Monday, 11 February 2013

Holiday food

Street food at it's best.
Sun, glorious sun. I had almost forgotten what the sun looks and feels like. Luckily, I recently spent a week on Tenerife, and got a good glimpse of the golden warm godess. But hey, who really cares about the weather. Everyone knows that the point of a holiday is to learn about new food culture. And that I certainly did. Consider yourself warned, there will be no recipe at the end of this post. It is just an extended ramble about the things I ate. You would think this is an exhaustive list of everything I ate during the week, but it's not even close! I have added all the places I mention on a map which can be found here, as clearly most restaurants and cafés are not too big on having web pages.

Originally I wasn't quite convinced the Canary Islands would make a very interesting holiday, as to me they have always just been a tourist trap full of drunk Brits and Finns and lobster red Gemans. So me and the Culinary Consultant decided to aim our holiday to the estern side of Tenerife, which according to the guide books is the least touristy part of the island. We stayed in Santa Cruz, the capital, which was refreshingly low on tourists, and big enough to have a very nice selection of bars, restaurants and shops. It was also a nice base for exploring the northern and eastern parts of the island as bus connections were very good (and running very exactly on time, I was pleased to discover). 

Canarian food is different from mainland Spanish food, with Latin American and Arabic influences introducing more spices to the food. The main animal protein is goat, and potatoes (called papas) are very common. Obviously, also sea food is eaten a lot.  It turned out that finding real authentic Canarian food was not always very easy, as a lot of restaurants are Spanish style with tapas similar to mainland Spain. Not saying there is anything wrong with that, I love tapas, but I was hell bent on finding me some goat, and that took a few days.

So, lets start with the tapas. I love being able to eat a little bit of everything, and I could eat tapas every day. We arrived in Santa Cruz tired and hungry, late in the evening. We decided to head right to Tasca Tagoro (Rambla de Santa Cruz, right opposite Plaza de Toros), a tiny restaurant recommended by the hotel staff. We were greeted by a very friendly water who spoke very little English (something I consider a very good sign). He recommended we get the mixed tapas for two for €12. I thought that was €12 each, but turns out that was actually the price for the whole deal, including two beers! And the food was exquisite. The starter was a small slice of Spanish omelette, followed by a selection of deep fried prawns, seafood filled peppers, two different cheese tapas and a green soup type of thing which I think was made out of peas and a Parmesan type of cheese. The absolute highlight was a deep-fried small parcel of cheese, served with what I think was date syrup or sauce. I would have loved to just lick the sauce out of the bowl and the worship the empty bowl for the rest of my life. 

