I have been traveling the gastronomy, wine and tourist roads of Spain for more than forty years, but until May of this year, when I was asked to report on my travels in The Canary Islands, I had never stepped foot on any of the seven major islands–La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote--in this volcanic archipelago located some 1100 miles (or a three-hour flight from Spain’s capital, Madrid).
Wow, did I get a surprise! I expected the Canary Islands, which is one of Spain’s 17 comunidades (regional divisions), to have a lot in common with the rest of Spain with a few interesting food and wine twists. What I found on these fascinating islands off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean is a culture as distinct from the rest of Spain as Hawaii is to the mainland United States.
In fact, the Canaries are sometimes referred to as “Europe’s Hawaii,” because it is where a lot of Europeans go for the year-round delightfully mild climate, which makes for prime beach vacations, though these islands offer far more than just beaches, as I was pleasantly surprised to find. And the wild, evocative, extinct (and not so extinct) volcano-dotted landscapes, deep blue-green seas and exotic climates that change from north to south on these generally small islands are the stage for distinctly different experiences from what you might expect to find on the Iberian Peninsula, which Spain shares with Portugal.
Here you will find not only the influences of Spain, Spanish Galicia and Portugal, but Africa as well, and certainly not least to native Canary Islanders, the still powerful pull of the aboriginal tribes such as the Guanches (Tenerife), the Canarios on Gran Canarias and the Gomeros, who communicated down the steep mountain valleys by means of the Silbo Gomera (whistling signals). Thought possibly to be descended for tribes in Africa’s Atlas mountains (Lanzarote is only 70 miles east of the African coast), the original inhabitants of the Canarias lived in these islands from at least from 200 BCE (some believe 1000 BCE) and experienced Phoenician, Greek and Roman expeditions.
The Canary Islands got their name from the fierce native dogs, canes, the Romans encountered on the islands, not Canary birds, which originated here and get their name from the islands). Europeans, mostly Spaniards, came to subjugate the islands in the 15th Century and Columbus stopped here with his ships on his voyages of discovery of the New World.
Once the native inhabitants were subdued the Spanish Crown, the Canary Islands became the last stop–and supply life line–for explorations of the New World by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and the continual sailings and return of the explorers fleets seeded the Canaries with an influx of New World products. In fact, here, many of the ingredients used in Canary Islands cooking–corn, cilantro, watercress, hot peppers, tropical fruits (papaya, mango, guava), unique varieties of potatoes and many other items–that the islanders have used since the exploration period never emerged as essential elements in most Spanish mainland cooking. But these ingredients took hold here tenaciously and form the basis for many dishes that are unique to the Canaries.
Fish and many other dishes are served with three of the most ubiquitous and defining elements of Canary Islands cuisine: Gofio (toasted flour, the true national culinary supplement that predates the conquest, though several versions include toasted New World millo, or maize, flour); the quickly addictive papas arrugadas (special Canary Islands varieties of small potatoes, including “black’ ones, “wrinkled” by cooking them in sea water or heavy salted tap water); and the wonderful mojos, or vinegar-and-oil based dipping sauces served with almost every Canary Islands meal.
Lovely write up on the Canary Islands, you didn’t just focus in on the tourist information but covered the history, food and drink, it sounds like we’ll be seeing you again to cover the remainder of the islands!
From Fuerteventura, thank you very much for your article. Althought Fuerteventura has not tradition in wine we are "trying" with Malvasía grape variety with different results than in Lanzarote. when you decide to come to know the rest of the islands you are invited to taste it...
Thanks, Jules, for your comments. Sorry to be so tardy in answering, but I just saw these posts.
The Canary Islands were a real eye-opener. I can’t believe that I have been traveling in Spain for more than three decades and had never visited these wonderful islands before--and I still have three to go: Fuerteventura, Gomera and El Hierro.
I really found them fascinating and I enjoyed a lot of the food, quite a few of the wines and a number of the cheeses. I was surprised about how much cilantro, corn and chiles that are used in the islands, three things I love.
I am also wild about papa arrugadas and all the mojos. I am not so wild about most of the gofio I had (I think you have to have Guanche blood to appreciate some of the gofio ;-))
You are right, the first chance I get to continuing exploring these facinating islands, I am going back!
Thanks for your comment. Yes, I did visit the excellent wine museum and the rum factory (I still have to put up more in slide shows on those posts and I plan to include both).
Best Regards, Gerry
As I remarked in my answer to Jules’s comment, I would love to visit the three islands I missed and taste the wines, food and cheeses. There are some wonderful Malvasias in the Canarias. I just hope you all keep on making wines in that wonderful, balanced style, without overoaking or letting the alcohol levels rise to such high levels that I think many wines on the mainland have been ruined to my palate.
Many thanks for your comments.
Best Regards, Gerry