Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, offers year-round opportunities for doing nothing more than acquire a tan as Gillian Thomas discovered. But as she found out it fits the bill too if you like your sun and sea to come with a special foody experience.
Local fish, pork, rabbit and goat all appear in many guises, accompanied by tiny ‘wrinkly’ potatoes in their skins - papas arrugadas - and spicy green or red mojo sauce, while desserts come with honey-flavoured gofio - toasted wholemeal flour.
Gofia is a reminder that several factors have influenced the local cuisine. Firstly, the island is volcanic, making much of it bare and lunar-like, with hard dry soil which is difficult to cultivate but rich in minerals. Secondly, the Canaries were colonised by the Spanish who introduced European ways with food.
Thirdly, close ties with South America were subsequently developed thanks to Christopher Columbus who stopped off for provisions on the neighbouring island of Gomera in 1492 on his way to discover the New World.
From high-rise resorts to banana plantations
Tenerife’s popular high-rise resorts like Playa de las Americas and Los Christianos on the sheltered and drier south-west coast dish up an abundance of cheap and cheerful food day and night-long. But a stroll along the tiled seafront path which runs round the bay from Playa de las Americas to Costa Adeja takes you past very upmarket hotels whose exotic garden restaurants are matched by impressive cuisine.
Banana plantations, vineyards and orchards flourish on Tenerife’s northern side which by contrast with the dry and barren-looking south is lush and green. This is due to the clouds that gather in the afternoons around the 3718-metre high Teide volcano which looms over the centre of the island.
On the north coast, Puerto de la Cruz has been attracting visitors, particularly from Britain, for over 150 years. It makes a good base for sightseeing and activities like parascending, mountain biking and walking, as well as plenty of opportunities to eat well.
Contemporary Canarian cuisine
Near Puerto in the Orotava valley one of the island’s culinary stars, Juan Carlos Clemente, recently opened the Dula y Pipa restaurant featuring contemporary Canarian cuisine. Sampling his Farm Menu, I was able to savour some of the exquisite island flavours he conjures up - unusual combinations like gofio with ground pork rinds or glazed aubergine with coffee and liquorice sauce.
I signed up for a cookery lesson there and conjured up the island’s famous mojo sauce. This involved crushing garlic with either coriander or red pepper and mixing it with olive oil. Then we dipped some small ‘wrinkly’ potatoes into it. Delicious!
Another speciality not to be missed is almogrote which is made by adding cheddar-style cheese and paprika to mojo. Usually served as bite-sized balls, it often features on tapas menus.
The restaurant is part of the Granja Verde project, set up to promote local produce and culture. Next door a small farm, open to the public, has native Canarian animals from camels to cows. Particularly endearing were two inquisitive llamas that tried to nuzzle my camera, several dinky little goats and even black pigs which were dozing in the sunshine.
Among the vegetables organically cultivated there are Canarian potatoes which come in 26 varieties and also several fruits which you rarely have the opportunity to see growing, such as avocado pears, papaya and bananas. These, I learned, are Tenerife’s most important export, though economically now far less important than tourism.
Wine is another niche product in the area, produced on a small scale by vineyards planted with Canarian varieties of grape, such as the family-run Bodegas Monje on the slopes above El Sauzal. It offers daily tastings and guided tours of the cellars and also has a restaurant.
…and culture too
Beyond El Sauzal the main road soon leads to La Laguna which was the island’s first capital. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was created by the Spanish and still sports grand mansions along cobbled and recently pedestrianised streets.
Interestingly these are built in a grid pattern, a style, as my guide proudly pointed out, that was subsequently adopted in towns all over the Americas.
Canarian food even plays a part in Tenerife’s unique Sunset and Stars experience which was the highlight of my visit. First we took the Teide cablecar which whisked us up over the bare lava slopes of the island’s famous volcano in time to watch the sunset.
The Sunset and Stars experience
Fortified by a glass of hot chocolate - I thought it wisest to resist the bubbly which was also on offer as the height meant that the air was distinctly thin - we then gingerly made our way along a rough path which led dramatically around a stark volcanic hillside with dramatic views over the island under the clear darkening sky.
On a craggy viewing platform at the end of it, we gathered to watch the sun dropping across the sea and behind Gomera. Streaks of bright red splashed across the sky as we clambered back in the twilight.
But that was not the end of it. Leaving the cable car we were treated to a feast of tasty tapas-style Canarian specialities - goat lollipops, rabbit stew, fish croquettes, chicken on skewers with dates and the aptly-name Principe Alberto, a creamy chocolate cake with almonds and hazel nuts fit for a prince.
The final thrill of the evening was observing constellations in the clear night sky through a row of six telescopes that had been set up specially by Tenerife’s observatory. Astronomers from it guided us around the sky and we saw the almost blindingly bright moon in amazing detail as never before.
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