Reputations, once forged, are often hard to shake off. For better or worse, Gran Canaria is mainly known as a cheap-and-cheerful holiday island that pre-pandemic attracted more than four million visitors per year, many of them taking refuge from the dark northern European winter.
Last year, however, word began to reach me that this Canary Island, the third largest in the archipelago, was coming to the boil as a hotspot for cuisine both traditional and modern, for remarkable wines, and for a range of ingredients astonishing in their diversity. “It’s evident: Gran Canaria is undergoing a gastronomic explosion,” wrote veteran Spanish food critic José Carlos Capel in El País.
I flew in from Madrid and from the postcard-perfect port of Mogán I took set off inland, winding along a valley towards the gloomy peaks of the central mountains. Deep in the barranco were plantations of dark-leaved fruit trees — mango, avocado, fig, and citrus — running like a green river along the valley floor.
Halfway along the gorge a terrace jutted out like a balcony with outdoor tables fanned by the breeze. The parents of Chema Marrero, owner of Restaurante Valle de Mogán, were country people who once kept sheep, goats, and black pigs in the whitewashed, clay-tiled barns of the family farm. Marrero left the island as a young man and spent his career in hotels in the Far East, returning to open a restaurant where his Canarian roots would meet and mingle with Asian inspirations. So for lunch there was a Thai-style salad of local green papaya and sashimi of Mogán tuna with lime, coriander and sea urchin oil — but also bienmesabe (“it tastes good to me”), a kind of gooey marzipan, with an ice-cream made from gofio, the toasted cornmeal which is a permanent fixture of Canarian larders and breakfast tables.
The road crept ever higher through fields of almond and, further up, into sparse forests of Canary pine and chestnut. If the south had been arid in the extreme, the northern half of the island was green and fertile, watered by rains carried by the trade winds. Here at the island’s mountainous heart, amid weirdly shaped peaks to which shreds of morning mist still clung, lay one of the most spectacularly sited vineyards I had ever seen. Straggling rows of vines clung to the terraced slopes of a collapsed volcanic crater at 1,295 metres above sea level.
Like most of Gran Canaria’s most interesting gastronomic ventures, Bodegas Bentayga is a family affair. One of six siblings, Sandra Armas has taken on her father’s winemaking hobby and created one of the island’s handful of forward-thinking modern bodegas. In the amiable tones of Canary-Island Spanish, she explained that in the past the local wine was often rough and rustic stuff but was now doing justice to aromatic local grape varieties such as Albillo Criollo, Vijariego Blanco, Baboso Negro and Tintilla. Inside a cave-like tasting room she invited me to sample a superb oak-aged white, rich and almost oily, with aromas of pear and mango that lingered long in the mouth. Bodega Bentayga’s wines are now to be found at some of the hippest new restaurants in Las Palmas, said Armas proudly.
Way up in the valley behind Agaete, a charming whitewashed town on the island’s north coast, Finca La Laja is another family affair, growing everything from mangoes and oranges to potatoes and tomatoes, making wine under the name Los Berrazales, and supplying the kitchens of their own delightful restaurant (Casa Romántica). A rare treat at La Laja was a cup of the farm’s own arabica coffee, roasted in an old Italian-made machine. The coffee plants with their ruby-red berries stood in rows along the paths, protected from the harsh African sunlight by over-arching grapevines.
Further round the north coast in Arucas were two gastro-tourism undertakings worthy of note. One was the Canary Islands’ only rum distillery (Ron Arehucas), on a tour of which I was offered a taste of a 40-year-old “Captain Kidd”, coloured a deep russet gold like a fine armagnac and redolent of spices, tobacco and tropical wood. The other was Hacienda La ReKompensa, a 19th-century banana farm refashioned (by Belgian Katleen Van den Bosch and her Gran Canarian husband Rubén García) into a living museum of banana culture. I walked the wide gravel paths among the creaking palms while Van den Bosch pointed out exotic varieties such as the fashionable “red banana” (in fact coloured a deep rusty orange) and the rare, pink-fleshed topocho.
On the high road from Santa Lucía to Agüimes I stopped to gaze at a landscape that might have easily been Morocco — only 150 miles east of here, after all — with its scrubby olive groves, its clusters of flat-roofed white houses interspersed with palm trees, and dust-brown crags casting deep shadows in the waning afternoon.
The star product around these parts is the raw-milk goat’s cheese made by Luís Martell and Lucía Torres at Era del Cardón, one of no less than 130 artisan queserías on the island. In the front room at the dairy Luís cut me a slice: it was firmly textured yet with a yielding creaminess, and typical of the island’s cheeses in its flattish shape and dun-coloured rind, which is cured by rubbing it with gofio. Beyond the window the family’s 630-strong herd of Majorera goats were idling among the strewn volcanic rocks, nibbling the dry grass as they wandered.
“When it rains and the lavender flowers bloom, you can smell that perfume in the milk,” said Lucía.
If the first phase of my island journey had been about raw materials, the second was about seeing what happens to them in the creative kitchens of Las Palmas.
My base in town was the Hotel Santa Catalina, whose recent lavish restoration has left its fin-de-siècle grand-hotel trappings gleamingly intact. From here it was a short walk along the seafront and into the barrio of Triana where evening strollers sauntered the cobbled streets in floral dresses and flip-flops. On a little square beside the grey cathedral, big white bignonia flowers littered the flagstones like discarded napkins.
You can eat like a king at posh harbourside joints such as Embarcadero (red tuna tataki and char-grilled turbot, watching the big yachts slide by) and at Siete Lagares in the uptown suburb of Tafira, which specialises in authentic versions of Gran Canarian classics such as rabbit en salmorejo, caldo de pescado (a fish stew served with gofio) and ropa vieja (“old clothes”, a ribsticking combo of chickpeas and mixed meats).
But the real excitements here are to be found in the new wave of chef-driven restaurants — Muxgo, Tabaiba, Hestia, Pícaro, El Equilibrista, Deliciosa Marta, and many more — that have been colonising the neighbourhoods of Vegueta, Triana and Las Canteras. In the past five years the scene has grown exponentially as young Gran Canarian cooks return from stages in big-name restaurants on the Spanish peninsula to join the food revolution in their hometown. Young women take some of the starring roles — most notably the extravagantly talented Iciar Pérez, chef at the Hotel Santa Catalina’s in-house restaurant Poemas. Among my favourite restaurants were the brilliant Qué Leche, one of the first of the new generation, and Bevir, where José Luis Espino served me a sublimely minimalist menú degustación based on vegetables, fruit and fish.
At Cuernocabra, a black room with an industrial look and a rock’n’roll vibe (incongruously located inside the Corte Inglés department store), chef Safe Cruz sat me down with a dish — locally grown avocado with a tartare of sea bream, a sauce blackened with squid ink, a volcanic dusting of dried black olives and fine salt crystals from the salt-flats of Bocacangrejo — that confirmed what I’d already suspected about the food scene on this Atlantic isle. If the plan is to repackage itself as a first class gastro-destination, Gran Canaria has all the ingredients for success.