Exploring the Sierra de Grazalema from a home-from-home in Benamahoma

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.


The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.

pretty wildflower

Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.

You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.

I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its natural spring water.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.

Each floor has its own balcony-terrace - this was the top floors, outside our bedroom.

Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen and view to garden.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible to my son.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.

You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely - we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies take full advantage of the view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

Pool with sunloungers.

Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.


The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.

Christians' shield.

Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

Spring in the village, which is known as "El Nacimiento" (the birth).

Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).

Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.

Christian-Moorish lock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol - uniting the two religions.

Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.

Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.

This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.

This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.

Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.

Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.

For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.


The medina and the market: colours of Tangiers street life

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.

Tangiers, Morocco

A woman shells peas to sell in the street.

Tangiers, market, Morocco

A mix of dried spices, leaves and flowers. Moroccan cuisine is highly aromatic.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.

market, Tangiers, Morocco, Medina

Stalls have an amazing variety of goods, including garlic, ginger and volcanic pumice stone.

Tangiers, medina, Morocco

A turquoise street in the Medina with yellow and red houses.

For me, the most memorable part of my all-too-short visit to Tangiers was wandering through the Medina – the old city, just below the Kasbah. In my last post, I talked about our guide, Aziz. If I had been trying to find my way through alone, I would certainly have got horrendously lost – normally a fun part of exploring a new city, but when you’ve only got a day, with lots to see and learn, not ideal. But as it was, Aziz knows these labyrinthine streets and took us up steps, around corners, and under archways. We saw the real Tangiers, which is a third-world city without running water in some homes, with refuse on the streets, and with a vital sense of life. As I said in a previous post, this is my first time in a developing country in over a decade, so I was looking through newly naive eyes.

Morocco, Tangiers

Coloured, patterned leather slippers are reminiscent of tiles and plasterwork, with their intricate patterns.

House in the medina, in a shade close the famous albero of Seville.

House in the medina, in a shade to close the famous albero of Seville.

Tangiers, Morocco, market, olives

Fat, juicy olives in all colours, in the market of Tangiers.

When I  mentioned to a very well-travelled, highly-experienced photographer friend that I was going to Tangiers, and asked what advice would she give me – especially in case of not-ideal climatic conditions (it rained) – she just said “colour”. Only showers, as it happened, but those zingy colours can’t be suppressed by a light downpour – houses, spices, clothes (not the djellaba, the long hooded kaftan, which we only saw in earth tones – white, grey, brown or black).

Berber, market, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Berber women selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

market, Berber, Berber market, Tangiers, Morocco

Produce from the countryside in hand-woven baskets.

oranges, Tangiers, Morocco, market

A moped trailer piled high with oranges, fresh from the farm.

We were lucky enough to be in Tangiers on a Sunday, when the Berber market takes place. Berbers are the native people of Morocco, before the Arabs arrived; they’re nomadic, tribal people. They come into the city – mostly women, but men too – bringing their fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and eggs (and even live chickens, too) to sell on the pavement next to St Andrew’s Church, by the Grand Socco, on Sunday mornings.

Some handy tips for visiting Tangiers

One euro = around 11 dhirams. Most places accept euros, but give change in dhirams.

Some Moroccan women don’t like being photographed; I tried to avoid capturing their faces.

Alcohol is served, but discreetly, as Morocco is a liberal Islamic country – mostly in tourist hotels, and smarter bars and restaurants.

Kif (marijuana) smoking is tolerated for Moroccans, and very popular among the young, but illegal (if also popular) for tourists. Beware.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at Tangiers in artistic, musical, cinematic and literary terms, as well as telling you about the trip I took out of the city to the coast.

Foodie heaven: fishy business and FAB sherry in Vejer with Annie B

A typical street in Vejer, with its white walls, tield rooves, balconies and potted flowers.

The picture-postcard pretty pueblo blanco of Vejer, with its flower-lined white walls, tiled rooves and iron balconies.

Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish kitchen

Annie with the besugo (sea bream) we bought at Barbate market..

