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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.