By Linda Wainwright
When I travel I like to eat locally as much as possible. For me it’s a very important part of the experience, but, having lived for over 20 years on Tenerife, I didn’t expect too much difference when I arrived in La Gomera in October 2013. So, given that this is the second smallest of the Canary Islands, it came as a surprise that there are foods here which are unique to this island of only a tad over 142 square miles.
The island is best known for its marvelous hiking trails, and anyone who has walked here will tell you that you don’t get far before you hear that distinctive bleating, indicating there’s a goat somewhere nearby. In the Canary Islands it follows that where there are goats, there are delicious cheeses. After four months in La Gomera I can vouch for the deliciousness – and the freshness. Sometimes you go to buy a particular cheese, and you are told that it isn’t ready yet – frustrating, but proof they don’t stand for ages waiting around in storerooms.
Although I’ve bought cured cheese here, the island is definitely best-known for its soft varieties, often smoked. They are more compact and creamy than the ones I ate in Tenerife. Generally, these cheeses are matured between eight and 20 days, and packed with flavor. When you do find cured or semi-cured cheeses they are generally dusted with a coating of red pepper or gofio.
The reason that soft cheeses are more plentiful in shops than the cured ones may be because so many of the hard ones go to make a special, Gomeran delicacy called almogrote. This spicy cheese paté, made by combining strong, cured cheese with tomatoes, chilli pepper, garlic and olive oil. This is not food for a timid palate. Strengths vary and some will make your eyes water!
Cheeses are often served, as they are in other islands, grilled, with a smothering of mojo, the traditional Canarian sauces. But in La Gomera they also sometimes come coated with what is known as palm honey. More correctly described as palm syrup, this sinfully sweet, dark liquid has a similar taste to molasses. It is extracted from the palm trees in a similar way to that in which maple syrup is extracted in Canada. An incision is made high in the tree trunk, and a bucket placed to collect the sticky sap as it oozes out. Collection can only be done at night, as sunlight has an adverse effect on the syrup, and trees can only be “milked” in this way, every five years or so.
As you travel the island, you can see palms bearing the scars of syrup extraction. The resulting liquid is boiled until it is reduced to an appropriate consistency, and then bottled. Although the sap is harvested in some South American countries, it isn’t produced in any other Canary Island. I am told that this is because this is the only island on which the palms are free from a type of insect that prevents sap collection.
Of course, palm honey is divine with things other than cheese. My local bar, Tasca Telémaco, has a wonderful dish of deep fried aubergine (eggplant) drizzled with the stuff. It is perfect with leche asada, a traditional Spanish pudding, similar to baked custard, and I’ve even had it as a salad dressing.
My idea of the perfect way to pass a lazy afternoon here is nibbling a tapa of fresh goat’s cheese, drizzled with palm honey and washed down with a local wine. Whilst Gomeran wines are not as famous as those from sister islands Tenerife or Lanzarote, they are beginning to win fans, at least locally. There is just one Denominación de Origen de La Gomera (unlike Tenerife’s five), which is a regulated wine region. The island doesn’t produce sufficient to export, so you need to visit to try them! Best are the crisp whites, and my current favorite, from the 2013 vintage is Montoro, from Valley Hermigua. I am no wine expert, but it was clear to me from the first sip that this vintage was different to the 2012 I’d been drinking when I first arrived in La Gomera. It opens with a floral note, and then leaves a clean, refreshing taste on the tongue.
I can’t talk about Gomeran food without a mentioning two things, one is gofio, and the other is bananas. On certain days of the week when I step out of my front door in the morning, and when the wind is in the right direction, the delicious aroma from the gofio mill down the road assails my nostrils. When I first arrived here, drying maize was strung over walls, fences and from roofs everywhere I went. I wrote about gofio last year here, but the flour that comes from La Gomera is considered to be the best in all the islands. Since I’ve been here I’ve dispatched packets of the stuff to Mallorca, Gran Canaria and even Tenerife, so exclusive is the distribution!
There is a long tradition of farming bananas on La Gomera, which continues to this day. Most are grown by small producers, who are members of co-operatives, although years ago Fyffe’s was a major player. The hillsides of Hermigua are covered by banana terraces, which is one reason the valley always looks so verdant. As on other islands of the archipelago, they are the small, sweet, dwarf variety.
I am currently traveling around the islands, discovering and rediscovering the different faces of each one. If the food on the second smallest is this varied and unique I have great hopes for the rest of my journey!
Linda likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at www.islandmomma.wordpress.com