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Variety is Andalucia's spice of life

The diversity of the region's cuisine is part of what makes it so exuberant and flavoursome, says Vicky Bennison

Andalucian food and wine hasn't yet achieved the same reputation and degree of trendiness as other regions of Spain. Why not? Partly because it's tricky to categorise: the region is so large that everyone likes to think that the food and wine of their locality is the best; and they are all correct - one of Andalucia's defining culinary characteristics is its diversity. This doesn't make it easy to write about, however, and Andalucia has had the misfortune to be visited by several grumpy writers in centuries past whose mission it was to sneer at everything they encountered. "I wouldn't feed gazpacho to my dog," snarled one chauvinistic Frenchman; from such remarks, reputations are created. But I'm delighted to report that Andalucian cuisine, based as it is on domestic thrift, feasting and fasting, is exuberant, flavoursome and well worth discovering.

JAMON, JAMON!

Besides infinite variations on any given recipe and seemingly arbitrary name changes, the first thing you'll notice as you tour the region is it helps if you like pork - in particular jamon or air-dried ham.

So, where better to start than remote Jabugo in the Sierra Aracena - one of several towns scattered through Andalucia that specialises in its production. Jamon serrano is made from so-called white pigs; the best quality (and most expensive) is jamon iberico, produced from the black-hoofed iberico breed indigenous to this part of the world (it can be better than Italian prosciutto!) Jabugo's tip-top iberico brand is 5J - Cinco Jotas - which has entered the Spanish language as an expression roughly equivalent to "the bees knees". To sample this and others, take a stool at Sanchez Romero Carvajal (Carratera San Juan del Puerto; 00 34 959 121 194), an old-fashioned ham bodega with its own tapas bar and shop attached where you can buy a whole leg of jamon, if that is your inclination.

Incidentally, if you happen to be in the area in November, stay for the mushroom fiesta in Aracena. Townsfolk are mushroom mad and adore gurumelo, a variety specific to this bit of Spain (though just to be difficult it pops up in spring); the local guru is José Vicente who owns an eponymous restaurant and deli (Avenida de Andalucia, 53; 00 34 959 128 455), but during the festival all the eateries dish up fabulous fungi.

SEAFOOD DELIGHTS

The Andalucians love their fish, so if you do too, head to the coast and the slightly scruffy port of Huelva, which is famous for its white prawns and where the fish market is one of the best in Andalucia for sheer variety. The townsfolk's nickname is choqueros - thanks to their love of cuttlefish, which they like to stew with broad beans. Extreme taste enthusiasts should try locally produced mojama, air-dried tuna, a pungent delicacy that pre-dates the Romans. And while in the area, do as the locals do and drink condado palido, this area's equivalent to fino sherry. It's made using the same methods but since its reputation is eclipsed by the wines from Jerez, it is ridiculously good value.

SHERRY DELICIOUS

Sherry and Andalucia go together like whisky and Scotland, and a trip to the bodegas in the three towns that delineate the Sherry Triangle - Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barremeda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria - is a must for anyone interested in wine. They're all different, so don't think when you've seen one you've seen them all. If you're with non-sherry drinkers, then visit Marques del Real Tesoro (Carretera Nacional IV km640; 00 34 956 321 004) on the outskirts of Jerez, which also has interesting modern art and grandfather clock collections.

Fans of sherry should investigate the boutique bodegas in Jerez, such as Fernando de Castilla, whose stylishly packaged range of sherries, brandies and vinegars taste even better than they look ( www.fernandodecastilla.com). By way of contrast, El Maestro Sierra might look deeply traditional, but it's owned and run by women; try their amoroso, an old-fashioned name for a heart-warming sherry ( www.maestrosierra.com).

TAPAS AND MORE

Everyone should visit nearby Seville, not least because it's the tapas capital of Andalucia. I've a fondness for the wildly busy bars where it's a struggle to be served. For this kind of experience try Casablanca (Calle Zaragoza 50) - there's no menu and you'll have to point at people's plates, but the food is fantastic (for the adventurous, try hake cheeks in white wine). For a more sedate but no less authentic experience, Casa Moreno (Calle Gamazo 7) is one of the few remaining original examples of grocers store-cum-bar that used to be common in Seville.

RICE FOR LIFE

Half of Spain's rice crop is grown along the Guadalquivir river and much of it is exported, but irrespective of this, local rice dishes differ from the classic and ubiquitous paella in several respects. Of course, this being Andalucia, there isn't just one method - rice dishes may be soupy or dry, and even finished off in an oven. So, while in Seville, visit chef Willy Moya's specialist rice restaurant Poncio Cartuja (Calle Charles Darwin 4; 00 34 954 460 717) to discover the delights of arroz con bacalao (rice with salt cod) or con perdiz (with partridge).

Between Seville and Marbella are los pueblos blancos, the White Villages, one of the areas of Andalucia that's well known for its mountain lamb and love of wild vegetables. The Andalucians have a strong tradition of foraging in the campo and you may come across berza de cardillo y tagarninas (thistle stew) in springtime.

MALAGA WINES

Slightly further along the coast are the pretty, terraced villages of Mijas and Ojen. Museo del Vino Malaga, a sort of educational wine merchants, has a branch in each where enthusiastic staff run tastings to explain the delicious, but rather confusing range of sweet wines the province has to offer ( www.museovinomalaga.net). But Malaga isn't just about the "stickies" - inland, Ronda is an up-and-coming red wine area. Wines from Tierras de Mollina and Descalzos Viejos are commonly available; meanwhile, the Friedrich Schatz winery has been experimenting with organic wines using unusual grape varieties for 20 years and the resulting excellent, though expensive, range of wines, all have bouquets that just dance out of the wine glass.

