The fame of Tenerife as a destination rests on one thing: its climate. And with good reason. The seven Canary Islands, of which Tenerife is the largest, are known and loved for their year-round balmy weather. Even in December, when Europe shivers in the gloom, the thermometer hovers around 19C, reminding us that the Fortunate Isles are but a whisker away from mainland Africa.
When it comes to the food and cooking of this Atlantic island, however, most of us would draw a blank. While for years other regions of Spain, like Catalonia and Andalucia, have been hyped for their high-powered cuisine and fabulous ingredients, Canarian fare has stayed out of the limelight.
But things are changing. The Canaries are collectively experiencing an upsurge in interest in their fascinating culinary cultures. And Tenerife is flying the flag for all of them – as well as for itself. Both of the islands’ two Michelin stars are to be found here, and a raft of talented young chefs are applying modern techniques to local traditions, with striking results. Ingredient-wise, the island has pretty much everything a talented young chef could wish for – from tropical fruits and temperate vegetables to Atlantic fish, cheeses, honeys, local-breed meats, and a new generation of wines from grape varieties found nowhere else on the planet.
On the flight down, I awoke from an early-morning slumber to a window-seat view of Mount Teide, Tenerife’s very own volcano and the highest peak in the whole of Spain at just under 4,000m,
its summit rising in a perfect, awe-inspiring cone. I hit the ground running, or rather eating, with a workshop at the Grand Hotel Mencey where chef Juan Carlos Clemente brought me up to speed on the simple truths of Tenerife cookery. The island’s signature dishes are honest-to-goodness items like ‘puchero’, an all-in stew of mixed meats, maize cobs and vegetables, and a herb-rich rabbit casserole called ‘conejo en salmorejo’. “More than dishes, what we have are products – but products of amazing flavour”, said Juan Carlos, citing heritage potatoes, superb bananas, and fine goat’s cheeses to rival anything from the peninsula. For lovers of foodie curiosities, Tenerife is a happy hunting ground. There are rare honeys, like ‘miel de tajinaste’, made from a huge red surrealistic flower found mainly on the upper slopes of the Teide. The island has even begun producing its own unique olive oil, on the hot and dry southern slopes of the mountain.
From Santa Cruz, I set out for a three-day trip along the north coast, a quiet and unspoilt region compared with the much busier and more touristy south. There was an awful lot to taste and see. One morning I visited a banana plantation where I learned the importance of this crop to the island, the exceptional flavour
of the Tenerife banana and its complicated voyage to our supermarket shelves. Among the fields, like ocean liners in a restless sea of green, were whitewashed plantation houses with tiled roofs and sash windows in brown-painted frames. The island’s traditional foodways run deep. And nothing runs deeper than ‘gofio’. This toasted and finely ground cereal dates back to the tribal culture of the Guanche peoples who inhabited the Canaries before the Spanish colonised them in the late 15th century. Gofio is not just a staple food, eaten in a myriad of ways from morning porridge to a thickener for fish stews, but a cultural signifier of the first order. I have never met a Canarian who dislikes the stuff, yet it has few fans beyond the islands and their diaspora. Just as well, then, that in Tenerife gofio is increasingly being used in appetising and creative ways: I have tried gofio ice cream, gofio truffles, gofio as a crust for pan-fried tuna, even an energy bar made from almonds, peanuts, honey, cinnamon – oh, and gofio.
In La Laguna, capital of the island until 1723 and a gracious colonial town, locals sauntered in the traffic-free streets, the gentle lilt of their accents sounding a world away from the cruder sound of mainland Castilian. A gaggle of girls went by in high heels and short skirts, a sweet cake and a napkin in one hand, a mobile phone in the other.
Tenerife was already shaping up in my mind as a great place to combine a cultural trip with a culinary one, following visits to colonial jewels like La Lagunaand La Orotava – all tiled roofs, painted façades and carved wooden balconies – with lunch stops in restaurants serving grilled fish and rib-sticking local stews.At one of these simple restaurants I learned the art of ‘papas arrugadas’. The potato (‘papa’) was
brought from Peru in the 16th century and is now the uncontested king of Tenerife products – as papas arrugadas is the uncontested queen of the island’s traditional dishes. Ardenio Hidalgo, cook at a winery restaurant in El Sauzal, showed me how to cook the little round potatoes in highly salted water, shaking the pan until the liquid evaporated and the papas were covered with a thin crust of salt.
Papas arrugadas are classically served with the Canarian dipping sauces ‘mojo verde’ and ‘mojo rojo’ (aka ‘mojo picón’) – one based on coriander, the other on red pepper. The two mojos, green and red,
are a brilliant way to liven up everything from barbecued meat and fish to scrambled eggs and fresh goat’s cheese. Heading westwards along the coast, I reached Garachico and
the Hotel San Roque, a charming hotel in a 17th-century palacio originally owned by a Genoese banking family. Here, I met up with Juan Antonio Jorge, a born-and-bred ‘tinerfeño’ who knows more than any man alive about the rich agricultural and gastronomic traditions of his island. Thanks largely to Juan Antonio, ancient local customs like the ‘siega’, in which ox-drawn carts thresh the wheat on traditional threshing floors, are being revived. Under the Saborea Tenerife scheme, he has masterminded a series of local gastronomic showcases for island products like almonds, tomatoes, spices, rabbit and sweet potatoes. Together we drove the winding roads of the island’s north west, hunting down farmers’ markets and 16th-century gofio mills still in perfect working order where the Ovaltine-like aroma of freshly-ground gofio drifted out the door and into the streets.
One morning at sunrise, I ran from the hotel along the cobbled streets of Garachico and out into the countryside where the big leaves of banana plants creaked in the morning breeze. A mighty cliff reared up behind the town. On the ocean side, big waves broke onto black volcanic rocks and my nostrils drank in the iodine-rich smell of the Atlantic.
West of Garachico lies the coastal plain of Isla Baja and the Teno mountains, where the landscape and traditions of Tenerife are preserved in their purest form. The food scene in the sleepy village of Buenavista del Norte is, too, a bastion of quality. Behind a modest facade on the calle Alhóndiga, I stumbled upon one of Spain’s most sophisticated pastelerías. Down on the beach was the fish restaurant of my dreams, El Burgado, where you could bathe in a rock-pool (and I did) before tucking into a grilled whole ‘cherne’ (stone bass) and a bottle of ice-cold Malvasia.
“There’s something I want to show you,” said Juan Antonio. We climbed up the switchback road from Buenavista towards the peaks of Teno Alto. On a remote plateau known to some as the ‘Scotland of Tenerife’, shepherd Alexander López keeps his goats, making a cheese that has passed into legend among island foodies.The views up at Masca were something to see. On one side of the pass, surging ridges of volcanic rock were crowned by the Fuji-like form of Mount Teide. On the other lay the shimmering Atlantic far below, with the island of La Gomera lying like a big flat loaf across the horizon.
At a roadside restaurant we stopped, sharing a table in the sun and a plate of Alexander’s cheese drizzled with mojo picón. Tenerife may be best known for its weather, but the island’s big landscapes and great local food are surely what it ought to be famous for.