Tenerife has always been overshadowed by a reputation for out of control young Brits heading for A&E as fast as cheap beer can take them. But stay away from those spots and there’s an island with history, culture, wine and of course food. Nick Harman splashes down
Who needs a gym? I’m working up quite a sweat in Bodegas Monje restaurant, furiously pounding green peppers, garlic, chili, coriander and almonds and I’m sure my right bicep has perceptibly grown in the last five minutes.
I’m making Mojo, a classic Tenerife sauce, under the watchful eye of the chef and also, I’m guessing, his mother. Her clucking and tutting is interspersed with bursts of terse Spanish and I mutter ‘si’ and ‘bueno’ through teeth clenched with effort. I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying but whatever it is I think the safest thing to do is agree.
I’m told Tenerifians are tough but friendly people, but then living on a volcano probably does that to a person. At 3.718m high the witch’s hat of dormant Mount Teide looms over the island and can be seen from almost everywhere, it’s tonsure of cloud contrasting against the black rock and the blue sky. Travel by cable car to its highest reachable point and it’s cold and getting colder. In winter the slopes will have snow and it’s possible to sunbathe and ski in the same day.
The volcano slopes aside, there are just two seasons in Tenerife: hot and not so hot, which is why Bodegas Monje can grow excellent wine like their unique Monje Tacoronte-Acentejo Tinto Tradicional from grapes grown on vines that were never affected by Phylloxera. It’s also why the island’s tourist trade benefits all year round from hordes of Germans, Dutch, and of course Brits, looking for virtually guaranteed warmth and sunshine.
And booze. You can’t deny that some parts of the island have become synonymous with tattooed lads auditioning for Channel 4 documentaries. But why go there? Literally why? There’s plenty more of the island to explore and you don’t have to see a single St George’s flag fluttering over someone’s belly.
I’m staying in the capital Santa Cruz. The Iberostar Hotel Grand Mencey is what a hotel should always be; it’s not a bland block of concrete but a kind of castle. It’s cool marble interior bathes you in fresh air as soon you walk in, the central courtyard acting as a kind of chimney funnelling hot air up and out just as the architects no doubt intended when they designed this hotel in 1950 and before the advent of ubiquitous air conditioning.
Not that the hotel hasn’t moved with the times. A recent full refit has kept the old school charm, but modernised where it matters. There’s a state of the art gym for guests and a plush spa too. The rooms are large but restrained and contemporary, the WiFi is powerful and you can plug your MP3 player into the room system for tunes while you shower. Balconies vary from standard size to ones you could hold an after-party on and most look out over the pretty gardens and pool. I couldn’t find a kettle and tea making kit in my room, though. Perhaps it was just an oversight or perhaps the Lipton’s bag on a string has gone forever.
Tea and mojo apart, and I think I may have lost the latter up in that restaurant, I’m here to also try Iberostar’s latest culinary wheeze. They’ve built a smart cooking classroom and are inviting top chefs to show and tell food fans how it’s done. Then in the evening, as part of the deal, the chef cooks a full tasting menu with paired wines for the private room.
The demo is fascinating stuff; headphones deliver non Spanish speakers a fluent simultaneous translation. A good selection of Michelin starred women chefs are lined up to appear here into 2014 and today’s chef, the ebullient holder of two Michelin stars at her Galician restaurant El Stacion, Beatriz Sotelo, is a natural teacher. She talks about her beloved Galicia and its superb seafood and sends out tasters as she works and we fall upon them greedily and get even hungrier for the evening meal.
Which turns out to be very good. Highlights for me were the razor clams, fiercely grilled until open and dressed with citrus and olive oil, and a clever dish of wataki beef and wasabi cream. Add to that a plate featuring Galicia’s shellfish crown jewel, the strange looking percebe, and it was a meal to really remember.
The next day, from Iberostar’s central location, I set off to wander the town of Santa Cruz. It’s a port and has no beaches as such, but it does have the shady Garcia Sanabria parknext door to the hotel with its impressive fountains and sculptures, as well as a preserved old town with colonial buildings and tempting restaurants that reassuringly have no English menus on display.
Food here is much as you would find in any part of Spain, but some dishes are special such as Canary Island potatoes. These grow all year round and are cooked, barely covered in water and piled with salt, until the pot is almost dry. With the salt only slightly penetrating their skins, and topped with red or green mojo sauce, they are simple and delicious.
Another treat and which can be found in Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África, Santa Cruz’s busy food market a place well worth an hour or two’s browsing, are the fish that the locals are nicknamed after, the Chicharrero, as well the local salty, strong cheeses which partner with the local wines very well.
A short ride from Santa Cruz is Puerto Santa Cruz with its beaches of black sand. It’s a more touristy area but pay to enter the Lago Martianez and you’ll find interlocking pretty pools perfect for swimming and sunbathing and all child friendly.
But that really is the only sight you might want to avoid in Tenerife; from wide views to small delights, from whale and dolphin watching to mojo making, from wine tasting to walking in the Teide National Park, the island has plenty to interest and excite those not on an In Betweeners kind of holiday.
And with winter coming up in the UK, just four hours travel in a plane will have you annoying everyone back home with pictures of blue skies, black beaches and your muscular mojo.
Foodepedia were guests of Iberostar. Rooms start from €40 pp per night for a double basic, to €113pp per night for a garden view suite.
Easyjet, Monarch and British Airways all fly to Tenerife.
For further information on Tenerife go to www.webtenerife.co.uk