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Tenerife: Canary Island Cooking

Tenerife: Canary Island Cooking
Liz Gill: Papas arrugadas  - they somehow sound better in Spanish. ‘Wrinkled potatoes’ is not exactly a mouth-watering name and to be fair they don’t look much. But these small round spuds are proof of the old adage that looks aren’t everything.
 
For boiled with sea salt and served warm and dry with a special red or green sauce they are absolutely delicious.
 
Originally from South America they are now one of the most distinctive Canary Islands foods, quite different from any of the potatoes you would taste on the Spanish mainland or anywhere else in fact.
 
The traditional mojo accompaniment can be bought ready-made in jars in any shop in Tenerife or if you want to be a bit more authentic there are mixes of the dried ingredients to which you would just add oil. If you really want to work your mojo, however, you can start from scratch.
 
That’s what we’re doing at La Granja Verde, a combination of restaurant, farm and cookery school, in Orotava in the North of the island where chef Juan Carlos is going to show us how to crush garlic, salt and cumin with a pestle and mortar and then add green pepper and coriander for a green sauce or pimento and chilli for a red one. The chilli, we are cautioned, is so eye-wateringly fierce that it has even got a rude name – our host balked at translating it. Oil is poured in to give the sauce its liquidity with an optional dash of balsamic vinegar.
 
We also make another local speciality called amogrote where a rock hard goat’s cheese is finely ground and then mixed to a paste with oil, garlic and sometimes tomatoes and served on toast as a snack.
 
The variations in these dishes lie in the proportions and textures of the ingredients but none is difficult: indeed their ease and speed is part of their
Tenerife: Canary Island Cooking
appeal. Simplicity is similarly the appeal of many other Tenerife foodstuffs.
Cheese, for instance, is hugely popular: the islanders consume a massive 30 to 35 lbs per person per year but apparently there are few cheese recipes.
 
Instead it’s just eaten on its own or with fruit and honey. The latter is an important product – there is even a honey museum – with both multiflora kinds or those produced from a single plant like the variety of broom which only blossoms on Mt Teide. On another sweet note the locals like to boast that their distinctive spotted skin bananas are much sweeter than their Caribbean cousins: they take longer to ripen and thus develop more sugar.  
 
There is plenty of opportunity, however, to experience more complex cooking. La Granje Verde restaurant combines old school and new in such dishes as cabbage puree with low temperature cooked eggs and pork rinds, egg plant with coffee, honey and liquorice sauce, warm oxtail salad with shrimps and slow cooked black pig.
 
Elsewhere the island offers typical Canarian stews of rabbit or pork and, as you might expect from an Atlantic island, a wide range of fish and seafood dishes including one mixed with pasta as tiny as couscous. Another first for me was smoked tuna, nibbled in thin little flakes along with a glass of wine. One of our guides tells us his father’s advice was ‘wine is not for drinking, it’s for putting food down’, hence the tapas convention. Always having something to eat when you drink is particularly good advice when some of the wines have an alcohol content up 14 or 15 per cent.
 
One of the interesting facts we learn on a visit to the Monje vineyard is the antiquity of Tenerife vines. The island was never hit by the phylloxera disease so those we can see bearing today’s grapes might be 200 years old. Felipe Monje, the fifth generation to run the vineyard, now produces 150,000 bottles a year using a combination of modern technology and old methods. The steep terrain, for example, means that most of the harvest has to be still handpicked. But the gleaming temperature controlled fermentation vats are a big leap for producers who only started actually using bottles in the mid 50s. Before then islanders would just rock up with their carafes or other containers and fill them from the barrels.
 
The varied terrain and climate of the island means it can produce a wide range of wines and being able to try them is a real bonus of any visit: Tenerife wine is a rare commodity in the UK. It was not always so: there was once a thriving wine trade between the island and Britain, particularly in the sweet malmsey which Shakespeare mentions. The treacherous Duke of Clarence who changed sides twice in the War of the Roses was reputedly drowned in a butt of the stuff.
 
There is in fact a long standing connection between us and them, both as friend and foe. We learn, for example, on a tour of the lively capital Santa Cruz that this is where Nelson suffered the only defeat of his illustrious career and where he lost his right arm. In the lovely old capital of La Laguna though we hear that several hundred British tourists were wintering here as early  the mid 19th century.
 
There are still visitors who come only for the sun, sea and sybaritic nightlife of places like Playa de Las Americas but for those who want to venture further there is much to see and do. As well as the walking tours of La Laguna and Santa Cruz, which hosts the world’s biggest carnival after Rio, we also took the cable car to the top of Mt Teide. At over 12,000 ft  this is a serious height and one that made us slightly wobbly as we edged along the rough volcanic path to watch the sun set over neighbouring La Gomera, La Palma  and El Hierro. After dark we scoured the night sky in the company of enthusiastic astronomers and their impressive telescopes. On another day I went whale watching while others in our party went hiking, paragliding and mountain biking, probably to burn off all those papas arrugadus.
 
Before I left I learnt that there are in fact over 20 other varieties including papas bonitos (pretty) and papas negras, (black)  – both obviously potatoes with better PR than the wrinklies.
 
Liz Gill travelled as a guest of Tenerife
 
For more information:
www.webtenerife.com
www.lagranjaverde.es
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6 March 2016
By: Liz Gill
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