Grand champion - a gourmet guide to Gran Canaria Travel News

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The slogan of Ruta del Vino de Gran Canaria, 'We make wine and we bottle landscapes', feels especially fitting on an island dubbed 'a miniature continent'. From the deep-golden beaches and sandy dunes of Maspalomas in the south to the lush, dramatic north coast and the pine-covered mountain slopes of the interior, microclimates dot Gran Canaria’s coast, hills and ravines. This is expressed in wines along the entire Ruta del Vino, the first, and so far only, Spanish wine route outside the Iberian Peninsula. Established in 2021, the route is a network of local vineyards and bodegas, as well as restaurants, shops, cheese producers and expert guides. One of them, Maria Lezcano, helps visitors savour the island, sip by sip, bite by bite. ‘Our concept of tapas is slightly different from mainland Spain: we treat them as portions to share rather than individual bites,’ Maria explains, from a table under the arches of Mercato del Puerto, the Canary Islands’ first gastronomic market.

The harbourside market was erected at the end of the 19th century by the French Eiffel company, around the same time as La Luz – the largest, busiest port of the archipelago. Ever since Christopher Columbus first stopped here in 1492 en route to America, Gran Canaria has been used for refuelling and supplying ships on their way across the Atlantic. Transatlantic trade boosted both local economy and gastronomy, introducing New World produce – potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn and papayas – that are now pillars of Gran Canarian cooking.

‘When creating the menu, I asked my friends about the most emblematic Canarian flavours – they pointed at bananas, black pudding-like chorizo de Teror and mojo sauce. Mojo rojo, a thick sauce of garlic, red pepper and pimentón, is served with almost everything,’ says Francisco Huertas, who runs Piscos & Buches, a bustling tapas joint in Mercado del Puerto with his father Paco. He mixes creamy Canarian bananas (plátanos) with sweet morcilla – which includes raisins, almonds and cinnamon – from Teror, a hilly village in the north. Francisco rolls the mixture into crispy croquetas, which he serves with banana mayonnaise. It may not be traditional, but there’s no one way to make croquetas. ‘Every family has their own recipe for croquetas, mojo and ropa vieja,’ he explains, presenting his version of the latter. Traditionally, the slow-cooked tomato and chickpea stew is simmered with meat: chicken, beef or pork. Francisco makes it with tender octopus. Piscos & Buches was the first restaurant in Gran Canaria to join Ruta del Vino. ‘I find the wine very special; it’s truly artisanal, often made by hand. With all the hills, our winegrowers can’t use machines for anything,’ he says.

The lesson in Gran Canarian produce continues at another market, Mercado Central, a ten-minute drive from the port. ‘This is the best market on the island, with chefs from all over the island coming here for supplies,’ says Maria. The local catch: vieja – a local type of parrot fish that lives near the rocks – and cherne – the Canary’s most popular fish, also known as rock grouper, sit alongside a box of round lapas in their cone-shaped shells. These limpets – aquatic snails traditionally served with the green version of mojo, made with garlic and coriander – were once considered poor man’s food. Today, they’re prized for distinctive texture and are quite rare due to strict harvest regulations.

Maria leads the way through the market alleys, pointing at shapely green avocados from the lush south-west Valle de Mogán and fragrant tomatoes grown in the island’s volcanic soil – Canarios’ favourite way to eat them is in a simple summer salad. The air is sweet-scented with papayas, passion fruits, prickly pears and bananas: bright green, deep yellow and maroon. Pink pods of borlotti beans are piled next to a large oblong squash, cut and sold in smaller pieces for potaje, a Canarian stew that is different in every household. ‘Cooking is an art form and we have many different artists,’ says Maria. ‘Potaje will always have a few different vegetables like beans, corn and potatoes, and my mum makes it with lentils and chorizo.’ The best chorizo is made by Los Nueces in Teror. It’s perfect for spreading on crunchy baguettes – every bar in Teror serves bocadillos de chorizo. ‘Coming for a bocadillo de chorizo with Clipper – a fizzy strawberry drink produced since the Fifties – automatically qualifies you for a Canarian passport,’ Maria laughs.

Local ingredients are cherished by the new wave of chefs. Abraham Otrega, chef-owner of Tabaiba, describes his cooking style as ‘evolutionary Canary Island cuisine’. Located just a few metres from the busy promenade of Las Canteras, one of the best urban beaches in Spain, the restaurant has recently been awarded its first Michelin star. Abraham’s tasting menu is a colourful journey through the island’s landscapes, starting with a trio of enyesques – small snacks typical to Gran Canaria’s Las Palmas province – that include his grandmother’s chicken broth and carajacas, a local speciality of fried beef liver, and ends with a dessert composed of sheep’s-milk ice cream and three kinds of local honey. The wine list includes numerous Gran Canarian producers, and over 90 per cent of ingredients used in the kitchen are sourced in the islands. ‘I love working with local ingredients, especially our seafood and gofio,’ says Abraham. Gofio, a flour made from roasted grains – typically corn – dates back to the first inhabitants of the islands, who migrated from North Africa centuries before the Spanish.

