Friday, 12 December 2014 00:00

Where Exactly Is Gran Canaria?

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Three and a half million people come on holiday to Gran Canaria every year, but some people arrive thinking it's next door to Majorca. 

Published in Frontpage Blog

The first thing many visitors notice in Gran Canaria bars is the whopping drinks measures.  A standard long drink contains between 75 and 100ml of spirits. The standard British single measure isn't enough to wet the ice cubes down here. 

Light and fluffy, golden brown, with a crust of flaky sugar and a hint of lemon: Gran Canaria's doughnuts, called donuts, are a delight. 

The fantastic roads running up the Mogan, Arguineguín and Fataga Valleys used to be deserted apart from local buses and the odd hire car. Head up there nowadays and it's like you took a wrong turn and bumped into the Tour de France. Gran Canaria is firmly on the road biking map and even has its own Tour of Gran Canaria.

Published in Sports & Activities

Las Palmas is a Spanish city with a Canarian accent and a few South American flourishes. It's the only city in Europe where salsa and coconut palms thrive alongside mojo, tapas and vino tinto. 

There are two ways to see Las Palmas: Get sore feet seeing the whole place in a day and ending up with a full memnory card and that fuzzy been-there done-that feeling that fades as soon as you move on. 

Or, you can do laid-back Las Palmas at its own pace:  Instead of charging around take your time doing very little, very thoroughly.

Start by sitting down and drinking a proper cofee

In Las Palmas coffee is made by grown ups instead of baristas and it's all the better for it: Pure bean juice unsullied by pretension, syrups and towers of cream. It comes served in a white porcelain cup with a paper bag of sugar and a tatty old teaspoon. It tastes of coffee. 

Order a café solo for a pure espresso, a cortado for an espresso with a dash of milk and a café con leche for a latte. Or go for the rocket fuel option of the leche y leche: A cortado with a shot of condensed milk at the bottom. 

In the summer, go for café con hielo. It’s a shot of espresso served with a glass full of ice cubes on the side. You pour the coffee over the ice, swizzle it around a bit and then drink. Simple and delicious. 

Every bar and café in Las Palmas has a steam espresso machine so pick one with a good view. The Canteras beachfront, the cobbled streets of Vegueta and any of the palm-shaded squares are splendid spots for a coffee break. 

Visit the Museo Canario 

In the 1500s Spanish steel met the sticks and stones of the original Canarii inhabitants. It took them 100 years to conquer the Canary Islands, longer than it took to subdue the Aztecs and the Incas. 

The unfortunate consequence of this Conquistador trial run was the extinction of Canarii culture. Their languages, religion, folk tales and music were obliterated. All we have left are their mummies and pottery: Meagre remnants of a race that considered themselves kings but didn’t understand the wheel. 

The best collection of Canarii artefacts is in the Museo Canario or Canary Museum in Las Palmas’ historical Vegueta barrio. Thankfully, it is compact and not afraid to display plenty of skulls and mummies. 

Spend an hour in the museum and then the day wandering around Vegueta. 500 years ago it was besieged by the same people now lying shrivelled in the museum: The only European city ever besieged by stone-age warriors. What if they had overrun the walls? The whole history of Spain and South America would be different. 

Learn to Surf 

Canteras Beach is three miles long and changes every 100 yards. The north end is all coconut palms, golden sand and clear water. It’s great for sunbathing and snorkelling. 

The southern La Cicer end in front of Guanarteme barrio is the surfing end. Twenty years ago it was isolated within the city and overshadowed by fish-canning factories and a power plant. When the town hall shut down the factories and extended the promenade the barrio woke up. Its sullen pot-smoking surfers went to business school and opened surf schools and hostels. 

The waves aren’t world class but they are consistent and the right size for beginners. Within a day you can learn the basics of surfing and then hit the bars for an introduction to local rum. Pace yourself because the city doesn’t liven up until midnight and dances until dawn. 

There are no flamenco shows or tour guides dressed in traditional costumes in Las Palmas. Like its coffees, it is hot, full of flavour and completely free of pretension. That’s why we love it and you will too.

