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The Food of Tenerife
What is travelling without eating? Might as well stay home! In the Canary Islands, I found the cuisine to be simple, basic and wonderful. Many fruits and vegetables grow here including avocados, papayas, apples, potatoes and squash. There is a Latin American influence which you can taste in the ubiquitous sauces served with every meal – mojo rojo and mojo verde. The red mojo has red pepper, chili, garlic, oil and almonds. The green version is infused with coriander and parsley. Every eating establishment prides itself on its unique mojo.
One dish that was also everywhere was wrinkle potatoes, brought from Latin American by the conquistadors. Back in the 1400s when Spain claimed the islands, they brought the grape vines – now some of the oldest in the world. There are more than 100 wineries on the island, but only a few are open to the public. Interesting facts…while Europe suffered the devastation of all its vineyards starting in the late 1800s due to an infestation of the aphid-like bug called phylloxera, the Canary Islands were left untouched. Storied characters in history that loved Canary Islands wine? Shakespeare and Ben Franklin.
Fish is a favourite meal, including octopus and salt cod, caught off the African coast. Just about every meal is accompanied by wrinkle potatoes. My guide, Cathy Michel told me they get two to three crops a year, but a special variety known as “black potatoes,” with purple skins and egg-yolk yellow interior, is harvested only once a year. “They are very expensive, between five and nine euros per kilo.” Wrinkle potatoes are cooked in heavily salted water with their skins on. When the water evaporates, it leaves a salty crust on the potatoes. People like to eat their potatoes with their favourite mojo. There’s no butter on the island, since there are no cows…no grazing fields to be found on this volcanic rock! Instead, olive oil is a go-to condiment.
My favourite mojo was the rojo, mashed with goat cheese and spread on bread or crackers.
Following are some of the great places where I sampled Canarian cuisine.In Puerto de la Cruz, Restuarante Regulo near the Plaza del Charco. We started with bread with chorizo, gofio slices (toasted flour mixed with honey), grilled Canarian fresh goat cheese with mojo sauces and honey, and Canarian Ropavieja which is a traditional chickpea stew. Our main was grilled grouper filets with wrinkle potatoes and mojo. Not that I had much room left, but dessert was a melt-in-your mouth quesillo (translated it means “little cheese,” we call it flan) with vanilla ice cream.Our wines were white and red Arautava DO Valle de la Orotava. To top it all off? A barraquito coffee – sweetened condensed milk, steamed milk, espresso and the secret ingredient, Licor 43 (made with citrus and fruit juices).
In Taganana, known as the village at the end of the world (it’s at the end of the island’s most north-easterly road), I came across Casa Africa restaurant. The owner’s name is Africa and she has run it for 60 years. Packed with locals, I knew it was going to be good. There was a choice of fried whole fish or octopus done in black pepper and olive oil. I chose the fish, which they called abadejo, Pollock and tasted my friend’s octopus. It was delicious. The meal started with soup and a colourful salad and was accompanied by a bowl of gofio (used as a thickener for the soup) and a carafe of local white wine. All for a reasonable 13 Euros.
For an upscale experience, I tried the Hotel San Roque in Garachico. We started dinner with goat cheese cubes and papas arrugadas (boiled Canarian potatoes) with mojo verde and almogrote sauces. Our main was cancocho, a Canarian wreckfish, grilled then steamed with sweet potato mash, Canarian potato chips, slightly spicy red mojo and gofio crisps with palm honey. Good thing the portions were small. I had just a sliver of room left for dessert, banana foam with yoghurt ice cream and mini cinnamon rosquetes. Our wines were a white Vinatigo and a red Binatigo Negramoli.
The next morning in La Laguna, I headed to Dulceria y Panaderia “La Catedral.” This bake shop has been in the same spot for 104 years, the owner Maria del Carmen Hernandez Garcia told me. Light and fluffy, the pastries were filled with local fruits and the La Laguna special I had was stuffed with a squash mixture known as “angel hair.” Delicious.
Dinner was in Santa Cruz, at Baobab Restaurant on the cobblestoned Calle La Noria. My spicy tuna in a tomato sauce was hearty and filling.
The day I visited Teide National Park, home to Spain’s highest peak, I capped off my cable car ride with a visit to Parador de las Cañadas del Teide. The luxurious parador had an elegant restaurant with superb food. Rabbit is the signature dish here, as well as goat.
