Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Off in the distant Atlantic, the volcanic islands of the Islas Canarias, seven major islands and six small islets, curve in a 300-mile-long isolated archipelago, far south of Spain and much closer to West Africa than they are to the Iberian peninsula. Yet they are considered a solid, inalterable part of Spain and have been so since at least the 15th century when this remote group of islands became an important way station on the routes to the New World. Lying at the northern edge of the zone of northeast trade winds, the Canaries were a natural port of call for ships setting off into the Ocean Sea. And nowadays they are a favorite port of call for millions of tourists drawn by balmy year-round weather, sparkling clean waters, and broad, sandy beaches—Hawaii with an Afro-European accent.
The aboriginal population, called guanche, have almost completely disappeared, thoroughly assimilated with Spanish and others who settled the islands from the 15th century on. But guanche influence lingers in gofio, the foundation of traditional island diets, a savory ground meal made from toasted wheat, barley, corn, or a combination thereof, often mixed with salt or sugar. Added to island stews, gofio boosts flavor and nutritional value, mixed with water it makes a robust and fortifying drink, and it’s often served as a breakfast cereal, with a mojo to liven it.
Mojos [pron. MO-hos] are the other basic component of island cuisine—tart, spicy sauces made with a variety of ingredients. Mojo picón, for instance, is a hot sauce with chilies, vinegar, garlic, and cumin, while mojo rojo, red sauce, is brightened with paprika, and mojo verde, green sauce, has loads of minced cilantro and parsley. Mojos brighten everything from grilled or roasted meat or fish, to beans and greens, to potatoes. A signature dish of all the islands is papas arrugadas, or wrinkled potatoes, made by boiling potatoes in their skins in sea water until they are coated with salt, then serving them with a spicy or green mojo.
The tropical climate of the Canaries has made them a treasure house for all kinds of exotic fruits from avocados to pineapples to mangoes, while New World products like tomatoes, chili peppers, and potatoes were adopted enthusiastically. Goats are ubiquitous on the islands, their milk going into a number of cheeses, their meat going into the stewpot. One recipe for goat stew (olla de cabrito) was a Sabbath dish for so-called crypto-Jews of the islands—conversos, forcibly converted to Christianity by the forces of the Inquisition who continued to practice Judaism in secret. It’s an ancient recipe, with ground almonds mixed with galangale, fenugreek, and nutmeg added at the end.
One of Spain’s great cheeses, controlled denomination majorero, is produced on the island of Fuerteventura where a native breed of goats, called majorero, yield very rich milk. Majorero is a large (up to 15 pounds), firm, raw milk cheese with a creamy texture and slightly tart, buttery flavors and aromas. Mild when young, the cheese grows spicier and more fragrant as it matures. It can be aged up to 60 days or more, when it is usually protected with a rub of oil, paprika, or gofio. Similar cheeses are produced throughout the islands, often with the addition of ewe’s or cow’s milk, but only majorero has a DO.
Iconic Dishes and Products of the Canary Islands
Papas: More than 20 varieties of potatoes are grown in the Canaries, most of them papas antiguas (heirlooms) like bonita and negra yema that came directly from Peru, i.e., not through Spain. The volcanic mountainous terroir produces small, thin-skinned varieties with pink, yellow, or white flesh, valued for their sweet flavors.
Almogrote: a paste made from hard aged cheese pounded in a mortar with olive oil, garlic, chilies, and often tomatoes, served on bread or with potatoes.
Miel de palma (Palm honey): not really honey but a sweet palm-sap syrup, thickened by boiling, used in many island sweets.
Lanzarote lentils: small green lentils from the island of Lanzarote, prized for their meaty flavor.
Sancocho: island fish stew, made with salt fish boiled with papas (potatoes) and sweet potatoes, often thickened with cornmeal gofio and served with green or hot mojo.
Conejo en salmorejo (rabbit in a salmorejo sauce): Forget cold, tomato-based salmorejo from Cordoba. This is rabbit marinated in a combination of wine, oil, vinegar, garlic, cumin, and paprika, then roasted in a clay pot.
Bienmesabe: a thick sauce for ice cream and other sweets made by cooking down sugar with ground blanched almonds, cinnamon, and lemon or lime zest.