Published in Las Palmas

Ok, so you've arrived in Las Palmas and you have a few hours to see the city and a bit of Gran Canaria island. Where do you start?

 

Published in Las Palmas

Canarian food is famous for its simple, tasty seafood like fried squid rings, delicious prawns and fish stew. However, delve a bit deeper into the local cuisine and some more exotic ocean ingredients and seafood dishes pop up.


Alex Says: 25 years ago I remember watching old women in Lanzarote, wearing huge hats and head scarves, munch their way through a whole bucket of live sea urchins or erizos de mar. The cracked each one open and sucked out the fresh roe, before baiting their fish traps with the shells. The fresh roe is soft and a bit slimy, but tastes fresh and slightly fishy. In Japan, it is highly prized for top quality sushi. 

Live Sea Urchins

Sea urchins have become such a problem in parts of the Canaries that the government is trying to get Canarians to eat them more often. The roe, cooked down into a sauce, tastes intensely of the sea. Trouble is, you need to collect a lot of spiny urchins to make a plate of pasta! Each one gives you half a teaspoon of eggs.

Grilled Limpets

Another local speciality is grilled limpets or lapas, served with green mojo sauce (made from garlic, fresh coriander, chilli, vinegar and oil). Limpets are hard to collect because they live on rocks in rough areas and clamp down if you try and dislodge them. The best way to get them is to sneak up and side swipe them with a rock or an iron bar. Cooking limpets is easy as they come in their own little pot: Just add a dash of lemon juice and a teaspoon of green mojo to each upturned limpet, and put them under the grill until the meat comes away from the shells. Limpets are tasty but a little bit chewy, especially if overdone. 

Harvesting mussels and limpets is currently restricted in the Canaries, and especially on Fuerteventura, as over-collection was damaging the ecosystem. The limpets you find in small local bars are almost all imported. They still taste the same, and the freezing even makes them slightly tenderer!

Fried Moray Eel

Moray eels are fatty and full of bones, with hardly any meat at all. That doesn't stop Canarians from chopping them up and deep frying the bits until they go crispy. Then they chew up the crisped eel (morena frita) and spit out the bones. Moray eel is very satisfying because it is greasy and tasty, but most people are put off by the bones. Personally, I prefer my moray eels live and wriggling about! They get up to six feet long and make the islands a more attractive Scuba destination.

Octopus Old Clothes

Octopus old clothes (ropa vieja de pulpo) is a stew made from chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and octopus. It is called old clothes stew or "ropa vieja" because legend states that it was first made by a man so poor that he boiled his own clothes. When he took the top of his pot, he found this delicious dish inside instead. When you sit down to a dish of octopus ropa vieja, try not to picture the naked man who first ate it!

Poached Parrotfish

Poached parrotfish (vieja jareada) is an iconic Canarian dish that never gets onto tourist menus because the Canarians keep all the parrotfish to themselves. They are beautiful, multi-coloured animals, with big beaky teeth, that live in shoals and eat crabs and urchins. Their meat is soft and flaky and falls apart unless cooked with care. Viejas are  poached whole with onion, peppers and laurel leaves and served with the skin unbroken.

Viejas are traditionally caught from small boats using a glass-bottomed box or "mirafondos", and a cane rod tipped with a dried stingray tail for sensitivity. The fisherman, in a small rowing boat, moves over the rocks until he spots a shoal of viejas through his mirafondos. Then he drops his line, tipped with a long iron hook baited with a small crab amongst the fish. The big hook is essential as viejas can bite through nylon and small hooks with their strong teeth. Once a vieja bites, the fisherman whips it up away from the school quickly so as not to spook the others.

Viejas became very rare because of overfishing but are now staging a big comeback thanks to marine reserves and fishing limits.

Stewed Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish are related to squid but have slightly sweeter meat. In the Canaries, they are stewed until very tender in white wine along with bay leaves and garlic. The dish is called chocos en salsa: It's rich and exceptionally tasty!

