26 August 2015

La Vuelta 2015

After last year's failed attempt to put Alcalá on the international cycling map, Stage 4 of this year's "Vuelta", Spain's equivalent of the Tour de France, passed through the town yesterday on its 210 km route from Estepona to Vejer de la Frontera.  The stage winner was Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, of the Movistar team.  Here are some photos taken by myself and various Facebook friends.

Photo by Pedro Martin Sánchez

Photo by Alicia Gómez Soto

Photo by Julia Mansilla Cordero

Photo by Esperanza Venegas Benítez

Photo by José Diego de la Rosa Pérez

20 June 2015

The Authentic Flavours of Alcalá

The Restaurant Formerly Known as La Parada re-opened last week as "La Auténtica" - the Real Thing.  It is being managed by an enthusiastic young team of local people, including the former chef from the restaurant at the Botanical Gardens.  The decor (apart from the red awning outside) has been completely refreshed, the kitchen is brand-new and there is a very reasonably priced menu using ingredients from the region where possible.

Address: Paseo de la Playa 28, Alcalá de los Gazules
Tel:  (+34) 695 83 45 65
Facebook:  www.facebook.com/restaurantelaautentica

Opening hours:  
Tuesdays to Fridays 8 am- 4 pm, 7 pm till late.
Saturdays and Sundays 9 am - 4 pm, 7 pm till late.
Closed on Mondays.

Sample menu items

Most items are available either in small portions (tapas) for around €3, or large platefuls to share (between €8 and €12).

Atún rojo - Atlantic bluefin tuna, caught off the Costa de la Luz
Carrilladas - braised pork cheeks, tender and delicious.
Chicharrones - deep-fried chunks of pork with crispy skin attached.
Chuletitas de cordero - tiny tasty lamb chops
Croquetas - home-made croquettes, various fillings - a speciality of the house
Entrecot de ternera - entrecôte steak
Gulas al ajillo con pimientos del piquillo - mock elvers (baby eels) in garlic with piquillo peppers 
Lomo de bacalao - fillet of cod
Medallones de solomillo al PX - rounds of pork tenderloin in sherry sauce. 
Pollo a la mostaza verde - chicken with a green mustard sauce. 
Queso "emborrao" - tangy locally-produced goat's cheese, matured in an olive oil marinade. 
Revuelta de berenjena al queso fundido - scrambled eggs with aubergine (eggplant), topped with melted cheese.

There is also a range of products from the Iberian pig (cerdo ibérico), the ultimate free-range meat as they graze freely amongst the oak trees on the dehesas.  Some of the cuts don't translate into English but this gives a rough idea:

Lagarto ibérico - strips of fillet from between the ribs
Presa ibérica - the best cut, from the shoulder
Secreto ibérico - a fillet cut from between the shoulder and the loin
Solomillo ibérico - tenderloin
Chorizo ibérico - Spain's best known sausage, flavoured with paprika
Jamón ibérico de bellota - air-dried ham, succulent and tasty, from pigs fed on acorns.

La Auténtica's wine list includes a young red (joven), a mature red (crianza) and a Chardonnay from the Bodega Entrechuelos, near Jerez de la Frontera; three Riojas (two red and one white) from Bodega Patrocinio; a Ribera del Duero from Cinema Wines; a crisp white Verdejo, and a rosé Lambrusco.  Prices range from €8.00 to €11.00 per bottle, €2.00-€2.50 per glass..

The restaurant offers a couple of set meals for two -  croquettes, pork chops and a bottle of white wine for €16.90, or house salad, pork tenderloin and a bottle of red for €18.

Desserts (€3.50-.€4.00) include a creme caramel with figs and Pedro Jiménez (sweet sherry), chocolate pudding, and a cheesecake with quince jelly.

26 May 2015

All change - municipal elections 2015

Municipal elections took place all across Spain last Sunday and, after four years of what can most kindly be described as an almost total absence of government, Alcalá has a new mayor and a new team in charge of running the town.  The unholy alliance between right and left, the Partido Popular (PP) and the Izquierda Unida (IU), has been consigned to history and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) took ten of the 13 seats available, their biggest majority since 1983, leaving the PP with two and the IU with just one.  The turnout was almost 70%, more than double the average for a local election in the UK.

The new alcalde, 35-year-old Javier Pizarro Ruiz, is not new to the Ayuntamiento, having been a councillor in the previous administration.  He was born and bred in Alcalá, and is related to half the town.  He trained in environmental, countryside and forest management but politics is in his blood.  His father is Luis Pizarro, a leading figure in the parliament of the Junta de Andalucia for many years.  He picked a team of candidates from all walks of life - teachers, environmental managers, administrators, waiters, stay-at-home mothers - all with strong local ties (and big families).  There was never any doubt that PSOE would regain office this time round.