I often mention on this blog how I find cooking a drag. I don’t mean baking cakes, and creating salads and puddings – the fun stuff – but nutritious everyday meals for the family. You know how when you get older, you hear yourself starting to sound like your dear mum? Well, mine loathes cooking; creative flair is a foreign concept to her. She eats healthily, but her repertoire is limited and she’s terrified of trying anything new. I wouldn’t quite put myself in that bracket, but I need some inspiration to rediscover (or just discover) my cooking mojo.

So I was delighted to be invited to Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen in Vejer de la Frontera. Annie is an ebullient Scottish chef with an infectious smile and a zest for life, who has lived in the gorgeous white hill town of Vejer, near Tarifa, for 11 years. She is a huge fan of the local seafood – Vejer is just inland from the coast – and wine, especially sherry, made in nearby Jerez. Anne is one of a sizeable group of interesting foreigners, including sundry media and movie folk, who have inhabited this exquisite town with its medieval fortified area, pretty cobbled square with steep, narrow flower-filled streets and new gourmet market, stunningly located atop its hill looking over the sea to Africa.

A prett way of displaying sardines.

Sardina arenques (herrings), cousin of the sardine, at Barbate market.

A Ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I've ever seen.

A ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I’ve ever seen.

Our cooking day started off with a trip to the fishing town of Barbate, a few kilometres south on the Costa de la Luz, to visit the famous fish market. The morning’s shopping activities were made more intriguing by a performance event involving a group of local people dancing around the centre of the lonja. No one seemed to be quite sure why they were there, or what they were doing, but they added to the surreal atmosphere provided by fish that were so fresh they were still breathing, their gills opening and closing in an alarming manner, and a huge ray hanging up with his tackle on show, so to speak – their reproductive organs are external. (Too much information?)

Barbate, dorada, gilt-head bream, Costa de la Luz, fish, Spain, Andalucia

A dorada, or gilt-head bream – so-called from the gold band you can see between its eyes – in Barbate’s famous market.

Choosing fish seemed quite a pedestrian affair against this background drama of life, death and sex. But choose we did, a pargo (sea bream) and a lubina (sea bass). We also saw dorada (gilt-head bream) – you could clearly make out the gold markings on their heads – which are fab on the barbeque. It was amazing how different these specimens were from those at your local supermarket fish counter – their scales were positively gleaming, as well as slimy (a good thing, Annie assured us; you need to touch them to ensure they’re naturally moist), their eyes were bright, and the gills, opened by the stallholder to show how fresh they were, a fierce bloody red.

almadraba tuna, tuna, Cadiz

Almadraba tuna cuts (wild red tuna from the Cadiz coast) – one of the best, although notoriously difficult to obtain, is the morrillo, or neck (left of picture).

Then it was off to the shops of the local tuna companies – La Chanca, Gadira and Herpac, all a stone’s throw from the market. Barbate is famous for its revered almadraba tuna, which is caught in an ingenious system of tunnels and nets invented by the Phoenicians, every spring along this part of the Costa de la Luz. These fish are fat and juicy, having spent the cold winter months in the Atlantic building up blubber, and so by the time they’re pootling past here on their way to the Mediterranean, they’re in prime condition for being caught and turned into sushi – much of the meat is flown off to Japan within hours. But if you’re lucky enough to taste it, you will never forget that soft, melting texture. I tried almadraba tuna on my hiking trip last autumn, and I can confirm it was to die for. I go misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

In Gadira and other shops, we saw tins of almadraba tuna, a cut above your normal canned fish. The tuna industry is such an integral part of life in this fishing town – the factories are just outside – that many local families live off it. Environmentalists say the area is being over-fished; locals say the quotas are fine, and anyway it’s in their interest to stick to them. In an area with little other industry or agriculture to speak of, and endemic drug problems, their livelihoods depend on being allowed to take their boats out into the waters of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank - works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank – works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Annie told us about the finest cuts of tuna – morrillo (neck), although this is hard to get hold of; ventresco (belly) for cooking; lomo (loin) for making sashimi; ijada (flank) for preserving. In another shop we spotted smoked tuna, and tuna in PX sherry. She explained that there are four almadraba traps along the coast – Barbate, Conil, Zahara and Tarifa – each marked by orange buoys. When she sees those buoys, she gets excited as it means the nets are out, and the tuna will be dished up soon. Barbate also has a tuna festival every year in May, when you can get a tapa with drink for as little as 3 euros.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

The view across Vejer’s old town from Annie’s roof terrace; on a clear day, you can see across to Africa.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Annie’s fabulous roof terrace, where you eat, drink and experience the sun-soaked Andalucian lifestyle.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Fellow blogger Marianne, me and Michael, Marianne’s husband Michael.