Come across any other weird seafood in the Canary Island? Let me know and we'll add it to the list.

 

 

That would be the Canary Islands, where some traditional food dates back to prehistoric times but all of it is bursting with island flavour.

Mojo is the quintessential Canaria sauce. The red form, served with little wrinkled potatoes is the most famous kind, but the herby green variety is just as good. It's intense colour and flavour come from fresh coriander (cilantro).

Green mojo is traditionally served drizzled over big pieces of boiled potatoes, on fried fish or on slices of octopus. On Gran Canaria you rarely get it with wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugadas) but it is served this way on other islands.

Mojo verde is very similar to Portuguese salsa verde but uses coriander instead of parsley. It may be yet another reminder that many of the earliest settlers in the Canary Islands came from the Portuguese island of Madeira, just to the north of the Canaries.

To make enough mojo for a decent dipping session you need:

A good bunch of fresh coriander
Six fat cloves of garlic
Half a teaspoon on cumin seeds
A big pinch of salt
One fresh green chilli pepper
Olive oil
Cider or wine vinegar (not malt vinegar: too strong)
A hand full of breadcrumbs to thicken

Grind up the coriander leaves and the tops of the stalks with the garlic, salt, chilli and cumin. You can use a blender but a pestle and mortar does a better job. You want to end up with a smooth paste with no oil floating on top. 

Add about 200 ml of olive oil and 50 ml of vinegar and mix well until you get a thick, sticky sauce. If the mixture is too thin add some breadcrumbs. If it is too thick dilute it with a bit of white wine. 

Serve mojo verde straight away as a dipping sauce with crusty bread, or with almost any other Canarian dish. It goes particularly well with fried fish. You can store it in the fridge for a couple of days but it loses its flavour quickly.

Some people add a handful of green peppers (capsicum) and a teaspoon of dried oregano leaves. Other substitute half the coriander for parsley. These extras are not traditional but do create a green mojo sauce with more depth of flavour. 

Mojo sauce is the Canary Islands' most famous condiment and one half of "papas arrugadas con mojo", our most popular dish. It is tasty, garlicky and spicy, but not actually that fiery unless you get Mojo Picon; the chilied up version. 

Mojo sauce is either red or green (mojo rojo and mojo verde) depending on whether it is flavoured with paprika or fresh coriander. Both types also contain oil, vinegar, cumin, garlic and chili. The red form is served with small, salted potatoes while the green form is traditionally served with fish.

The name mojo probably comes from the Portuguese word molho, which means sauce: A reminder that many early Canarian settlers came from the nearby Portuguese island of Madeira. They migrated to the Canary Islands to start off its sugar cane industry.

Red Mojo Recipe

Makes enough for a good portion of mojo sauce for papas arrugadas for four people.

Ingredients

5 garlic of cloves
A teaspoon of cumin seeds
2 or 3 dried birds eye chilies, more for Mojo Picon
A good pinch of salt
A teaspoon of smoky paprika or pimentón
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
5 tablespoons olive oil

3 or 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs to thicken 

A splash of water to loosen the sauce, or a couple of roasted tomatoes.

Method

Dry fry the cumin until it starts to pop to release its flavours. Grind it up in a pestle and mortar along with the dried chilies, salt, pimentón and the garlic cloves until you get an even paste. Add the olive oil and vinegar and mix well. Add breadcrumbs to thicken and water to loosen. Mojo should be thick enough to stick to the potatoes but not be lumpy.

Mojo Rojo is almost always served with papas arrugadas: Small potatoes cooked in sea water or very salty water. The salt sucks water out of the potatoes, leaving them with wrinkled skin. 

To make papas arrugadas boil small potatoes in just enough sea water or salty water to cover them. Leave the pan uncovered and cook until the water is almost all gone. Leave them in the open pan until they are dry and the skin is covered with a fine white crust of salt.

To make proper papas con mojo pour the sauce generously over the potatoes rather than in a separate dish. Squash each potato before removing it from the sauce for maximum absorption. Papas con mojo goes brilliantly with good Canarian goat's cheese. 

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