then came another unusual lunch – flagging by now – and, much later, a wonderful farewell dinner in the idiosyncratic bull-ring restaurant (another contributor to my book) of Antequera.
Replete, we bowed out and staggered back to the Parador.
Maybe the above tempts you? Remember there was plenty of non-foodie interest too, like guided tours to Almeria’s magnificent Alcazaba and to the incomparable Alhambra, meeting chefs, a demonstration by an accomplished ceramicist in his workshop, visiting a cave-house and museum in Guadix, buying cookies from cloistered nuns, the Andalucians themselves and of course intelligent and fun fellow guests.
So have a look at the detailed itinerary with Toma & Coe, sign up and see you in June!
Read more of my thoughts on the tour and on my book in this interview in SUR
yet more on me and the book in The Local – Spain and in the Olive Press