Not a fancy cooking school, but one where you can slice fresh figs, stir steaming fish stock and taste local cheeses in a beautiful old farmhouse. You can often pick the produce that will be used for meals to learn about Spanish and Mediterranean dishes. A Cooking Day, the school our guest expert Robin Graham attended, is in Malaga and a delight for experiencing the senses of real Spain.
By Robin Graham
We’re in the orchard and one of the fruit trees – a type I don’t recognise – is surrounded by some temporary fencing. I ask what it is and what’s different about it. “Oh that’s an avocado. The boar’s been at it,” I’m told.
I’m not sure I even knew that avocados came from trees, never mind that boars were partial to them. But then I’m not on home territory here; my informer, Mayte, has taken us out the back of the 17th century cortijo (farmhouse) where she lives with her family. It’s a grand old house – high ceilings and huge doors, rooms up steps, rooms down steps, rooms off rooms and all the rest of it. A bougainvillea-shaded patio that would have been a farmyard and a new wing that she has added for herself and her daughter.
We’re just a short drive from Málaga but you wouldn’t know it; I can’t see a single other property from where I stand beneath a fig tree. Around the orchard it’s all olive grove – gracefully spaced trees on slopes that isolate the cortijo, leaving it in a world and time of its own.
There are still ripe figs on one or two of the trees (I suppose the boar doesn’t like them) and the lemons are starting to come through, as are the mandarins and oranges. The olives have been picked but there is still the odd fruit ripening on the branches and falling to the ground below that crackles with dry leaves.
We’re collecting oranges for the salad we’ll be preparing together. I’m here on a press trip and I’ve brought K along. There’s another writer here too but the other three are normal guests on one of the cooking days that Mayte hosts, sometimes alone and sometimes with her friend, Keti. We’ve been invited to stay the night and hadn’t realised until we got here that it was as personal guests, since Mayte doesn’t offer accommodations.
We’re touched and thrilled to be spending the night in a room in the older part of the house, waking up in the morning to pull open the wooden shutters and reveal a spark of sunlight illuminating both the condensation on the glass and the olive trees beyond. For now though it’s back to the kitchen to roll out some risen dough into baguettes. With the bars of bread rising in a tea cloth for the second time, we set about the salad, working with a glass of wine and a plate of local cheese to pick at, dressed with homemade fig jam.
Oranges sliced and layered with finely cut spring onions, topped with bacalao – salted cod that Mayte has soaked and that we pull apart with our fingers. It’s a classic Málaga salad and once prepared, our attention turns to the fideuá, a typically Valencian dish similar to paella but made with noodles instead of rice. The noodles are toasted in the paellera (paella pan) and put aside, a sofrito (stock) of tomatoes, onions and garlic given time, monkfish added and eventually the noodles again. Finally two stocks that have been bubbling away – one made from the monkfish bones and one from the shells of the prawns we’ve peeled – are poured over and the prawns added.
It turns out cooking and talking about food is a very good way of meeting and getting to know people; by the time we sit to eat together even I – a notorious misanthrope – am comfortable and relaxed. I don’t suppose the wine has hurt either. The topic of conversation ranges from the (delicious) food to everything else under the sky and the tutorial in Spanish eating habits continues: a lengthy sobremesa (after dinner conversation) is enjoyed once we’ve polished off some little quince pastries in their cups of custard. No Spanish meal is complete if it isn’t followed by this protracted waste of time.
This isn’t a cookery class though you’ll pick up some excellent tips. It’s better than that. It’s more like a guided tour round the Spanish table by way of a Mediterranean orchard and an Andalucian olive grove. The company is convivial, the food exquisite and the setting idyllic, and the standard disclaimer that I was a guest of Mayte’s but that my opinions are my own seems unnecessary, since I have already told you I was a guest, and my opinions are always my own.
A Cooking Day is only a short drive from Malaga.
Robin Graham writes about Andalusia, Spain and some other stuff. His stories can be found, with accompanying photography, at alotofwind
He’s a private person but, strangely, doesn’t mind being followed: @robinjgraham or liked: aloto-fwind
Photography at 500px