From the udder or the grape: Guide to Gran Canaria’s lava juice
The volcanic soils oozes minerals, and the sun bakes in the taste.
Here’s why you have to step away from the buffet and seek out Gran Canaria’s cheese and wine
Canarian sheep and goats are never going to produce milk that sets nicely into a mild chèvre. They don’t spend their days jumping around in fields of lush clover, or their nights sleeping in a comfy meadow. There are no streams of sweet water to drink, or shady copses to sit under while the udders swell.
No, Gran Canaria’s herds wander the hot hillsides eking out their meals from amongst the lava. If they are lucky, they find a dragon tree to lean against during the heat of the day.
Instead of grass, they eat tough, aromatic herbs, bizarre succulents, and stuff that a pampered European goat wouldn’t even scratch an itch on.
Most of what they eat only grows in the Canary Islands; plants that died out in Europe during the ice ages, sandwiched to oblivion between glaciers and the Sahara.
It’s what gives the milk that comes from their sun-baked udders such an intense flavour. That and the fact that the goats and sheep round here date back to pre-historic times. There’s no way a finicky pygmy goat or a woolly sheep would survive the temperatures and the terrain. Natural selection has left us only the toughest and the tastiest.
And Gran Canarian cheese is spectacularly tasty.
It’s sharp, tangy and, yes, goaty.
If this sounds like your idea of cheese hell, then stick to cheddar. However, if you like your cheese to have character, to sit up on your taste buds and sing with flavour, then you’ve come to the right rock.
What to buy and where to find it
Just don’t buy it in those shrink-wrapped plastic triangles in the supermarkets. That’s not cheese, it’s a rendered UHT milk product and the closest it’s been to a real goat is the picture of Billy on the label.
To find real Gran Canaria goat cheese, head to the markets and buy it straight from the people who live amongst their animals. You don’t have to look to hard to find them; you can smell them a mile off.
Real Canarian cheese has never been in a factory or a fridge. It comes in lop-sided wheels with a thick rind dusted with paprika or gofio. It tastes of the smells you get when you fall down a hill in the countryside.
Any Gran Canaria cheese in a local market will taste good, but you can always ask for a sample before you buy. Be bold and taste a selection, but look out for these ones in particular.
Flor de Guía
A remarkable, vegetarian cheese made from raw goat and sheep milk curdled with cardoon sap rather than animal rennet. It isn’t a hipster trend, but the consequence of centuries of thrift amongst shepherds who never knew when the next rain shower was coming.
Why slaughter a suckling kid for rennet when you can let it roam around eating free food for a year, and then roast the results whole over a pit of charcoal and laurel leaves?
Flor de Guía comes in wheels half as high as a standard goat cheese as the imperfect curdling makes a soft cheese that sags in the heat. It’s one of the few creamy Gran Canaria cheeses and tastes herby with a pleasant hint of socks. Never put it in the fridge as it dries out fast and loses it’s taste.
As Gran Canarian goat cheese ages it shrinks and hardens and turns a dark yellow. After a while it gets so hard that it’s a devil to cut unless you have a broad-bladed Canarian knife and a reckless streak.
The flavour of a good Canarian queso curado is all goat and sharpness with rich, aromatic, herby after tastes. Its great in chunks along with local bread studded with aniseed, and also make a fantastic, and affordable, alternative to Parmigiana for pastas and home-made pesto.
How do you make a Gran Canaria cheese even tastier? Stick in in a smoke house (or cave) until the rind turns the colour of a cigar and the smoky flavour infuses the curds. Then grill it until it bubbles and browns, and drizzle with green mojo sauce.
Eat in the sunshine, then wonder how you’ll ever give your taste buds an orgasm that strong again.
If Gran Canaria’s goats have it tough, imagine what it’s like for the vines. Rather than the gentle slopes and mild sunshine of the French countryside, they cling to stony terraces on volcanic hillsides and are baked by African sunshine every day.
Its everything they can do to produce grapes rather than raisins. And yet, somehow, the wines they produce manage to be intense and delicate at the same time.
A lot has to do with the grape varieties that survived here in splendid isolated while diseases and modernisation ripped through vineyards everywhere else.
Whatever the reason, Gran Canaria’s wines are an essential experience when you visit. The reds, don’t have the easy drink-ability (boring-ness) of mass-produced Riojas, but they do pack in the fruit and minerals. This is red wine with the sun baked into it’s after taste.
As for the whites, they just don’t behave the way they should. Vast temperature differences during the growing season (anything from 10ºC up to 40ºC) does wonders for their complexity. You get tropical notes of pineapple, banana and mango, intense floral flavours, and a crisp, mineral edge that brings them together.
What to buy and where to find it
Some people complain about the price of Canarian wines; they are always a couple of Euros dearer than a Rioja or an imported Australian white.
Only they’re not. Comparing Canarian wines made from hand-picked grapes grown in small family-owned vineyards with the product of vast, industrial wine estates is ridiculous.
Anywhere else, you pay a huge premium for single estate, hand picked, varietal wines. Here in Gran Canaria, and all over the Canaries, they sell for a few Euros a bottle.
Unlike the cheese, the best place to find a good selection of Canarian wines is in the big local supermarkets.
Look out for these bottles.
Frontón de Oro: A great full-bodied Gran Canaria red that’s perfect with a curry. It’s made from grapes from San Mateo; Gran Canaria’s equivalent of the Shire and the only place on the island where wellies are standard attire. About 6 Euros.
Agala 1318: Named after the altitude (in metres) of the vineyard, this is a mountain-born wine and tastes of blossom and rocks. An indulgence at 14 Euros a bottle. Just buy it.
Las Tirajanas Tinto: One of Gran Canaria’s biggest wineries knocks out this light, drinkable red with a firm taste of blackberries. At 6 Euros a bottle, its a bargain even if you love your cheap-and-cheerful Riojas.
Platé: The history of Gran Canaria is punctuated by failed attempts to do something with bananas other than just eat them.
There have been abominations. Those silly bottles of lurid liqueur shaped like a bunch of bananas, and the 10,000 magnums of banana champagne that exploded one after another during a hot spell.
It was only a matter of time before banana wine hit the market. Called Platé, it’s slightly sweet with a mild banana taste. Not bad, but you wouldn’t want to open a second bottle.
Professional photographer and community manager Alex Bramwell is one half of the team behind Gran Canaria Info, the island’s biggest independent guide. He’s lived on Gran Canaria for years and spends most of his time roaming, tasting, photographing and writing about the island.