Back at Annie’s gorgeous house in a tiny street in the highest part of Vejer, with a swimming pool, roof terrace with stunning views, and of course a wonderful kitchen for learning, cooking and chatting, we donned our snazzy green aprons and set to work on a gastronomic feast which was to extend from lunch through to supper, in true Spanish style. Marianne, whose excellent blog East of Malaga is a must-read for everything from gardening to quirky local history, and her husband, both former police officers, completed the group. They were great company, telling us how at dinner parties with work colleagues, the favourite topic of discussion would be how to pull off the perfect murder.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer de la Frontera

Tuna salad in a Moroccan bowl. A colourful, easy storecupboard staple.

In the midst of this drama, first we made a tuna salad, which was so simple even I could do it, and so delicious and brightly coloured my children will eat it – and nutritious too. Yes. They. Will. Tuna, boiled eggs, red peppers, red onion (reduce the amount, or remove altogether, when cooking for kids), and a few secret ingredients. It’s a must for barbeques, picnics, or a last-minute lunch for unexpected guests, and would be heavenly heaped into a baguette. We also whipped up a supremely easy chocolate and almond cake, using a blender – no kitchen should be without one, as they take out the slog of beating batter by hand, making the whole process quicker, simpler and more fun.

raisins, sherry, PX, Pedro Ximenez, Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Raisins soaked in PX sherry – the easiest and most delicious dessert, or DIY tipsy cake-maker – just pour over and allow to soak in.

Annie imparted many tips, most of which I shall not reveal here, but one was how to chop herbs properly – the correct angle, motion and speed of the knife are essential for minimal effort, maximum effect, and to avoid squashing your parsley and losing the nutrients. Let’s just say, my herbs have never been more evenly or professionally diced.

Another tip I will share with you, lucky reader, is raisins soaked in PX (Pedro Ximenez, sweet sherry). I tried this at home with a mix of dried berries, and it is divine. Leave them to soak together in a preserving jar in the fridge for at least a week, pour over a cake, add some creme fraiche, and there’s a no-effort, gorgeous, boozy pudding (I tried it on little bizcocho squares from el super; thumbs up). Divine with ice-cream, too. My own tip is to be careful when taking the jar out of the fridge; it will be damp from the cold – my first attempt ended up with an ugly mess of sherry, broken glass and semi-rehydrated fruit all over the kitchen floor after it slipped out of my hand.

Then Annie introduced us to one of her favourite aspects of Spanish gastronomy: sherry. She is passionate about this much-misunderstood fortified wine, and is a Qualified Sherry Educator, which means the Top Brass in Jerez have confirmed that she knows her stuff. The grapes used to make this uniquely Andalucian and increasingly trendy wine can only be grown in certain areas. Sherry must be made (FAB, explained Annie: fortified, aged and blended) within one of three towns – Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The sherry is aged in oak barrels stacked in “cathedrals” (Tio Pepe’s in the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez is an architectural wonder, designed by Eiffel), and the method of blending proportions of differently aged wines, called solera, is like none other. And so is the result. Sherry tastes quite unlike all other types of wine, and its wide range of flavours, from dry fino to sweet PX, means it is especially good for pairing with different types of food.

Prawns, Sanlucar prawns, gambas

Sanlucar prawns with spicy chilli dip.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer, Spain, Andalucia, cooking classes

The fish covered in salt, ready to be baked in the oven.

