“Once it’s in your hand, you’re sort of committed” says chef Tom Ryalls, a large splodge of dough ebbing from his left hand in an elastic bid to escape before being brought back under semi-control by a nimble flick of the chef’s wrist.
Holding the pan steady with his right hand, Tom brings the splodge of dough down onto the hot surface and holds it there for a second before deftly flicking it back up into his palm and then onto the pan again in a rhythmic motion. Creating a rosette of splodges that meld together into a paper-thin pancake, with his right hand Tom gently scratches the edges free and begins to peel the pancake from the pan while with his left, he continues to work the dough in its aerial ballet. It’s a master class in dexterity.
When enough warka pancakes have been made to go round, Tom takes a pancake, smears it with his home made harissa paste, adds an anchovy, some fresh coriander and a raw egg and deftly folds it over and scoops it into the hot oil to be gently fried. In the mouth the light, golden pastry melts into the creamy fried egg yolk before the fiery harissa paste kicks in, tempered by the salty anchovy and rounded off with the peppery coriander. It’s fried egg, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s a fitting end to four days of cookery demonstrations and a savoury prelude to our last Moro lunch together. Tomorrow we all return home to scour local supermarkets for Orange Blossom Water and Pomegranate Molasses.
The Moorish Flavours of Las Alpujarras
Anyone who’s ever eaten at London’s Moro Restaurant will already be familiar with the aromatic salads, the succulent flat breads, the savoury tapas and the sensational Tunisian briks fried in delicate warka pastry. But at Casa Rural Las Chimeneas in the La Alpujarra region of Southern Spain, the slow travel specialist holiday company Inntravel go a stage further by arranging for Moro’s talented former chef, Tom Ryalls to give hands-on demonstrations of cooking Moro style. On the ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life‘ principle, attending their Moro Cookery week could mean bringing the flavours of North Africa and Moorish Spain to your own table whenever you feel the urge, provided of course you have the dexterity, patience and skill of Tom Ryalls.
Set at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the little village of Mairena, the Moorish Flavours of Las Alpujarras week is hosted by British couple David and Emma Illsley who, along with their two sons, live in the village and contribute to its daily life as well as running an organic finca and the rural guest houses and restaurant which make up Las Chimeneas. After careers in the British Council which involved constantly moving around, David and Emma decided to take a year out and chose Mairena as their base, learning to work the land the traditional way.
“When the year was up we realised we didn’t want to leave,” says David. “So we basically looked around for an excuse to keep us here for another year.”
The years notched up as David and Emma carved out a life for themselves, acquiring an encyclopaedic level of knowledge about their adopted home, getting the finca into shape, opening the rural house to guests and even producing olive oil from their own harvest at the village mill.
In the rolling valley below the village of Mairena, David and Emma’s organic finca provides fresh fruit and vegetables for the restaurant and their uncultivated areas are a treasure trove of salad leaves, herbs and fruit which furnished a couple of idyllic hours of munching on winter medlar, grapes and walnuts while foraging for salad for that evening’s starter, under the expert supervision of Soledad and Conchi, Las Chimeneas’ in-house cooks.
Life in Mairena moves at a slow pace and other than one shop, whose opening hours are fickle at best, there’s little to do except enjoy the peace, tranquillity and expansive views over the rolling valleys of Almería and Sierra de Gador to Cabo de Gata in the east, Málaga and Cádiz in the west and the ghostly outlines of ships sailing the cloud line in the African distance. Clinging to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the white houses huddle together like a displaced Berber village, their simple street lights transforming the village into a scene from the Shires after dark, complete with Hobbit-sized inhabitants.
Accommodation at Casa de Las Chimeneas is in a series of rustic, character-filled rooms and casitas set higgledy piggledy around the main house where a log fire, wifi, complimentary tea and coffee and warm conviviality drew most of our group in our free moments. I stayed in the personality-rich La Azotea, a pepper drying loft with a wood burning stove, a small kitchen and an upper storey bedroom with a door onto the roof and a morning sunrise view to take your breath away. Access to the bedroom was by way of a near-vertical staircase with rope handrails beneath low rafters which initially made for some nervy midnight visits to the bathroom before I developed my slick, ‘duck & descend backwards’ style.
It never crossed my mind to lock the front door once during the entire week, even when I disappeared to Granada for the day. Mairena is just that sort of place where you feel you could leave your belongings on the street from morn ’til night and no-one would touch them.
Family and friends
We were a motley crew of thirteen when we arrived from our various corners of the globe with just a love of cooking, eating and walking to bind us together. As the week progressed and we learned to tap pomegranates with a spoon to dislodge the berries; splattered warka dough over our shoes and freed broad beans from their pods; after we’d walked to the frescoed church in Jubar, followed the Ruta de Piedras Pintada (the Coloured Stones Way) and strolled beneath the golden boughs of chestnut trees alongside the old waterway in the Laroles Valley, we became friends.
In the evenings we enjoyed the fruits of Tom’s labour and the local specialities prepared and presented by Soledad, Conchi, Andrew and Gill in the restaurant warmed by the glowing wood fire and the mellow Veleta wines from the bodega in neighbouring Ugíjar.
Looking over the images and the video footage of my week, I’m transported back to a world of superb food, good wine, excellent walking and the company of similar minded people in a stunning setting with the world’s most knowledgeable and affable hosts. As the perfect holiday ingredients go, it’s hard to imagine they come much better.
Buzz Trips works in partnership with Inntravel
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+