The other really good tapas place in Santa Cruz that we stumbled upon more or less by mistake was called Taberna el Cambullón (on Calle Alfonso Bethencourt, right off the Plaza de España). The lovely, hand written menu was in Spanish, so we ended up ordering random stuff as neither of us speaks a word of Spanish. Nothing like combining good food with the element of surprise. We started off with some cheesy croquettes, which were nice, and went on to have something called Morcilla de Burgos which I had no idea what it was and only ordered because the word caramelizada was on there. It turned out it was black pudding with rice and a crispy, caramelised top. It was absolutely delicious, possibly one of the most exquisite things I ate on the whole trip. When the little black bundles were brought out I was extremely suspicious, but any doubt I had about the choice of dish disappeared as soon as I had my first mouthful. It was a combination of not having any idea of what it was I was eating, together with the experience of eating something absolutely heavenly and very different from what I am used to that really elevated that gastronomic experience to new hights. I can't recommend the place enough. The service was also extremely friendly, and the other tapas we had were very good as well. Our meal, including very good bread, a glass of wine, a beer and four different tapas (of which one was whole meat) was just under €50 with tips.
The lovely Taberna el Cambullon.
The heavenly caramelised Morcilla de Burgos.
Then onto the more traditional Canarian cuisine. As I mentioned before, I had read about goat and potatoes. It turned out the potatoes were easy to find. More specifically papas arrugadas, the traditional Canarian way of serving potatoes. The small potatoes are boiled with their skin on in heavily salted water, which forms a salt crust on the skin. They are then served with a Canarian sauce called mojo which can be either green or red. The red one is made of peppers and the green has garlic and herbs, such as coriander. We had papas for lunch one day at a restaurant called Tapas Árcon (Plaza Concejil, Puerto de la Cruz). The papas and mojo were delicious (I'm running out of superlatives here...) but the prawns with mushrooms and garlic were rather uninspiring. As we didn't end up eating mojo anywhere else, I can't say whether the mojos were extraordinary or if they are similar everywhere (although my culinary consultant just informed me he thought the mojos at Árcon were better than at GOM, another restaurant we ate at). We also brought half a suitcase full of mojo to eat at home, so I will have a more extensive opinion on different mojos later.
Papas arrugadas with mojo at Tapas Arcon in Puerto de la Cruz.
We ate traditional Canarian fare at a restaurant called Mi Jardin (Calle del Valle Menéndez, Los Cristianos). I was convinced we wouldn't get anything but mediocre touristy food in the most touristy corner of the island. Los Cristianos is a place where restaurants advertise their cheap beer with the slogan 'even cheaper than ASDA'. Sigh. I didn't doubt for a second there had to be some good restaurants as well (after all, the locals have to eat somewhere...) but the trouble was finding them. So after chasing down the last reasonable suggestion in the guide book, which looked very disappointing, I was hungry and cranky. Luckily, the restaurant next door to the one I had just rejected turned out to have the two signs of a good establishment: real, green plants and a hand written menu. And on top of it all, they served goat! After a very good mojito, we enjoyed figs wrapped in cured ham and king prawns with garlic for a starter. Those prawns just might be the best damn prawns I have ever had, and they can't have been many hours out of the sea. For the main course I had goat stew and the culinary consultant had sea bream. My goat stew was very good, the goat was cooked for a long time and the meat, which I'm sure would be rather tough if not cooked correctly, was very tender and flavourful. The stew had a lot of herbs and tomatoes in it, along with good chunks of meat still on the bone, no doubt giving the stew a lot of extra flavour. I hadn't planned on having dessert, but we were talked into trying a local variety of creme caramel, which was delicious, and not too sweet. The whole meal, including a very good mojito each, ended up being a tad under €50 for two people, which I was more than happy to pay for excellent food, a very pleasant ambience and really friendly service. Conveniently, the restaurant was only a few blocks from the bus station, so it was with a very happy full belly we travelled back to Santa Cruz that night.
Amazing king prawns with garlic at Mi Jardin.
Goat stew. It took a few days to find, but it was worth the wait.
The last night of our holiday we decided to splurge a bit and dine in style. I squeezed into my little black dress, and we headed for Restaurante GOM (Calle Dr Guigou, 29), an establishment described in my guide book as 'one of the more upscale places in Santa Cruz'. The online reviews for the place were all positive, so we decided to go for it although technically it was a bit over the budget. And spoiler alert - I'm very, very glad we did. The restaurant serves traditional Canarian food with a modern twist. The atmosphere is elegant but relaxed. I'm glad I wore my LBD, but the culinary consultant, wearing a smart t-shirt and jeans was not out of place either. The menu was exciting and surprising. I ended up having gofio soup for a starter and black pork cannelloni with palm syrup sauce for the main. The culinary consultant had a selection of local cheeses with corn mousse and mojo for a starter, and ox with a sweet potato purée and black mushrooms for main. Before the starters, we were treated to small cheese croquettes as a greeting from the chef, as well as some delicous bread with three different toppings served in small containers looking like paint tubes. The contents were a olive oil based spread, a fish based pâté and a very spicy rabbit pâté. No need to say, the culinary consultant enjoyed himself playing with the food, squirting the pâtés from the tubes onto the bread. I really found this little extra surprise very classy and obviously tasty as well. I have to say, as good as my food was, this time the culinary consultant really hit the jackpot with his choices. The cheeses were exquisite, and the ox was cooked to absolute perfection. My meal was very good, but not quite at the same level of perfection. I did win with my dessert choice though (at least in my very humble opinion). That is for taste, but not for entertainment value. I ordered French toast with rum jelly and hazelnut ice cream which was perfection. The French toast was more like caramelised doughnut and the rum jelly was a pure shot of booze. Together with the sweet ice cream they formed a very balanced combination of flavours, textures and temperatures. The culinary consultant had prickly pear sorbet, which was prepared using liquid nitrogen right there next to our dining table, and the boiling liquid nitrogen mixing with the prickly pear juice was quite a performance. All in all, excellent food with some fun entertainment both in the form of painting with pâtés and boiling liquid nitrogen made the meal the perfect ending to our holiday. Admittedly the bill ended up at almost €80 (including a glass of red wine each) but the food (and the entertainment value) was definitely worth it.
Local cheese and the cool little tubes of mojo and pâtés.
Ox, cooked to perfection.
This is what you get if you mix prickly pear juice and liquid nitrogen. 
The end result, prickly pear sorbet.
The Canarians seem to like sweets. And my guide book informed me that the Canarian way of life involves snacking between meals. When in Rome... Snack we did. And there was no lack of places to do this. Ice cream, churros, cakes, pastries, fruit, candy. One thing I have missed while living in the UK is proper pick and mix. No problem in Santa Cruz, there are lots of candy shops. The ones I visited had a really big selection of candy. Not so much chocolate. In general, I didn't find any proper chocolatiers, but I guess the hot climate is not very compatible with chocolate. One thing the Canarios do right though is hot chocolate. Forget the bland milk and hot chocolate powder thingy, Canarian hot chocolate is so rich it's almost like melted chocolate. It's unbelievable!! And often enjoyed in the morning with churros, deep fried strings of batter which are kind of like the long and skinny cousin of doughnuts, but not quite. I thought churros were sweet, but in fact the batter doesn't seem to contain any sugar. They are served with caster sugar which you can sprinkle on them while they are still piping hot. Or just dip in the hot chocolate, which is thick enough to serve as a dipping sauce between sips.

