The Ancient Greeks called the Canary Islands the “Fortunate Islands”, and they are indeed blessed in terms of the abundance and variety of fresh produce. Tropical fruits, including dates, bananas and pineapples, and exotic vegetables, abound. All contribute to a cuisine that is tinged with the flavours of Spain and nearby Morocco, but which is otherwise uniquely Canarian. Little did we know, on one of our exploratory drives through Gran Canaria, that this would include the revelation of one the islands’ culinary secrets.
Delayed for nearly a day by a fearsome blizzard at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, it was with great relief that we eventually arrived at the capital, Las Palmas, via Amsterdam,
and our tropical haven in Maspalomas to the south. The promised daily sunshine turned out to be reality, and offered a much-needed reprieve from the recent dark weeks in Stockholm. So attractive is this relatively nearby tropical destination to Scandinavians that menus are often presented in Swedish, and I even spotted a Swedish community with a church and school en route from the capital.
This volcanic archipelago, consisting of seven large and six small islands, lies but 100 kilometers from the coast of Morocco in Northwest Africa. Dust storms in the Sahara Dessert can make their away across the North Atlantic, we were told, and beleaguer communities on the island shores.
Not having expected to find ourselves amidst one of the most densely populated and built-up resorts on Gran Canaria, we spent most days hiring a car and driving into the interior, away from the stalls of Far Eastern tat, restaurants and bars, and beach-burnt madding crowd.
Our route took us first along the coast, and then up through the mountains and along narrow winding passes with treacherous plunging ravines down one side. Hairpin switchbacks zigzagging along the cliff edge are reminiscent of Côte d’Azure car chases in James Bond films, and larger trucks and vehicles wisely sound their horns on blind bends to warn oncoming vehicles of their approach.
The higher we climbed, the more magnificent became the views: deeply carved gorges, the occasional man-made dam, and great piles of fallen rocks tumbled haphazardly into the valleys like blocks from a toy-box. Tiny villages nestle on shelves in the hills, sunlight glancing off whitewashed walls and flat tin roofs. Intrepid cyclists wend their sporty way up winding passes, pausing to avail themselves of the temporary stalls strategically placed by entrepreneurial locals offering cold drinks, chocolates and fruit.
The rugged terrain is very dry, the colours ochre, russet red and brown, punctuated here and there with cacti and shrubs, and the occasional grove of dusty pine trees.
Sometimes crazily tilted hillsides reveal multi-coloured layers, bands of reddish-brown sandwiched between layers of pale coppery green.
Several look-out points along the way offer an opportunity to pause and admire the magnificent view of rugged mountain slopes falling away to the distant Atlantic Ocean. Here and there pine trees shelter the odd picnic site, carpeted with pine needles and a scattering of aromatic pine cones.
Sometimes the mountain slopes show ingenious human activity: terraced farms with olive and fruit trees, chicken coops, and pens of sheep and goats. Outhouses of brick and mortar are neatly built into rocky overhangs, nestled into the bosom of the mountain like chicks beneath a protective granite hen.
The pervading scent of dust and sunshine hangs in the air, mingled occasionally with the acrid smell of donkey and sheep dung. Rain was said to have fallen here before our arrival, and curved concrete structures suggested an infrastructure designed to deal judiciously with flash floods, channeling the wayward waters down towards the sea.
Our principal destination was the Cactualdea nature park, complete with a restaurant, green houses, and terraces of magnificent cacti from all over the world. There were also a few animals and birds: several mournful donkeys, ducks in a pond, and a family of peacocks strutting with proprietary air.
Before attempting the steeply winding pathways of the cactus garden, and weary from our mountain ascent, we decided to first have lunch in the park restaurant. An ambiguous menu scribbled on a blackboard, and a flurry of incomprehensible Spanish yielded a gastronomic surprise: soup and rolls, followed by crisply deep-fried fish rissoles, with salad, all handmade by our kindly hosts, José and Rosa. The soup was served with olives, and a curious spicy sauce. This turned out to be one of the signature condiments of the Canary Islands, mojo rojo – red sauce!
Enquiry about the ingredients led to an unexpected invitation into the simple kitchen, and a deft demonstration of the conjuring of this piquant relish. Unable to speak one another’s languages, the kindly Rosa showed me by actions alone how this sauce is made.
Into the electric blender went a red pepper (pimiento rojo), vinegar, sunflower oil, salt, garlic, and just the right amount of paprika. Still unable to guess the key ingredient which lends this sauce its unique flavour, it was only once I procured a translation of Rosa’s spice bottle labeled comino that the secret was revealed – cumin!