The campaign was relentless.  Pizarro had generated a steady stream of criticism of the coalition on Facebook and in the PSOE bulletin Actualidad Socialista ever since they took office in 2011.  This became torrential in the weeks before the election, when every household received a four-page full-colour leaflet showing all the projects that were started in the previous PSOE term but left languishing by the "Derecha Unida":  the old people's home, the cemetery, the museum, the recycling point ...   They held public meetings, canvassed from door to door, distributed a forest's-worth of paper and used social media to the full. A car with a loudspeaker on the roof circled the town every day telling us what we needed to know in order to cast our votes wisely.   On the last day they were allowed to campaign, they organised a cavalcade of about 40 cars plastered with posters and drove round the town blasting their horns (personally I found that totally over the top, but then I am English and not accustomed to such vulgarity!)

The other parties' efforts were barely visible in comparison, though it is noteworthy that the IU was the only group that didn't resort to mudslinging in their manifesto, but actually concentrated on ways to improve the town and the lives of its people.  It was the only one to commit to making Alcalá an eviction-free zone, for example, and pronounce that food banks should not be necessary in a civilised society. In contrast, the PP promised a revival of folk-dancing classes, giving everything a fresh coat of paint, and a contest for the prettiest patio.

So what now for Javier Pizarro and his young team?  They have made a lot of promises which they now have to keep.  They will surely find a massive debt in the town's finances, as the PP/IU have been spending money like water over the last few months painting everything white and building fancy footpaths that don't go anywhere.  They have to rebuild bridges with the bodies that fund local projects, e.g. the Junta de Andalucía and the Diputación de Cádiz.  They must ignore the mud that will inevitably be slung at them, not squander their energy blaming the past administration for everything, and concentrate on the future.  Above all they must avoid becoming complacent, and never forget who they are accountable to.

The new team have the ability and the commitment to make things happen, and I wish them well.  Just lay off the car-horn cavalcades guys, leave that for the football fans.

16 January 2015

Berza - comfort food for the winter months

Acelgas (chard): a versatile winter
vegetable. Use the leaves like spinach
and the stems like celery.

If you look up berza in a dictionary it says cabbage, kale or collard greens, but around here it is the name of a hearty winter stew, justifiably popular at this time of year. It is nourishing and tasty, and very economical to make, being based on chickpeas (garbanzos) and dried white beans (alubias blancas) for bulk, plus seasonal vegetables and cheap but tasty meat products like spiced sausage (chorizo) and blood pudding (morcilla).

The locals will often include plants harvested from the countryside, such as the various kinds of edible thistle (tagarninas and cardos). You can buy these at the village shops or from street vendors when they are in season.

The authentic version includes various bones and other items you can get cheap from the butcher, which all help to flavour the stock and add protein, but I just stick to things I recognise and chuck in a stock cube.

Chorizos and morcilla are produced

The stew is thickened at the end of the cooking process by stirring in a majao, a strongly-flavoured paste traditionally made with a pestle and mortar (from the verb majar, to mash or crush).  You can use stale bread, or if you want a gluten-free version, ground almonds work well.  Garlic, salt, cumin and paprika (pimentón) are used to add the flavour.

The meaty bits, known as la pringá, are removed before serving and sliced up on a plate, to be eaten separately  or distributed evenly amongst the bowls of stew.  The verb pringar means (among other things!) to "dunk" or dip your bread in the soup.

Berza with the pringá served separately
Everyone has their own version, and this is mine:

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

200g dried chickpeas (garbanzos), or 1 x 400g can
200g dried white beans (alubias blancas) or 1 x 400 can
A selection of winter vegetables e.g.Swiss chard (acelgas), carrots (zanahorias), turnips (nabos), pumpkin (calabaza), potatoes (papas), celery (apio) or green beans (judias verdes).   The quantity is flexible but aim for at least 500g after they have been cleaned.
1 beefsteak tomato, skinned and with the woody bit cut out.
1 chorizo (the kind suitable for cooking rather than slicing)
1 morcilla (black pudding)
1 slab of tocino (fatty bacon)
1 bayleaf
Pinch of thyme
a handful of chopped parsley, including stalks
1 litre of meat or vegetable stock

For the majado:
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp ground cumin (comino molido)
1 tbsp paprika (pimentón dulce)
A hunk of stale bread (use ground almonds if you want it gluten-free)
1 tsp salt


