Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Alpujarras

Last week I did a  Moro-inspired dinner for friends.  I was about to post the recipes, when I decided I should first finish this post, started several months ago, which led me to this regional cooking.




Las Alpujarras, a 70 km long jumble of valleys, lies below the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada. This area is comprised of arid hillsides split by deep ravines and valleys and  white-washed villages set beside streams and surrounded by gardens and olive, almond and chestnut trees. This region has an infinite number of good walking routes which link the over three dozen villages and connect with trails leading into the Sierra Nevadas. It was to Las Alpujarras that the last Muslim ruler of Granada, Muhammad XII, better known as King Boabdil, was banished (1492) after surrendering his kingdom to Isabella I of Castile, who with her husband Ferdinand II of Argonwere were known as los Reyes Catolicos.  For a history and flavor of the region check out Gerald Brenan's South From Granada and Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons


In September 2010, Ed and I arrived in Granada to find we could not visit the Alhambra as planned due to a general strike.  Instead, we drove through Langaron and Orgiva to Capileira where we had our first taste, albeit brief, of walking in the (western) Alpujarra. Then last September Ed and I spent six days hiking, or "walking", as the British in these parts would say, in the eastern Alpujarra. We had first planned to divide our time between two regions of Spain but after reading reviews of Las Chimeneas and having several e-mail exchanges with one of the owners, Emma Illsley, we decided to spend the whole time at Las Chimeneas and were very happy we did.  This delightful bed and breakfast (with optional dinner restaurant) is perched at the edge of the beautiful mountain village of Mairena.  From our room's balcony we could look out over an expansive landscape and over half a dozen other villages the lights of which twinkled at night  like discrete constellations.

The Trip Advisor reviews are right on.  Emma and/or her husband and co-owner David dropped by our breakfast table each morning to offer hiking suggestions and be sure we had the maps we needed; the staff was very helpful too.  The Ilsleys are British ex-pats and most of their staff is English which made communication easy for Ed and me. Their marveleous chef, Soledad is native to the region and the food she presented reflected its culinary history. Breakfasts as advised were simple and dinner, infused with a regional/Moorish influence, very good, especially the first courses and desserts . The Sam Clarks, the owner-chefs at Moro occasionally conductcooking workshops at Las Chimeneas and their influence is apparent in the menu. The visit inspired me check out a couple of the Clark's Cookbooks, Moro, The Cookbook and Casa Moro.

The menu is small but changes daily, usually 3 selections each of 3 courses, and during our stay there were good vegetarian options every night. Our favorites included: (starter) Cold Almond and Garlic Soup and Savory Pancakes with Spinach Filling (photo above left); (main) Rabbit with a Carrot and Honey Sauce, Stuffed Eggplant (photo above left), and Chicken with Sundried Tomatoes and Peppers. 


The desserts were exceptional and usually accompanied by a couple of the incredibly good house grown and preserved brandied cherries; our favorites included Custard with Bread (photo at left), Moorish Noodle Pudding, Almond Tart, Almond Creme Carmel, and Fig Cake with Chocolate Sauce. We also enjoyed local wines from the Veleta Vineyard in Ugijar.

We did two kinds of "walking"/hiking. The first in the Sierra Nevadas from Puerto de la Ragua; one day on Chullo (west of the pass) and one day on Sanjauanero (east of the pass). This fufilled a quest Ed started a year ago when we headed for Puerto de a Ragua from La Calahorra. The road approaching the pass from this direction (single lane, no guard rails, long drops and fast-moving on-coming trucks) is much worse than the south approach. About two thirds of the way up, I had enough and insisted we bail. The hiking is pretty dry and barren with some low vegetation and sheep and goats.

The other walking we did was from village to village often along the many waterways which are used to irrigate almond, olive and fruit trees. The paths while dry and dusty (we were there in unusually warm, 80+ degrees F, fall weather), were often bordered by olive, almond or chestnut groves. The almonds and chestnuts are almost completely exported, but we were told it was okay to help ourselves to figs from the random fig trees along the paths as most of these drop and rot. Since Emma and David provide guests with an excellent map and guide to the National Park Sierra Nevada and keep an extensive notebook with local trail guides, I will not go into detail but give short descriptions of the local walks we did. On the afternoon of our arrival we did a short walk down the hill from Las Chimeneas to "The Finca" where David and Emma have fruit trees. Other local walks included: 

(1) A day walk (stopping to take lots of photos) from Mairena through Jubar, home to one of the oldest churches in the area, along a waterway and through chestnut trees then back down the other side of the valley to the village of Laroles. We had tapas at the Old El Paso Bar and then followed the GR7 back to Mairena

(2) A day walk from Mairena along the old camino real to the village of Nechite and then on Valor.We had tapas at a bar in Valor then retraced our steps, with some variations, to Mairena. Again this walk was up one deep valley and back the other side. Between Nechite and Mairena we crossed one small river/waterfall which we understand is not easily passable during a rainy season. Some guests opt instead to do a one way walk starting at Yegen. David drops them at Yegen and they walk to Valor then Nechite, ending at Mairena.

(3) A morning walk along the "Picena Circuit", along waterways into into a deep canyon. At the head of the canyon we found a suspension bridge across the river and an old electric station. I lost my footing and had an unintended plunge in a small pool; given the heat of the day, being totally drenched actually felt good. For lunch we stopped for tapas at the local bar in Mairena. The barkeep/owner presented us with a marvelous tapas which in addition to local pork on a roll included olives and black tomatoes from his own garden. He also offered us hard boiled eggs "from his own chickens." In the afternoon we did the Walk of the "Piedras Pintadas" and another piece of the Jubar waterway walk.


April 2014: Alex, travelling in Spain with Dan and Henry (our first grandchild!), asked me for more detail about the "tapas place" since Henry doesn't do so well with "sit down dinners." I have no idea if this bar still exists, but photo at left should help any visitor find it. Too bad the black tomatoes probably won't be in season yet.

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