Andalucia: Stay close to the tracks for a local feast
Andy Lynes follows the route of a historic railway line on a gourmet tour of the region
Saturday 02 November 2013
The city of Algeciras on the bay of Gibraltar in southern Spain is not the obvious place to begin a gastronomic holiday. Industrialised under Franco, with the second largest commercial port in the country after Barcelona and the smoking spectre of La Linea oil refinery in the distance, its rich multi-cultural history, as an important port at the gateway to the Mediterranean, has been obscured by bland modern architecture.
However, it makes perfect sense as the starting point for a gourmet walking tour of Andalucia following the route of the train line known locally as Mr Henderson's Railway. Built by British engineer, John Morrison, with backing from wealthy financier Sir Alexander Henderson (the first Lord Faringdon) between 1890-92, the 178km line runs from Algeciras to Bobadilla in the west of Granada province, through some of the most impressive scenery in the country; it was designed to allow British garrison officers based in Gibraltar access to the surrounding Campo de Gibraltar.
I'm due to enjoy a truncated preview of a five-night tour from Algeciras to the city of Ronda in Malaga province. It's run by local operator Toma Tours, whose British-born founder Manni Coe has assiduously researched the route to find not only the best places to eat, but the most scenic hikes in the area, too.
We stay overnight in the Hotel Reina Cristina, also built by Henderson in 1901. It's an elegant colonial bolthole close to the port. You're more likely to spot conference delegates than the swathe of royalty and celebrities that once thronged the lawns, including such luminaries as the King of Spain, Rock Hudson and Edward Heath. However, a recent refurbishment means there are modern, spacious and comfortable rooms to retire to.
For this journey we'll usually be eating by the side of the track, in converted station buildings. However, our first night meal takes us slightly off route to Cepas, a seafood restaurant in the bay of Getares, a small beach-town just south of the city. The reason we're here is to sample the regional speciality of tuna caught and frozen during the annual spring/summer "Almadraba" net-fishing season in nearby Barbate.
We eat thin slices of the slow-cooked fish on a bed of wakame seaweed, then a thick, rare-grilled tuna steak that has the appearance and texture of beef and is served with a wild mushroom sauce. The rich, dense meat is a revelation.
The next morning we drive north to begin our first hike from the historic hilltop village fortress of Castellar de la Frontera in Cadiz. We wander the narrow medieval Moorish streets lined with white-walled houses, many of them converted into casas rurales (holiday cottages), then climb up to the fortress walls to take in the views of the surrounding Los Alcornocales Natural Park, verdant with cork oak trees. Algeciras, the Straits of Gibraltar and the north coast of Africa lie beyond.
Happily, the two-hour hike is all downhill, winding into the valley through cork forest, open fields and farmland to the train tracks where our bus awaits to take us further north for lunch at La Estación in the village of San Pablo de Buceite. We dine on the pretty terrace right beside the track, then – mid-meal – have to leave our plates of Ibérico pork and take the few steps to the platform to await the next scheduled train. We wave at the driver like children on a daytrip and are rewarded with a horn blast as the express service rushes past.
Later that day we check into the luxurious El Nobo guesthouse, a rambling Andalucian/Moorish villa set around a courtyard and fountain, among almond and citrus trees. It's on a hill, just below a hillside pueblo blanco, the "white village" of Gaucin. It's nicknamed "the Marbella of the mountains" because of its ex-pat riate community and high property prices. The views across the beautiful Genal Valley towards the coast are certainly worth paying for.
The gastronomic high point of the trip comes after a winding drive down to the nearby station community of El Colmenar. A converted stone-built goods shed overlooking the tracks, with a large grassed terrace, Caserio Ananda serves as a rustic home for Angeles and her husband Pedro. They nominally specialise in meat grilled over an open fire, but their prodigious culinary talents mean they work wonders with vegetables and fish too.
Suckling pig slow roasted in the wood oven with baked oranges and finished with a grating of cocoa bean at the table makes a stunning main course. However, a tomato from the restaurant garden cut into wedges and served with a simple dressing, Cantabrian anchovies served with their deep-fried bones and piquillo peppers from Navarra baked in excellent olive oil, provides an equally delicious and memorable feast.
For our second and final hike – the full itinerary will include five in total – we head north again to the station town of Jimera de Líbar and follow the path of the Cañada Real del Campo de Gibraltar gully through the eastern edge of the Grazalema Natural Park to the village of Benaoján. We pick figs from a tree as we enter Benaoján, as juicy and delicious as any I've had. A cold beer followed by lunch on the shaded terrace of the Hotel Molíno del Santo is a sweet reward after the relatively strenuous, hilly hike.
For the last short leg of the journey, we take the a 15-minute train ride into Ronda on Mr Henderson's Railway. It's modern, comfortable and clean but lacks the romance of the Victorian steam era. Nevertheless, following its route has unlocked parts of inland southern Spain I might otherwise have never discovered. In that sense, it is just the ticket.
Toma Tours (00 34 956 06 68 15; tomatours.com) offers a five-night "Walking Mr Henderson's Railway Gourmet Tour" from €1,429pp, including full-board hotels, transport and rail fares, a Spanish-speaking tour manager, entrance fees and guided walks, but not flights.
Restaurante Cepas, Playa de Getares (00 34 956 57 27 27; bit.ly/RestCepas). La Estación, San Pablo de Buceite (00 34 956 64 22 44; bit.ly/EstacionSP). Caserio Ananda, El Colmenar (00 34 636 13 69 24; caserioananda.com).
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