We tasted a bone-dry fino sherry and a manzanilla (a kind of fino only made in Sanlucar), which have a subtle difference in taste; I couldn’t say which I prefer, as any dry sherry is my bag so I’m partial to both. Then we had my favourite dish of all: Sanlucar prawns with a spicy dipping sauce. You usually boil these delectable little gambas to eat them, but we also tried some sushi-style, in other words raw, and they were a revelation. Uncooked shellfish is always a risk, but they were worth it, with the element of danger adding an extra frisson. We packed the fish in coarse salt, then baked it, in the traditional Spanish way, cracking open the rock-hard case to eat the soft, moist flesh inside. This was an endless gourmet feast – great food, great wine, great company, in a beautiful house, in a beautiful town. You get the picture.

Menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

One section of the menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with (left) and mussel with red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with potato and pearls of orange (left) and mussel with mascarpone and red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

gourmet market, Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Artistic squid pintxos, with trails of their own black ink, at the new gourmet market in Vejer.

Annie proudly guided us around her vibrant Moorish adopted home town, bursting at the seams with trendy gastro-bars serving groovy tapas shots and purple bread; bakeries, artesan shops, boutique hotels; a beautiful tiled gourmet market full of exquisite pintxos; a buzzing monthly street market full of quirky crafts (knitted doggy pencil toppers made great presents for my kids).

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

This star of David on a church in Vejer shows how the building was shared by different religions for their ceremonies and rituals.

This Star of David on a church in Vejer shows that centuries ago, religious buildings were shared by different faiths.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer's fortress.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer’s fortified area.

_Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Until the 1930s women in Vejer wore the cobizada, a full body covering.

One night we went to a caverny bar to hear an excellent, haunting Arabic-Andalusi band; Vejer is part of the long history of Moors and Christians in Andalucia (hence the name, de la Frontera, as it was on the border between the two kingdoms). Vejer was one of the first Moorish outposts after the Arabic invasion from North Africa against the Visigoths in the early 8th century; the town remained under their control until 1250, when it was captured by Fernando III; the fortified stone walls date from the 15th century. An interesting fact: until last century, women wore a traditional full-body covering called the cobijada, which was banned under Franco, as men used it to disguise themselves and thereby escape capture (although hopefully it also made them appreciate how hot and uncomfortable these burka-type garments were for women to wear).  I didn’t have time to investigate the history further, but this is a good website with more detailed information, while this blog has a weekly events listing.

Annie’s cooking courses provide an excellent opportunity to learn about Mediterranean cooking – she offers sherry, fish, and Moroccan-themed experiences – in one of Andalucia’s most beautiful hilltowns. As well as learning about food, you taste the wines, and discover the culture – gastronomy, history and music are all intertwined in Andalucia. And I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous beaches which are ten minutes’ drive away.

Her courses have been featured in top foodie holiday listings in both the Telegraph and the Times – and Vejer has now become a favoured destination for gourmets in the know. And I actually don’t mind cooking (most of the time) – I just have to remember Annie’s assertion that “There’s no excuse for mundane food, is there?” How true, and even more so here in Andalucia, with all its amazing local produce from land and sea. It is Annie’s extraordinary warmth and enthusiasm which make these courses (she does days ones, too) such an enjoyable experience. You don’t even realise how much you’ve learned till afterwards. Why can’t all classes be this much fun?

This short video offers a good overview of Vejer – the aerial shots are wonderful.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arCeZkBhePM&w=560&h=315]

A century of tradition: Seville’s olive oil biscuits go global

Ines Rosales, tortas de aceite

Sweet and savoury: from top left, cinnamon, almond (the latest), orange, and rosemary and thyme hand-made tortas de aceite (olive oil biscuits), individually wrapped in greaseproof paper with original design from the early 20th century.

The new foil packaging, used for the new flavours which are exported abroad, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light.

The new foil packaging, used for the flavours which are exported abroad, such as Seville orange, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light. It also features a full visual run-down of exactly what goes into your torta: olive oil, orange, sesame seed, aniseed, and wheat flour. That is all (except the sugar – oops).

Ines Rosales (far left) founded the company in 1910 in a town near Seville.

Ines Rosales (far left) sells her wares – the writing behind her reads “OTRA MARAVILLA DE SEVILLA” (another marvel from Seville). Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Over 100 years ago, a young woman in a town near Seville started making and selling snacks called tortas de aceite, using an old family recipe. Made from nothing more than flour, water, sugar and olive oil, with a little aniseed and sesame for flavouring, these thin, round biscuits were individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, printed with their inventor’s distinctive logo, to protect them.