Churros and chocolate.
There is no lack of cakes, pastries, buns, cookies and any other sort of baked goodies. My two favourite bakeries were Panderia Paraiso in Puerto de la Cruz and Pasteleria Diaz in Santa Cruz. Both had so many cakes I could spend a week there eating a new cake or pastry every morning, noon and night. But unfortunately there are so many cakes and so little time. Luckily the culinary consultant helped dispose of any left over cake so that I could pretend that I only had a little taste of everything... I think my favourite cake was a hazelnut and chocolate cake from Panderia Paraiso, as well as the small super cute pastries from Pasteleria Diaz which always disappeared before I managed to get my camera out to take a picture. Pasteleria Diaz also had a selection of flavoured olive oils, salts, jams, marmelades and chocolate pastes, a few jars may or may not have forced their way into my suitcase. I was helpless, trying to keep them out of my bag, but I think they snuck in there none the less. One jar might even have been dulce de leche, possibly the best thing on earth. In theory I bought it for baking with, but in practice I know all I need is a spoon and maybe an episode of Downton Abbey and that dulce de leche is but a memory.
Talking about dulce de leche, I have to mention leche y leche, coffee the Canarian way. A shot of espresso with a small splash of regular milk, and then a good helping of sweetened, condensed milk. Oh my god! I have never been a coffee drinker, but I have finally discovered how I like my coffee. Short and sweet. In my future home, which I will buy as soon as I win the lottery, there will be an espresso machine making those tiny shots of strong, bitter coffee, and a jar of condensed milk next to said espresso machine.
Pasteleria Diaz and a small fraction of their cakes.
Hazelnut and chocolate cake at Panderia Paraiso.
Ice cream. It's not like I only had cake. And buns. And pastries. I also had ice cream. With and without crepes. The place for crepes and ice cream is definitely Romana (Calle Villalba Hervás, 19), a garishly orange ice cream shop in downtown Santa Cruz. The lovely lady who seemed to own the place served us some super indulgent crepes with ice cream. Mine with dulce de leche and dulce de leche ice cream, the culinary consultant's were dripping with hot chocolate sauce and served with chocolate ice cream. As good as that was, our favourite ice cream place in town was Latte (Calle de Pilar, right on the edge of Parque García Sanabria). Not only was the artesan ice cream absolutely delicious, it was shaped as a flower with lovely ice cream petals around the cone. We sampled choclate (very rich) and Oreo (nice crunch) ice cream, as well as lemon (very tart, in the best way possible), strawberry (real strawberry, both in taste and colour) and mojito (with a good kick from the booze) sorbet. All were extremely good, I think my favourite was the strawberry sorbet which was dreamy soft and tasted like real strawberries. The one I should have tried but didn't get round to was a garishly blue smurf flavoured one. Having never tasted a smurf I'm not quite sure what flavour that was though.
Crepes and ice cream at Romana. 
Ice cream flower from Latte.
After such a long list of amazing places to eat all around the island (and there was quite a few more, including the most squid I've ever seen in one serving, the biggest loaves of bread I've seen, some awesome paellas from a street corner, and one or two glasses pitchers of Sangria), I have yet to describe my favourite food place. The food market. Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África. This is how everyone should buy their food. The meat from the butcher, the cheese from the cheese maker, the bread from the baker and the fruits and veg from the fruiteria. Right next to the butcher with everything from whole chickens and rabbits to pig's heads, trotters and huge red mountains of beef there is the spice store selling all sorts of herbs and spices imaginable. And the fruit stalls overflowing with ripe, huge red peppers, juicy sweet peaches and ripe bananas exploding of flavour just won't let you pass by without grabbing something. And the seafood section downstairs... All the fish you could imagine, and lots that you couldn't dream up in you wildest dreams. All sizes, colours and shapes. Tanks of crabs, lobsters and eels. If I only had a kitchen and could try them all out. We just walked around and around the food market, staring at all the food and spying on what people were buying. Then stopped by a stall to have a cheese covered pretzel to keep up the energy to people watch some more. Pop by the stall with dozens of different olives, sample a few and then take away a little box of green olives stuffed with whole cloves of garlic. Get a few slices or chorizo, and sit down to enjoy some instant tapas (take olive, take slice of meat, wrap olive in meat, shove it all in your mouth while sitting on a bench in the sun). Pop by the spice store to buy some honey, mojos and paella spice to take home. Pop by the bakery and buy a huge custard filled donut. Enjoy the custard drip down your chin while stuffing your face with said donut. People watch some more. 

I can't believe you are still reading. But thanks for sticking with me to the end. There is no doubt touristy destinations are full of bad, overpriced food. But with a little bit of research as well as some luck, you will find absolutely divine food at reasonable prices, served with a smile. I think I have a much more positive picture of the Canary Islands after visiting than I used to have. Goes to show you should never judge anything before you have tried it.
Instant tapas. Meat and garlic filled olives, enjoy in the sun.

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