Ever since the Spanish conquest at the end of the 15th century, the islands’ wealth built on transatlantic trade and sugarcane export led to attacks by pirates and privateers: Sir Francis Drake raided Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in 1585. Known as the Sugar Islands throughout the 16th century, the islands then switched to wine growing, as sugarcane plantations had been moved to the cheaper Caribbean. The wine soon became world-renowned for its quality – Shakespeare even alludes to ‘canary’ in his works.

‘We stopped being competitive,’ says Maria. ‘Over the centuries, the same happened with other crops. The pattern kept repeating until we found tourism.’ The first tourists came around the end of the 19th century: British cruise ships brought passengers, encouraged by their doctors to seek the temperate climate.

With burgeoning tourism, few focused on winemaking but today, the new wave of Gran Canarian cuisine and the renaissance of local wine go hand in hand. Tabaiba’s sommelier, Manuel Suárez, says the best winemaker of the archipelago is based in Gran Canaria: Carmelo Peña Santana preserves local grapes and revives ancient abandoned vineyards with his wine project, Bien de Altura. Nearby, the one-Michelin-starred Poemas by Hermanos Padrón has a wine pairing built entirely on wines from Gran Canaria. It was created by their sommelier, Rafael Hurtado. ‘This is an interesting moment for Gran Canarian wines,’ he says. ‘In the past 10 years I’ve seen many new winemakers experimenting and getting great results.’

The last major volcanic eruption on the island happened 1,900 years ago and created the 200m deep, 1,000m wide Caldera de Bandama, one of the first places on the island where grapes had been cultivated. Caldera de Bandama is now a protected area, but grapes are still grown nearby. Opened in 1912 by Don Juan Rodriguez Quegles, an affluent founder of the first bank in the Canaries, Bodega San Juan was one of the harbingers of wine tourism, with British travellers (famously including Agatha Christie) stopping for vineyard tours on the way to the Bandama volcanic crater. Over the years, the family had stopped making wine, but in 2017 Cristina Millán – Don Juan’s great-great- granddaughter – revived the production. She hired Carmelo Peña Santana as a consultant and they planted Gran Canarian varieties of listán negro and negramoll. Cristina’s organic wine holds Gran Canarian DO (denominación de origen). Established in 2005, it requires winemakers to use native grape varieties – others include tintilla, listán blanco, moscatel de Alejandría and vijariego blanco. ‘I think Canarian wines are different from any in the world,’ says Cristina, leading the way, cherry-red wine in hand, through a shady garden planted with cacti, agave and palm trees. ‘The combination of indigenous grapes, subtropical climate and volcanic soil gives our wines a distinct mineral taste. They’re very fruity: you can taste red berries in vinos tinto, guava and other tropical fruits in blancos.’ From the hills of Monte Lentiscal, forest roads are flanked by bushy eucalyptus and chestnut trees whose fruit will be roasting on roadside stalls in October and November. This side of the island is lush as the mountains – Morro de la Agujereada reaches over 1,950m above sea level – keep trade winds in the north. Higher up, the landscape reveals the flora of a pine forest: broom, wild fennel and allium, pink bindweed, purple-flowered sage, nasturtium blossom and violet salsify. Some of these feed the sheep, whose varied diet can be tasted in local cheese. The Unesco-protected landscape of the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria hides cave settlements – habitats, granaries and cisterns – as a reminder of pre-Hispanic culture. Among them, rugged Roque Bentayga houses an ancient temple.

Sandra Armas grows grapes within the biosphere reserve of Parque Rural del Nublo, the cellar and tasting room arranged in a 200-year-old cave expanded by her father, Juan – 91 years old and still working. ‘The constant temperature and humidity are perfect for storing wine,’ says Sandra. Each wine is named after the average altitude on which the grapes were grown. The white 1318, for example, a blend of vijariego blanco and albillo criollo, is fruity and floral, with bold acidity. The view is of neat rows of bright green vines, winding roads, palm trees and purple, pine-covered slopes, with Roque Bentayga towering above and, on a clear day, Tenerife’s Mount Teide looming on the horizon. Heading south to the sandy beaches, magnificent dunes and luscious resorts of Maspalomas, you can only feel glad this landscape has been bottled.

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