Eels, goat’s milk ice cream, limpets, and wrinkled potatoes? Linda Wainwright, gives expert advice on how to eat local in the Canary Islands. The smaller the village, the less the dent on your wallet. A fascinating review on a sub culture of food in Spain.
By Linda Wainwright
The old guy was swaying slightly as he crossed the street, and he raised his walking stick in greeting. He was a type you only see around the harbor in Los Cristianos these days. The older locals have abandoned the other streets to the tourists. “Buenos tardes. Donde vaís?” (” Good evening, where you off to?”) he greeted us. “A comer paella,” (“to eat paella”) we replied. By this time he’d reached our side of the street, and he frowned. We were treated to a friendly lecture on how we should eat Canarian food and not Spanish “rubbish.” I’d only been living in Tenerife Island for a few weeks, and crestfallen at having “insulted” a local, I resolved not to make the same mistake again.
I set out on a quest to sample local foods, and it wasn’t that easy at the beginning. Mass tourism was still something of a novelty in the Canary Islands. The main resort areas, close to home, seemed bent on supplying familiar cuisine to soothe weary tourists, rather than encouraging visitors to try local fare. Much has changed now, as you might imagine. Tourism aims to promote local traditions of every type, including culinary, these days. Time has also brought up-market hotels, and award-winning cuisine to both north and south of the island.
Despite those very successful efforts by local chefs to produce Canarian Nouvelle Cuisine, dedicated foodies know that what the island excels in is twofold; sturdy, “peasant” food, inland, and the ocean’s bounty on the coast. Inland meals were designed to sustain workers who spent long hours working hillside terraces. The island is abundant, but agriculture, even now, isn’t as easy.
When I think “traditional Canarian foods,” I think gofio, fish, goat, cheese, potatoes and tomatoes, and a traditional salsa named mojo. So, whilst traditional dishes are not so spicy or exotic as in some regions, they are delightfully economical. Get away from the tourist traps, which, of course, is what we do, and you can eat happily for around €10 a head, including a beer or wine.
The humble potato, cooked as papas arrugadas, is probably the most famous local dish. Small potatoes are boiled in their skins, when the water is dried up, more salt is added and they are cooked until the skins wrinkle – papas arrugadas means wrinkled potatoes. It’s filling, high-carb grub to fuel an active lifestyle, whether working the land or the seas. They’re served with both meat and fish, or just on their own with mojo sauce. One of the best fiestas I ever attended was the Potato Festival in Vilaflor, a mountain village and heart of the potato industry, where we were fed a delicious stew, which relied heavily on said tuber.
Mojo sauces come in two basic varieties, red and green (there are some modern upstarts, but these are the traditional ones). The green is made from cilantro or parsley and the red from red peppers, and you must remember that sometimes the peppers are spicy. Mojos are often brought automatically to the table with the condiments and bread. I’ve learned to test a little before slathering it onto anything – the result of more than one ruined meal because I burned my mouth at the beginning!
Many Canarian dishes rely on gofio, flour milled from toasted grains. It’s used to thicken stews and soups; mixed with stock (meat inland, fish on coast) to make escaldón, a sort of dip or pate; and drunk by children with warm milk for a healthy breakfast. No fiesta or traditional celebration is complete without girls in costume giving away a type of cake made by mixing the flour with honey and nuts. To be truthful, it took me about twenty years to acquire the taste. It has a dry texture and toasting the grains gives it a strong flavor, but now I enjoy it, especially the honey and nut mix.
Tenerife Island was conquered by Spain in 1496, and the conquistadors found the local aboriginal population, the Guanche, making gofio, using crude stone mills to grind the seeds. The Guanche also herded goats, and both goat meat and cheeses are among my favorite foods here. Ever-inventive new ways of using goat’s milk are cropping up these days too; the ice cream I love, but a liqueur, well, not so much.
Tenerife’s steep topography precluded cattle, so beef doesn’t feature at all in traditional recipes. Pigs were introduced, however, and in family restaurants it’s usual to order a platter of grilled pork and sausages, which is plonked in the middle of the table, together with a separate plate of papas arrugadas, and often, that’s it, no veggies other than an attempt at salad, usually heavy on the tomatoes. These bar/restaurants, which you will find in every small town and village often come in at under €10 per person, but aren’t exactly vegetarian-friendly.
There is a category of bar/restaurant on Tenerife which is unique to this island. It’s called a guachinche. Centuries ago small vineyards produced more than enough wine for their own use, and it was the custom to sell the excess, which is, basically what still happens. Bars pop up in back gardens, garages and front rooms when the new wine is ready. They have a special licence, which restricts them to opening a maximum of four months a year, or less, if the wine runs out, because they may sell only their own vintage. The only other drink they may sell is water, and the maximum number of dishes they can offer is three, the main business being drinking and not eating. They can only offer fresh or dried fruit from the surrounding area by way of dessert. If you find the real thing, mainly in the north of the island, you are in for a treat. It won’t be exactly a gourmet experience, but it will be memorable and very easy on the pocket, even as little as €5 per person. Beware of imitations though; clever entrepreneurs have latched onto the title, though recent legislation should put an end to anywhere not the genuine article being allowed to use the name guachinche.
For me the very best meals on the island are to be found in the coastal towns and villages. Fish and seafood, of course, are still quite plentiful in these waters, and my idea of a perfect day in Tenerife includes sitting in the shade at lunchtime, with a view of the ocean and tucking into shrimp, eel and lapas (limpets), followed by grilled white fish and potatoes, washed down with a crisp white wine from Güimar or Abona. As a general guide, the smaller the village the cheaper it will be. In the larger towns a meal like that will set you back over €20 (but still be value for money), but in smaller places it will run to around €15. There are a couple of villages which have turned themselves over entirely to gastronomy, becoming a line of eateries along the waterside. Though invariably good quality, you should know that, because of their popularity now, they aren’t always cheap.
Most of those swish, new hotels I mentioned have excellent restaurants, often employing top class chefs, who source local ingredients to produce original dishes, like a squid lasagne for instance, which I tried recently. Chatting to the chef, he told me that the local fishing boats ring when they have a catch they know will be of interest – oh the advantages of cell phones – and if he says yes, they have someone waiting on the dock to deliver it straight to his kitchen. How fresh is that?
Truth is that eating in Tenerife these days can be just about anything you want it to be. Back in the mid 80’s when we arrived there was one Chinese restaurant in the whole of Playa de las Americas. Now I can eat Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Thai, up-market English, French, and can find a decent meal at any price to suit my pocket on the day.
Oh, and in case you think I’ve forgotten the ubiquitous banana. Although plantations abound, they are a fairly modern introduction to the island’s agriculture, and surprisingly infrequently used in local gastronomy.
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What are your favorite island foods?