What constitutes typical Andalusian cuisine? Tapas? Grilled fish? “Patatas bravas?” All worthy contenders, but it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. Starting from Málaga, we set off on a road trip in the new BMW 4 Series that will take us to three of the region’s notable restaurants. The trio could hardly be more different, yet each can be seen in its own way as an outstanding example of contemporary Andalusian cuisine.
- Bert Heinzlmeier
- Alexander Zimmermann
Located in La Morera, about half an hour’s drive south of Málaga, is the award-winning Sollo restaurant. Its owner trained in Brazil with celebrity chef Alex Atala and now he delights diners with a blend of international cuisine that is firmly rooted in Andalusia.
The decor has an unpretentious, cool, contemporary feel to it. A glass wall affords a panoramic view over the rolling hills of Andalusia as they gradually fade into the twilight. The last of the fruit in the olive groves glints in hues of fiery orange, as things heat up in the Sollo’s open kitchen. As with the view of the surrounding landscape, the kitchen is also separated from the restaurant by a broad pane of glass. The chefs can be seen putting the finishing touches to elaborately arranged dishes with the help of tweezers and blowtorches.
The first of this evening’s 16 courses soon arrives at the table: quail egg with goat cheese flavoured with green tea in an ash coating. Gourmet restaurant or not, this appetiser is classic finger food. It is prepared and served on a rustic natural-wood-slice disc. Wood. Warmth. Naturalness. This is a theme that runs through all 16 courses, creating delicate contrasts while further emphasising the quality of the exquisite gastronomic experience at Sollo. The culinary journey of discovery at Michelin-starred chef Diego Gallegos’ restaurant is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the palate. Every course resembles a still life composition, with the table an exhibition area for dishes that are works of art.
Blue cheese flavoured with almond milk, cod on a pine nut mousse with roasted baby potatoes and oyster sauce, catfish with chilli-mango topping. Gallegos’ culinary creations are truly something special, as is the source of their ingredients, for he produces most of them himself, especially the fish. “I started out with twenty catfish, and today there are over a thousand,” he recalls. For him, it is all a question of sustainability. Starting in spring 2018, Gallegos plans to use nothing but homegrown or home-raised ingredients in his dishes. He has even brought freshwater fish from his native Brazil to Spain, where he uses species-appropriate breeding techniques in his ponds, a project on which he even collaborates with the University of Málaga.
Every course resembles a still life composition, with the table an exhibition area for dishes that are works of art.
Diners can take a look at Diego Gallegos’ fish ponds before they eat. “When people see where their food comes from, they appreciate it all the more. This is the task I set myself and my team,” explains Gallegos, sitting down at the table to talk about his vision after the 16th course, the last of three dessert courses. He grew up in Brazil then came to Spain to study at the age of 18, where he developed a great appreciation and love of cooking. He subsequently travelled to Peru and Brazil to train with top chef Alex Atala, before returning to Spain.
Time and again, the chef can be seen in the open kitchen keeping an eye on his team members at work. He jokes with them and adds the final touches to a few of the dishes. Between the various courses, the diner’s attention is drawn almost magnetically to the kitchen to admire how everything works with clockwork precision.
But what is “typically Andalusian” for Diego Gallegos? “Tomatoes – definitely tomatoes. And garlic.” And being at one with nature.
The next day, we leave Málaga and head inland, to Antequera. The central location of the town and its surrounding region has made them a synonym for the heart of Andalusia – a fitting description for the local cuisine, too, and nowhere more so than in the Arte de Cozina restaurant.
Centrally located in Antequera, a town with a population of 40,000, Arte de Cozina on Calle Calzada is owned by its head chef, Charo Carmona. The building is over 300 years old, and the white plasterwork of the walls gives way in places to exposed brickwork. The ceiling’s restored wooden beams arch above the customers, while in the pleasant inner courtyard, ancient hooks can still be found embedded in the brickwork. Where once bulls were bred, a pianist now plays for diners on Friday evenings from nine pm.
It’s obvious even at first glance that this is a place devoted to Andalusian tradition, and this goes not just for the restaurant itself but also for the menu. Around half of the dishes are marked with a small symbol, a circle with an arrow indicating that the dish is based on a traditional recipe. So traditional in fact that even most Andalusians themselves are unfamiliar with them or only remember them from their childhood. To track down these recipes, Charo Carmona spent many years interviewing the people of Andalusia and hunting for traditional family recipes together with her friend, history teacher Fernando Rueda García.
“If a recipe fades into oblivion, it’s just like when a species of animal becomes extinct – you never see it again,” says Carmona. She and her sons Luis Daniel and Francisco José run the restaurant and the small hotel that it is part of. Sustainability is the reason Carmona makes no effort to keep the ingredients and their preparation secret. But what exactly is the defining feature of Andalusian cuisine? “The diversity,” claims Carmona. The blend of a wide variety of different influences together with substantial ingredients such as potatoes or tomatoes, that’s the hallmark of the regional and local cuisine.
“Local” is a phenomenon that plays a pivotal role in Arte de Cozina. Twice a year, the menu changes as Charo Carmona wishes to serve dishes made exclusively with locally available, in-season produce. To this end, she works with a number of the region’s food producers. Her shepherd’s-style kid goat, a traditional recipe that has won several awards, is just one example. Goat meat from Málaga is cooked until tender in an aromatic sauce with garlic, fried bread, thyme, paprika and vinegar. Those who prefer vegetarian options can treat their taste buds to a blast from the past with delicacies such as the “olla de castañas,” a chestnut and chickpea stew.
Food and taste are all about emotion, says Charo Carmona, who tells the story of one customer who suddenly started to cry because the taste reminded him of the food at his grandfather’s house.
Probably the most traditional dish on the menu, because it is the oldest, is a dessert, “almojábanas.” This bread-like sweet made with cheese dates back to the 13th century and these days is more common in South America. As the original recipe had long since been lost, Charo Carmona took out old books from libraries to gradually piece together the ingredients. “Of course, I don’t know if it actually tastes the same as it did back then. It’s more my own interpretation of the dish,” she says. “You can find contemporary cuisine anywhere in the world – but you very rarely get proper traditional cooking.”
“Food and taste are all about emotion,” says Charo Carmona, who tells the story of one customer who suddenly started to cry because the taste reminded him of the food at his grandfather’s house. Does she remember what dish it was? Of course she does. “Porra blanca,” a traditional thick, almond-based soup.
Our last stop is in Málaga itself. Sometimes there are real gems waiting to be found where least expected, such as in an unassuming side street right in the centre of this lively city of 600,000 people.
As evening falls, every restaurant in the centre of Málaga claims to offer the city’s best tapas. But of course not all of them can live up to their promise. If you need an energy boost after a day’s sightseeing and don’t want to end up in one of the more touristy tapas bars, El Gastronauta is the perfect place to go. Located on Calle Echegaray, a quiet side street in the city centre, this small bar has a laid-back, authentic vibe and superb tapas that make it an absolute delight. “Patatas bravas,” “higados de pollo” and “boquerones en vinagre” are, of course, all classics that can literally be found on any street corner in Málaga – but at El Gastronauta you always get some Spanish laissez-faire and a pleasant chat with the cook about football and local cuisine thrown in for free.
An old typewriter on a dainty side table, antique flower vases, a changing array of pictures by regional artists on the walls – the low-key and cosy living-room-style atmosphere makes it very easy to feel completely relaxed here. For anyone having trouble making up their mind after reading the menu, we highly recommend the stewed squid – a delicately tangy dish that is one of the bar’s self-proclaimed specialities.