ANISE DROP

From Ronda it's a manageable drive to sleepy Rute, which claims to be the centre of anise production in Andalucia - although there are now only five distilleries operating. One is the Duende distillery's Museo del Anis (Paseo del Fresno 2; 00 34 957 538 143), a Santa's grotto of copper stills and quaintly labelled bottles. Anise is fearsome stuff, so there are also less alcoholic concoctions available, such as hazelnut or chocolate.

South of Cordoba is the wine growing region of Montilla-Moriles. Again, wineries use the sherry "solera" method to produce wines, but here they use a different grape, Pedro Ximenez, and the result is their deliciously dry, light and herby tasting tipple that reaches 15.5 per cent alcohol, naturally. Folk swear the lack of fortification means you don't get a hangover. I recommend the award-winning Segunda Bota from Bodegas Delgado, which is stocked by the Bodegas Mezquita (Corregidor Luis de Cerda 73) that faces the mosque complex. This deli specialises in local Cordoba produce, so you can stock up on yummy membrillo from Puerto Genil and jamon serrano from Valle de los Pedroches.

A PRESSING ISSUE

Olive oil is an essential component of Andalucian cooking. Not surprising really, since Cordoba and Jaen provinces together form the olive oil producing epicentre of the planet. The best place to learn about the stuff is La Laguna, a hacienda south of Baeza. Here you can visit the refinery and sample their oil, check out their museum with its immaculately restored olive oil mill, or try some local cuisine in the practise restaurants of the hacienda's catering school ( www.ehlaguna.com).

Game is another gastronomic feature of the Andalucian sierras, so while in Jaen try and visit Cazorla, not just for the dramatic scenery but also because it's a wild boar and deer chorizo hot spot. The local market has a big selection, as does Manolo's (Plaza Santa Maria), which also sells an excellent morcilla blanca made with pork, eggs, saffron and masses of garlic.

MOORISH DELIGHTS

Sweet biscuits, pastries and cakes are enjoyed all over Spain, but in Andalucia they're particularly popular. It's been the monasteries and convents that have often been the guardians of this culinary tradition and Granada presents a good opportunity to "buy direct". Monasterio de San Bernardo (calle Gloria 2) sells sweets and biscuits throughout the year: do what locals do and buy a caja surtida, a boxed selection, and take it to the nearest café to enjoy with a café con leche.

If you're planning a trip from Granada to the coast, consider making it a wine tour. Wines from this part of the world aren't well known so let me draw your attention to a couple of rising stars. First, the Senorio de Nevada winery in the Lecrin Valley where the microclimate of hot summer days and cold nights helps to produce award-winning, full-bodied red wines (Carretera de Conchar, Villamena 00 34 958 777 092); and second, the Horacio Calvente winery which makes two stunning red blends - Marques de Cazulas and Calvente. (Ctra Almeria 16, Motril).

GOING ORGANIC

Almeria demonstrates what happens when an area transforms from subsistence farming to shopping malls: culinary traditions tend to stay firmly in the domestic kitchen. One place where you'll find local specialities on the menu is hotel restaurant Terraza de Carmona ( www.terrazacarmona.com), in Vera. Almerian dishes include gurullos - tiny rice-shaped pasta that are delicious with game.

The corollary to this development is an increasingly popular organic movement and nowhere is this more evident than in the Alpujurras. The village of Orgiva runs a well-known weekly organic market, and vegetarians will find sanctuary at L'Atelier, a guesthouse combined with an award-winning veggie restaurant in Mecina Fondales (00 34 958 857 501).

In other words, Andalucia's broad-ranging, ever-evolving food scene means there's something delicious for everyone to enjoy.

'The Taste of a Place: Andalucia' by Vicky Bennison is published by Chakula Press (£12.99)

British Airways, operated by GB Airways, flies to Malaga from London Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester, and to Seville and Almeria from London Gatwick. For more details visit www.ba.com

RUM AND GAZPACHO

A RUM DEAL

It may be a surprise to some, but rum wasn't invented in the Caribbean: it is Andalucia that takes the credit. It is made from sugar cane, a tall grass that was the primary source of sugar for the Moors who introduced it. The by-product of boiling and centrifuging off sugar crystals is molasses. When airborne yeast particles settle in the sticky black gloop, fermentation occurs and this produces a kind of sweet wine, which is distilled.

Sugar cane, it turned out, much prefers the growing conditions of the Caribbean. The Caribbean rum industry didn't really get going until the 17th century, but small quantities of rum are still produced in the Motril area: try and track down the local brand Francisco Montero Martin.

SOUP OF THE DAY

Historically, the soup consisted of garlic, vinegar, olive oil and bread. Labourers would pop it down a well to keep cool and sip it at intervals during the day; you'll often find gazpacho served in a bowl with handles.

Gazpacho nowadays, refers to a whole family of soups: in Huelva, green gazpachos are made with herbs like coriander, while ajo blanco from Malaga uses ground almonds. Cordoba's variation is salmorejo, which is the more familiar tomato/ pepper gazpacho, but without water so it's almost a cream. Down the road in Antequera, they use red peppers, not green ones, and add paprika. Over in Jaen, gazpachos pastorales are game soups where the bread is added at the end of cooking.

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