14th December 2016
Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Suzy Bennett
Las Chimeneas is a guesthouse in the Alpujarra (or Alpujarras), a region of southern Spain that forms the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucía. The area is known for its whitewashed houses and traditional communities – its dwindling population and geographical remoteness mean that agriculture is still the main industry here, particularly in the less-visited eastern side. So in the smaller, more-remote communities you’ll still sometimes see mules carting heavy loads around. And, as most people grow their own food, shops are mainly in the form of food vans that drive from village to village.
Las Chimeneas is based in the village of Mairena, in the region’s “Nevada” district. It means “the chimneys”, as these are very distinctive architectural element of the area. It was set up by an English couple, David and Emma Illsley, around 15 years ago. As well as a guesthouse, it’s also a restaurant – the only one in the village (though there is village café-bar serving run-of-the-mill tapas). When it first opened it served Modern European dishes, made by a French chef. But over the past decade it has evolved to become a focus for Alpujarran cuisine, made by two local cooks, Soledad and Conchi.
It’s a recipe book but also a document of the community that it’s a part of. We have tried to highlight the area’s incredible history and culinary heritage in the book, too, which was influenced not only by 400 years of occupation by the Moors, but also by the extreme hardships of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime.
I’m a travel writer by profession, and I visited Las Chimeneas in November 2015 to write a feature. On this trip I got chatting with David and Emma about coming back to Mairena in the new year to work in the restaurant for a few months. They needed some extra help as one of the key members of their front-of-house team was about to leave; I fancied a change of scene and was keen to learn more about the local food, as well as to brush up on my Spanish. As we were finalising the plans at the end of the trip, David mentioned that they’d also always thought about producing a cookbook for the restaurant. I immediately jumped on this idea. So when I returned to the Alpujarra in early February 2016, it was to both work in the restaurant, and to produce a book for Las Chimeneas within a timeframe of six months.
It’s not sophisticated cuisine, but it is honest, hearty, seasonal and really flavour-rich
What it’s known for in particular is its heavy use of sun-dried tomatoes and peppers, nuts (particularly almonds and walnuts), pork and rabbit when it comes to meat, and dried fruits – particularly figs. And copious quantities of olive oil. It’s not sophisticated cuisine: the area’s turbulent history hasn’t allowed for that type of gastronomic development. But it is honest, hearty, seasonal and really flavour-rich. And though the Alpujarra is a mountain region, the diet here also incorporates a lot of fish, which is brought up from the coast of Almería, an hour and a half away by road.
As both of the cooks at Las Chimeneas were born and bred in Mairena, the majority of the dishes served there are authentically Alpujarran. However, as many of the traditional main dishes are meat- or fish-based, they have expanded the local repertoire to include more vegetarian dishes. Most of these make good use of local ingredients, however, such as local nuts, vegetables, wild herbs and Alpujarran sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses.
Remojón is a good example of a typical dish you’d see on the menu in the spring. It combines oranges – there are thousands of orange trees in the region – with potatoes, another staple, olives (olive trees also define the landscape here) and salt-cod, a foodstuff which also crops up regularly. It’s a really vibrant dish, and absolutely delicious.
A dish that gives a good idea of what you might expect in the cold months is albondigas con salsa de almendras (meatballs with an almond sauce) – a real sustainer in mid-winter. Though the sun shines most days of the year here, it’s worth pointing out that the village is at the same elevation as the summit of Mount Snowdon, so it really does get chilly here from December to March.
Family meals and local fiestas are taken extremely seriously here; they really are the glue that binds the community together
Family meals and local fiestas are taken extremely seriously here; they really are the glue that binds the community together. It’s typical for families to get together for paella on Sundays, with younger folk often coming up from the cities for the occasion, and most families will have their own tweaked family paella recipe. Puchero de hinojos, a pork, fennel and white bean stew, is always made for the fiesta de San Marcos in April – the annual celebration of the patron saint. All of the older women of the village are hard at work making gallons of this dish in the days leading up to the fiesta – and conversation you overhear in the street at this time of year often revolves around this tradition. And then on the day itself they put them in maroon-coloured pots that they then line up outside the church, ready for serving to the whole community (including any visitors).
Another typical dish for feasting is carne en ajillo – a pork dish made with garlic, sun-dried peppers and almonds – which is often served at weddings. Weddings and communions are typically big affairs here, involving the whole village, so you need a one-pot dish for such occasions.
You don’t need a particularly high level of skill: they’re simple dishes, for the most part. You may need a degree of patience, though, as there is often quite a bit of advance preparation required, and many of the dishes have long cooking times. Most of the recipes are main courses – side dishes don’t really feature in local cuisine. And you’ll notice that there aren’t many desserts in the book either, as there are very few really traditional desserts in the Alpujarra.
We really wanted to give a strong sense of the community in the book, as well as of the beauty of the landscape. Obviously Suzy’s beautiful photos are crucial for this. And David and Emma’s descriptions of local produce and traditions weave in lots of anecdotes that I think really illuminate the village and the region. As the population of Mairena is so small (around 150 people), it is quite easy to feel part of things when you stay at Las Chimeneas, and to get a sense of local culture. We’ve included verbatim interviews with several local characters in the book, including the olive mill and ham shop owners. I would have liked to have included more of these interviews, as they were fascinating, and at times great fun, to undertake. But we were restricted by time – each one ended up lasting for hours, as the locals love to talk.
For more info on the guesthouse, go to laschimeneas.com
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