The tortas soon became popular and gained fame beyond Seville to the rest of Spain. Over a century later, the olive oil biscuits are still produced nearby under the founder’s name: Ines Rosales. These days the company sells 12 million packets a year all around the world.

Delivery Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport has changed, but the recipe's still the same.

Delivering Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport may have changed, but the recipe’s still the same. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

The fact that a woman managed to start a business in 1910 is cause for astonishment, and celebration, in itself. Sadly, Ines Rosales died too soon, aged just 42. The business stayed in the family until her son sold up in 1982.

The tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta have become a global success story. Adapting to more modern, international tastes, in 2009 flavoured versions were introduced, in both sweet (orange is my favourite) and savoury (rosemary and thyme). The “sweet olive oil tortas”, as they’re known in English, are a hit from Japan to the US, the biggest export market, where they’ve been sold since 1999; cinnamon flavour is the top seller (you can buy them at Whole Foods Market). China offers a set of up-and-coming new customers eager to sample these unusual snacks.

Working the super-glam factory visit look.

Working the super-glam factory visit look – no photos allowed inside, so this is the closest my camera got.

I was curious to see how they’re made, and since the Ines Rosales factory is very near my home, last summer I went to visit. The factory outgrew its high street location nearly two decades ago, and is now located in a town about 20km west of Castilleja, though the company’s official headquarters is still in the town. (Interesting facts about Castilleja de la Cuesta, which is in the Aljarafe region to the west of Seville: it was the home town of Rita Hayworth’s father; and conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, died here.)

It is always intriguing to learn about a company which is expanding, despite the crippling economic crisis which has been affecting Spain for nearly five years. Each day 350,000 tortas are made by the nimble hands of local women, working on a production line behind a window. Men don’t make the grade for manual dexterity, when it comes to flattening the tortas, as with Carmen’s 18th-century cigarette factory in Seville.

torta de aceite, Ines Rosales

These women each make more than 20 tortas per minute. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

These Sevillanas deftly transform the little balls of dough into flat pancake-type rounds so fast you can barely see them doing it. You have to watch very carefully – blink and you’ll miss it.

Fresh out of the oven.

Tortas fresh out of the oven. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Then they sprinkle sugar on and the tortas are baked, so the sugar melts and goes crispy. Oh yes. And since each torta is hand-made, they all look different. This is one of the main selling points of these traditional snacks – they’re not made in a mould – a cookie-cutter, literally. They’re shaped by human hands into individual biscuits.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales –  see how little the packaging has changed?

I had a go at making tortas de aceite in a cooking class last year. Mine were passable, but I only made about 20, and had plenty of time to make a hash of it. These ladies are on a production line and make 21 tortas per minute each. Quality control is strict, with photos being taken of the tortas to ensure they meet exacting standards of size and shape. Those which don’t make the grade – purely for aesthetic reasons – are donated to an NGO to distribute, while 100kg a week are given away to the most in-need families.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude no to.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude not to.

The company is unusually forward-thinking for Spain, in that some years ago they introduced a sugar-free torta, while other traditional biscuits, normally laden with manteca (lard), come in non-animal product varieties.

The mark of a traditional product.

The mark of a traditional product.

Last year the tortas de aceite of Seville province were officially registered by the European Union as an Especialidad Tradicional Guarantizada - which translates as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This tells consumers that it’s a product made from traditional raw materials, produced using a traditional method. Basically, the tortas  have been made the same way for a very long time – on a larger scale now, but using the same ingredients and hand-made process.

The orange tortas are one of my family’s top merienda (tea) choices, while the rosemary and thyme ones are a fab accompaniment to that well-earned Friday evening glass of wine. Or put some grated cheese on top and grill gently for an instant, super-tasty pizza. Ines Rosales have loads of recipe suggestions on their website, suggesting the savoury ones (sesame and sea salt is the other non-sweet variety) as ideal summer-time outdoor nibbles. A little piece of Andalucia to impress your guests.