Tenerife has some very unique plants, due to seeds being blown there by the strong trade winds. The Dragon Tree is not quite a tree, not quite a palm or cactus. These spikey, brush-topped plants can live a long time and at Casa de la Drago in Icod de los Vinos, I got to view the Drago Milenario, which is 500 years old. The casa is a lovely little café next to the the storied tree and there I tasted dragon’s blood, a liquor known as Drag’s made from the bright red fruit of the dragon tree and only found on the Canary Islands. It was very sweet. I also tasted Ucana, a liquor made from banana syrup. “Have a tupito, a little slurp,” said my server Alicia. My favourite was a seven-year-old rum tempered with honey and palm syrup. A tad spicy, but not as sweet as the other liquors. At the café gift shop, I was fascinated with large posters of the famous men who are associated with the island including Charles Darwin and French writer and godfather of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton.
At Meson del Norte in Portellas, part of the Buenavista region, I learned that there are a few cows on Tenerife. The menu was practically all meat and my server explained that the restaurant’s beef came from cattle kept in a barn nearby. I had seen a cattle crossing sign on the road to the restaurant. Talk about farm to table. As well as beef, goat, rabbit and pork were featured items. I went for the garbanzo stew with shredded pork. Very filling.
I wanted to learn more about Tenerife’s viniculture, so I headed to Monje Winery for wine tasting and a mojo-making class. Owner Felipe Monje kindly showed me around the property. His family had always cultivated the area, but the land had been divided up many times to 10-12 ancestors, he told m. “My father bought it all back in 1956. I remember hanging out here as a young boy, eating grapes and looking for birds.” They began with two wines and now have 14 and produce 150,000 bottles a year. Seventy per cent of their wine is sold in Spain, 20 per cent goes to the US and 10 per cent to Europe. In the vineyard he pointed to one of the vines, “It’s 200 years old. Vines here live a long time. Other places they only make it to 50 or 80 years.”
The 17-hectar vineyard is located 600 meters above sea level and the way it slopes, a perfect micro climate for grapes occurs. The types of grapes, Felipe tells me, all came from Europe originally but mutated due to the subtropical climate. Their classic wines are Listan Negro and Blanco which are matured from six to 18 months in casks. “Most of our barrels are 45 years old, but we have six that are 200 years old and were originally used to import rum and molasses from Cuba. Our barrels are oak and chestnut, the young wine absorbs the flavors from the crystals inside barrel,” explained Felipe, and showed me a piece of a barrel lined with crystals.
On the fourth floor below ground was a tasting room and wine bar for corporate events. Felipe laughs about one of their events, Wine & Sex. “It’s not an orgy,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve done for eight years, four times a year. It matches wine, eroticism and cuisine. Around 120 local people come and for four taste five wines, eat appetizers and watch fantastical entertainers.”
Something very unique that Monje does is submarine wine. “It matures more quickly under sea. We put it in a metal box 20 meters below for four to five months. The pressure and movement makes a compact composition of the wine. Five wineries in world do this. We’ve done it for three years.” The special kicker is that divers who have open water certification can go down the 20 meters, into sealed, underwater capsule, take off their masks, uncork the wine and take a sip. “Four people can fit and there is oxygen in the dome.”
My mojo making class was terrific and I learned it’s all in the strength of your pulverizing arm! Your mortar and pestle have to be a good size to really crush all the ingredients together. The results were delicious and the perfect idea for a party.
The Monje wines I tasted:
Drago Blanco – a good 1st date wine! A little sweetness in the finish.
Bibiana – name of Felipe’s daughter – rose, strawberry tones.
Holler – like a swear word – cholera 13% – whole grape with stem goes into wine. Violet flavor – like a gamay. A lot of sun on this part of island. Goes with cheese and cured meat.
Tradicional – Three types of grapes – A top seller, most Canarian. Goes well with stewed meats and soups. 2015
Tintella – eight months in the barrel, one grape – Tintilla. Aged in an American oak barrel which imparts vanilla versus French oak which has more spice. 14%, 2013
Interesting fact: French oak is more expensive because you need to use the centre only. With American oak, you can use the whole tree. That’s why it is half the price.
To learn more about the wine and honey of Tenerife my last stop was Casa del Vino, Tenerife Wine Museum and Honey Museum. A great place to get a grip on the island’s vinifera and honey making.
Canary Island cuisine in a nutshell? Healthy, simple and delicious.