El Sabor Canario
La Orotava is a picturesque town on the steep slopes of the most verdant part of the Is land. It is a town of colonial buildings, cobbled streets, churches and flowers, thousands of brightly coloured flowers and trees in every shade of green. At its heart is a recently pedestrianised main street, with the main square and town hall. It’s from this central location that the famous flower carpets of Corpus Christi can be seen, and the Christmas Manger displays in December.
A few paces up from the town hall is the beautiful and historic “Sabor Canario” (Canary Island Flavour) which lives up to its name in all five senses. It is an original Canary building that dates back to the very beginnings of the town, built in the early part of the 17th century (approx. 1610), and it is a restaurant and a rural hotel. The hotel has seven double bedrooms that are fully booked during the fiesta in the 2nd week of July (La Romería) when the town explodes into a riot of colour and noise for the four day celebrations that are world famous. It starts, as most fiestas do, with a seriously religious celebration of the “Body of Christ” when the church’s extensive collection of gold and silver is paraded through the flower-carpeted streets. The procession passes under the windows of this historic building, so the vantage point is unique. Seemingly the entire population of the Island descends upon the town dressed identically – in traditional Tenerife costume – for the “Baile de Magos” or “folkloric street dance”. On the third day the “Romería”march all the livestock though the narrow street, drawing carts and festival floats in a pageant of “harvest-festival” type celebrations, where they dance and sing and give away food and wine to all the throng of mainly local spectators, with the occasional astounded tourist along the way. I’m telling you this because Orotava is a quiet town, where they party hard and the Sabor Canario is one of the best places to experience this.
Daily, the town is visited by hundreds of transient tourists that arrive in waves of well-organised buses. The restaurant offers a daily menu for these visitors, 12.50 euros allows you to sample the delights of all this abundant valley can offer. The food is fresh and locally sourced, and if you want to try the real tastes of the Island this is an outstanding place to do so. The surroundings are magnificent; a typical Canary Island patio (courtyard) at the centre of the house is the main dining area. Open air, it provides a comfortable ambiance for your meal, during the day or night. The patio is central to the local architecture for a reason, and other than when it rains, provides the ideal shelter during the summer and winter months. If you are unlucky enough to experience rain, the restaurant has indoor dining areas too, and plenty of them. The buildings provide ample space for diners to enjoy the history of the house. Visiting here is like eating in a rural museum, surrounded by items of local historic interest; agricultural, commercial and traditional. The building, for instance, used to be the town’s main bank, and the floor of the bar is laid with the tiles that protected the building’s façade. There’s a shop that sells hand-made Canary crafts, tasteful and traditional – although there’s also a small corner dedicated to the imported plastic bananas so popular with the souvenir-hunters of the South!
So, if you’re getting the flavour of this place, it is a restaurant steeped in the cultural roots of the authentic Canary Island way of life. So what is the food like?
Simply put, its Canary fare is as traditional and fine as the architectural surroundings. This is not a “tourist-version” of Canary life, this is the genuine article. I left the menu to Angel, one of the two partners that run this haven of hospitality. Jorge, his brother looks after the kitchen-side. Every detail was attended to, from the friendly and courteous service upon arrival, to the delicious food.
“You must try our gofio” he exclaims, “you really must” – from this “treat” I know from this that he’s the real-deal. I’ve never sat at a table with a Canary Islander who hasn’t made me try this “delicacy” It’s made from toasted corn and other cereals that’s ground into a very fine flour, then this is kneaded with – in this case – water, honey and ground almonds to make a smallish pellet. You have to try it… or else! I have a million times…. It still tastes to me like eating cement, but maybe it’s an acquired taste, or even after a lifetime here on Tenerife I’m not a real Canario. I live in hope that one day I’ll discover why every Canary Islander offers this delicacy to me with such enthusiasm, but I heartily encourage you to accept this with an open mind. My Dad, who lived to 92 ate it every day for breakfast with cold milk and every young man knows it’s the secret of strength and stamina. You too MUST try this, you may even like it.
When the gofio arrived at our table so did a no-less typical “almagrote” – a paste made from very strong cheese, flavoured with paprika and “mojo” the traditional Canary red sauce. This is spread onto toasted bread to make a savoury, crunchy, aperitif as traditional as the sun around these Islands. Wine is also a staple, and there’s a great selection of Orotava Valley wines: the mighty Taginaste house wine is a full-bodied local red, Arutava is also available and very good, but my favourite, 7 Fuentes is also on the wine list. Of course you have mainland Spanish Rioja and Ribera del Duero too. The white wine selection is no less ample, including Miranda and Gran Teyhda. Keep this ingredient flowing, especially if you came by bus or have one of the comfortable rooms upstairs!
Angel wanted me to try the Canary food – so that’s what I did, but I noticed a wide variety of international dishes for the less adventurous visitor, fillet steak, chicken, fish…. But the local dishes came to my table in waves, first an oven-roasted cheese, Queso Asado, which was amazing. It was a feast to the eyes, decorated in red and green mojo (mo-ho), and with a tangy taste of strong cheese that has been cured over a period of well-calculated time. The local handicrafts extend to the foods here.
I tried bacalao – salt-fish cod, the way they like it here. Lamb shank in red wine (vino tinto), translated as lamb stew, though it was on the bone and slow-cooked, flavoursome and tender. “This dish should be made with goat to be really traditional, the lamb variant is our only concession to the tourist’s more conservative taste-buds” Angel had told me earlier, before the meal. So as if for penance, the next dish was goat stew, not shank, stew. This was delightfully good. Goat is really, really hard to cook well. It must be painstakingly prepared, it needs to be expertly seasoned and very carefully cooked if it’s not to taste like…. well, an old goat! This was. Jorge and his team in the kitchen cast a Canary spell, and what I expected to be like old shoe-leather was exquisite. I highly recommend this recipe to any meat-eaters. I abandoned the lamb shank and focused on the goat. Then came the next big “no-no” for most Brits Conejo en Salmorejo, rabbit in a ruddy sauce. Again the delicate flavours of the meat and the sauce were combined so as to make this an exceptional example of this traditional dish, rarely so well prepared. The fine texture of the salmorejo sauce and subtle mix of spices gave it a nutty flavour, though I was assured by the chef that no nuts were used. The rabbit was so tender and firm its texture as good as its taste.
We had the local potatoes “papas arrugadas” to accompany all these dishes. These are King Edward potatoes – brought over to Tenerife by the early British settlers, which are boiled dry in sea water so that the salt crystallises on the skin of the papa and makes it wrinkle. You can eat them with the skin on, or peel them so as to get just the fluffy potato, but don’t forget to dip them in the red mojo sauce. All the Canary recipes are prepared with abundant vegetables in the sauces, which probably explains the lack of “greens” with their food, but vegetables – as the Brits know them – are usually conspicuously absent from traditional Canary meals, and here was no exception. Vegetables, however are available on the menu along with salads – which are a full meal in themselves.
If you live in the South of Tenerife, and you want to discover what makes the cooler, more moist North such an enticing place to live, over the sunshine paradise of Adeje and Arona – come and stay at the Sabor Canario for a short break, weekend or mid-week. Make it fiesta week – but book well in advance – you’ll not regret it. Or come over the top – from Teide and Las Cañadas – on your way by on an Island Tour. If you’re here on holiday and can escape from your deckchair, visit La Orotava and try real local food – Sabor Canario.
And if you’re in the North you mustn’t miss out. Before you write-off Canary food off as unsophisticated, over-garlic’ed, guachinche-fied or simple, try this place. The food is first class, and if by chance you know anyone who gives out Michelin stars – ask them to pay a visit.