While the classic tortas are widely available, as Spanish like them with their coffee (I don’t like aniseed, which is why the new flavours are more to my taste), not all the other varieties are easy to find, even a few km from their home-base where I live. For this reason I was very excited to hear that the first-ever Ines Rosales shop is opening soon in the centre of Seville – in Calle Hernando Colon, near Plaza San Francisco to be exact. Be sure to visit when you’re here.

Aljarafe organic market – now monthly

The aljarafe eco-market is now held on the third Saturday of every month.

The Aljarafe eco-market is now held on the third Saturday of every month.

If you live in Seville, and you’re interested in organic food, you’ve probably visited the monthly market in the Alameda. Fellow Seville-based blogger Mary posted about it recently here. This takes place on the second Saturday of the month and has a number of stalls selling locally-grown fruit and vegetables, olive oil, wine, honey and other products.

For those of us who live up in the Aljarafe, the area to the west of the city, and don’t fancy the schlep into town, parking hassles, and lugging heavy shopping bags full of chemical-free goodies around, there’s another option – the organic market which takes place in Gines. It’s organised by a group called La Reguerta Ecologica which promotes organic and ethical living. How fitting that the Aljarafe, being higher than the city and therefore slightly cooler in summer, is where the Moors had their kitchen gardens all those centuries ago. Those North Africans knew their stuff when it came to agriculture, as with so many other aspects of life.

Until now, this market has only been held periodically, every several months since June 2012, but the good news is that now it’s going to be a regular event – on the third Saturday of every month, starting last weekend. The market takes place in a large, shady park in Gines, with a good playground, cafe and an area with a small river, bridges and a lake inhabited by water fowl. Children love feeding the ducks and geese; mine spotted some frogspawn on Saturday. And you can park right outside: gets the family vote.

Part of the entertainment - a band plays at a previous market. It's a fun family day out.

Part of the entertainment – a band plays at a previous market. It’s a fun family day out.

We’ve visited the market several times, in the heat of summer and the chill of winter. Last Saturday the number of stalls was less than half the usual (about 30), since part of the area they occupy was a mud bath thanks to recent downpours. A chilly wind and spitting rain didn’t deter the more determined shoppers, which was impressive considering how much Spanish people – especially women – hate being rained on. We only lasted about an hour (me shopping, the kids playing) before we became uncomfortably cold, and hightailed it back home – whereupon the sun came out. Of course.

As with any market, the experience of buying direct from the producer is illuminating and enjoyable. These producers and farmers nearly all come from Seville province (or next-door Huelva), and many from the Aljarafe itself, so you’re buying locally. They love telling you about their produce, as you sample it – how it is made, and all the different varieties. If you’re a foodie, I can’t think of many better ways to spend a Saturday morning, than browsing stalls of locally-made organic goodies produced by small (mostly) family companies, and tasting their wares – organic goat’s cheese, bread dipped in olive oil, wine made in the nearby hills.

So what did we buy? I already had a few favourites – Monte Robledo cheese; Colonias de Galeon wine; and Al Andalusi bread.

organic cheese, organic goat's cheese, Monte Robledo

The Sierra de Aracena is world-famous for its superb jamon iberico, but the area’s dairy products, such as this Monte Robledo cheese, are gaining a reputation too.

Monte Robledo is goat’s cheese made in the Sierra de Aracena, as mentioned in a recent blog post. It’s rolled in herbs or paprika. They do farm visits where you can make your own cheese; this is now on my list of family days out for this year.

The delightful Elena of Colonias de Galeon. You can taste her excellent organic wines at the market.

The delightful Elena of Colonias de Galeon. You can taste her excellent organic wines at the market.

Colonias de Galeon is a bodega in Cazalla de la Sierra, in the Sierra Norte. I chatted to Elena, who runs it with her husband, about their young wine (with the purple top). I’m not normally a red wine drinker – don’t like the tannins, they give me a headache – but this is a fresh young tinto (2013) made from a blend of Tempranillo, Merlot and Syrah, has a light, fruity, red-berry taste. Last November the winery held free tastings of the new bottling in Seville, so keep an eye out this autumn.

wine, organic wine, Colonias de Galeon, Cazalla, Sierra Norte

FROM SVQ wine by Colonias de Galeon, in the Sierra Norte of Seville province: it’s a limited-edition pinot noir made to celebrate a noteworthy aspect of the city.