1. Pre-soak the beans and chickpeas overnight, in separate bowls.
2. Cut the vegetables into rough chunks, not too small.  Be sure to remove any stringy bits from the celery and chard.
3. Put everything except the majado into a large saucepan. Leave the chorizo etc whole. Bring to the boil and remove any foam, then cover and simmer until the chickpeas and beans are soft (about an hour). If you are using precooked ones (or a pressure cooker), 30 min should be fine. 
4. Meanwhile soak the bread in some of the stock to soften. Drain it then pound it in a pestle and mortar with the garlic cloves, salt and spices, moistened with some olive oil so you have a thick paste.  As an alternative to bread, you can use ground almonds, or some of the soft chickpeas from the stew.
5. Add the paste to the stew and stir in well. Season to taste.  If it's too watery, simmer a bit more to reduce.
6. Before serving, remove the meat items and cut them up separately. You can then distribute the meat evenly amongst the bowls of stew, or eat them separately with bread.


16 November 2014

An environmental success story: Laguna de los Tollos

We hear with depressing regularity about natural habitats being destroyed in the pursuit of profit. So it's good to learn about a project where the opposite has happened, thanks to the hard work and persistence of a group of environmental conservationists.  Such a project is the Laguna de los Tollos, near the town of El Cuervo just north of Jerez.

Until 1976 this lake was an important stopover for wetland birds, including flamingoes in their thousands, winging their way between the Coto Doñana and the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra in Málaga Province.  It was also a breeding site for purple swamp hens (aka purple gallinules), crested coot and the rare white-headed duck. 

Then along came Hefran SA, a mineral exploitation company, who dug a pit next to the lake to extract the special clay needed to produce Fuller's Earth - a mineral used in the pharmaceutical industry and in the production of cat litter. The effect on the lake was catastrophic.  The water level dropped and the extent of winter flooding was dramatically reduced.  The claypits and waste encroached into the lake itself and polluted the water.

Unfortunately the site was not protected by any environmental legislation and there were no legal constraints on Hefran.  It was finally designated as a conservation area in 1986, but the destructive mining activity continued.  Various groups of ecologists and conservationists organised protests and petitions demanding that the Junta de Andalucía put an end to the clay extraction, and in 1994 a report by the Junta's own Environment Agency confirmed that the quarry was causing serious environmental damage and should be closed.  Four years later, after a lengthy court case, the mining consortium gave up and abandoned the site - but there was no requirement to restore it to its former glory.

Over the next few years Los Tollos was used variously for clay-pigeon shooting, off-road 4x4 racing, and the general plundering of nests and protected wildfowl.The tenacious ecologists didn't give up though.  With the Junta de Andalucía now firmly onside and prepared to make a substantial financial contribution, they managed to procure additional funds from the European Union's "Life" programme and begin the process of acquiring the land and planning the project.

Work began in the summer of 2013 to restore the hydrological status quo.  They had to pump millions of gallons of water out of the claypits and back into the lake, refill the pits with sand and the clay previously extracted, then remove the dyke which separated the pit from the lake to let the water find its own level again.  An educational programme was launched to engage the local population, who participated enthusiastically in the task of replanting trees and vegetation.  The total cost was around 8 million euros.

The restoration work was completed last week, and already the birds are coming back. Birding expert John Cantelo reports on his excellent blog Birding Cádiz Province:

"On my first visit in early April 2014 I found the place alive with birds once more, but, significantly, the high water levels were no longer simply a matter of fortuitous winter rain, but of careful planned management.  The birds included Purple Gallinule, over 30 Black-necked Grebes, half a dozen Flamingos, similar numbers of Spoonbill, a good variety of ducks (Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveller & Mallard), a couple of dozen Whiskered and a few Gull-billed Terns, Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Little Ringed Plovers, Collared Pratincoles and  in excess of 300 Coots (perhaps a hopeful sign that Crested Coot may soon return).  A subsequent visit in early May produced similar range of species plus several passing Curlew and Common Sandpipers and, best of all,  3-4 White-headed Ducks.  Some eight birds are present this summer and hopes are high that they may soon  breed once more.  Other birds present on the reserve this spring include Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Great-reed and Melodious Warblers.  Later in the season the tamarisks  here should also be worth checking for Olivaceous Warblers.   Black-winged Kite are present nearby and during passage almost anything might turn up.  I certainly found  much more of interest on my two visits to Laguna de los Tollos this year than I managed to find at Laguna de Medina, a much better known and more highly regarded site."