Special-edition pinot noir from Colonias del Galeon, dedicated to the team working on the Airbus A400M.

This FROM SVQ is dedicated to the team working on the Airbus A400M military aircraft.

Each bottle in this limited edition is numbered - love the luggage label-style look.

Each bottle in this limited edition is numbered – love the luggage label-style look.

She also produces a special limited-edition run of 2000 bottles, under the label FROM SVQ (the code for Seville airport): the latest is a pinot noir from the 2010 harvest, bottled as A300-M, in honour of the new military aircraft made just outside the city.

Organic bread from Al A>ndalusi, in Sanlucar La Mayor. We went for the olive and cumin loaf, second from right.

Organic bread from La Andalusi (sic), in Sanlucar La Mayor. We went for the olive and cumin loaf, second from right.

La Andalusi is a well-established bakery in the nearby town of Sanlucar La Mayor. (Interesting foodie fact: Ferran Adria’s only outpost of La Bulli was located there. I spent a memorable evening working my way though the 24-course tasting menu – on assignment, pre-crisis.) You may have seen their distinctive Mezquita arches logo. They make all manner of delicious organic loaves in their wood-fired oven – at this latest market, there were even chocolate cupcakes, the craze which has just reached Seville. For coeliacs, they do spelt bread; the onion and spice loaf is on my list to try.

The team from De La Huerta a Tu Casa with their olive oil and jams.

The team from De Mi Huerta a Tu Casa with their oranges, olives, olive oil and jams.

A new discovery for me was the wonderfully-named De Mi Huerta A Tu Casa - as the name implies, they do home delivery from their base in Almensilla. You can order oranges from their orchards in Palma del Rio (’tis the season), or delicious olive oil, which is a blend of two local Seville province varieties, manzanilla (more often used as an eating olive) and zorzaleña (also known as lechin), along with the more commonly pressed arbequina. The oil has a strong yellow colour, and a full, spicy flavour. Home-made jams on offer included fig, lemon and ginger, and lemon and mint – we opted for the last one.

organic market, Gines, Aljarafe

Refuel with some cheap, healthy, vegan/vegetarian tapas.

If you need to have a pitstop, no need to leave the market: there’s a stall with well-priced organic vegetarian tapas, such as chickpea and chard stew, couscous or tofu fillet sandwich, accompanied by home-made lemonade or local wine.

Other stalls have organic fruit and vegetables – what most people come here for – as well as clothes, baby goods such as carriers and cloth nappies, and handicrafts such as bags and jewellery. Have you ever been to a market where they didn’t sell accessories? Local gardening and environmental groups also have stands, so it’s a great place to learn about projects going on in the area which you can get involved with.

You can hear talks on many subjects at the organic market.

You can hear talks on many environmental subjects at the organic market.

Often there are talks on eco-living, sustainable lifestyle, and organic agriculture, but we chickened out early due to the inclement weather, so missed the full programme. Previously we’ve seen live bands (see photo above), which have varied from a bit dodgy to pretty good. Nothing better than buying – and eating – food you know is Very Good For You, and then watching your children rock out to “Shake it!” and “Twist and Shout”.

The produce at the organic market is not cheap, but people don’t come here looking for bargains – they (I) want tasty food that has been grown and made locally, without using chemicals, and which will be coming from field to plate in the shortest possible time.

organic wine, organic bread, organic cheese, Gines, Aljarafe, organic market

The sum total of our purchases: a delicious Saturday and Sunday lunch (along with some salad, prawns and iberico goodies), plus some seeds to plant – broccoli and radish.

The organisers’ blog La Reguerta Ecologica has information on permaculture and social currency used in the Aljarafe – like a product/service exchange. Another site, La Cooperactiva features organic agriculture and ecotourism.

The next Aljarafe organic market will be held on Saturday 15 February 2014. The market takes place from 11am-3pm.

Watch a TV report on the market here. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57laB28_yk8&w=420&h=315]