Giving thanks on the Canary Islands

Circling to land at the Arrecife airport on Lanzarote, one of seven islands in the Canary Islands archipelago off the coast of North Africa, the first-time visitor is offered tantalizing hints of the extraordinary landscape that lies mere kilometers from this charming port city. Explore the town on foot, and dally if you will at the Castillo de San Jose, an 18th -century coastal fortification overlooking the Bahia de Naos; it houses a restaurant, bar, and, most importantly, a handsomely installed collection of contemporary Spanish art. But hit the road as quickly as you can, for it is in Lanzarote’s astonishing interior that jaws will drop with predictable regularity — and eyes will open wide at a scene that seems worlds away from the San Antonio to which Canarian settlers departed in 1731.  

The tierra that greeted those settlers must have seemed bién incognita to them as well, but the contrast in reverse is surely more startling — or so it seemed to our traveling group of present-day San Antonians. (None of us had Canarian creds, but that wasn’t about to stop us from fully appreciating this reverse migration.) The volcanic activity that created the island chain is, in Lanzarote, almost everywhere apparent in a malpaís (badlands) setting dominated by spent craters and strewn with rough-and-tumble black rock. But in contrast to the lunar landscape, most recently defined by the eruptions of volcanoes from 1730-1736, there are signs of determined civilization. The first comes in the form of simple, whitewashed structures enlivened by tropical-green trim. And the second is manifest in vineyards — but vineyards like none other. Punishing sun, almost constant, mistral-like winds and scant rainfall conspire against grape cultivation, yet from the time local farmers realized that the porous “gravel” that shrouded much of the island’s inland surface acted both as a thermal insulator and a kind of sponge useful for absorbing dew and what rain there was, cultivation began in earnest. All that remained was to devise a system for protecting vines from the relentless wind. 

That system takes two forms. One is to create mini-craters, shielded on the windward side by walls of volcanic stone. The result is a surreal, pock-marked landscape, with each crater harboring a single vine — a vine that must, of necessity, struggle for nutrients and be harvested by hand. The other system employs parallel stone walls, and it is such a scene that greets visitors to Bodegas El Grifo. Dating from 1775, it is the oldest commercial winery in current production in the islands, and its adjacent wine museum is a perfect introduction to the founding and flourishing of the industry.

But the proof of the struggle against nature has to be in the product, and our introduction to the bodega’s wine, conducted by winery manager Francisco Castejon Riber, began with some stylish malvasías, the principal grape of the islands. In the right hands, malvasía can produce beautifully aromatic wines with hints of white flowers. A newcomer to the wine might find in the El Grifo Malvasía Semidulce the perfect balance between dry and sweet. The amber-hued El Grifo Canarí is more honeyed and unctuous. And the lively El Grifo Rosado, reminiscent of strawberry and rose petals, is perhaps one of the best expressions of the listan negro grape we encountered. (You’re right — these are not familiar grapes.) 

The extraordinary sweet wines of El Grifo, traceable back to Shakespeare’s time (he referred to Canary Wine some 30 times in his plays), were not only impressive in their own right, but served as elegant aperitifs to lunch at nearby Caserío de Mozaga, an inn converted from a late 18th-century country house. In the spacious and light-filled restaurant, once a stable, the wine tasting continued with both a dry white and a barrel-aged red — but this time food held our interest equally. A salad topped with grilled cheese opened the meal along with the classic Canarian papas arrugadas (potatoes boiled in their jackets with sea salt until “wrinkled”) served with the equally traditional red and green mojos. If early San Antonio settlers brought these sauces with them to their new home (the red is a blend of garlic, cumin, paprika or dried chiles, and olive oil; the green uses cilantro as its base), they can claim to have anticipated by centuries the current salsa craze.   

The lunch continued with a lusty rabbit ragout and a grilled fish from local waters—both emblematic of the restaurant’s contemporary cuisine based on historic dishes and ingredients. (Go to for a look at the hotel and a menu that includes items such as thinly sliced octopus with potato confit.) But as impressive as the cuisine proved to be in this otherwise lonely-looking outpost at the island’s geographic center, the selection of Canarian cheeses was a revelation. Some historians suggest that cheese-making in the Canaries has pre-Hispanic origins, evoking early Phoenician settlers, among others. For a time, cheese was even a form of currency. This information might help a culture such as ours to look at cheese in a new light, but the product speaks for itself without any backstory (though a glass of wine always helps).

Architect and artist César Manrique had a hand in the formation of El Grifo (and the museum at Castillo de San Jose). He’s responsible for defining the vernacular building code of whitewash walls with green trim on the island’s interior and blue trim at the coast, and his mark is manifest in two attractions you can’t leave without seeing — as trite as that may sound. The first is Jameos del Agua, a volcanic grotto sheltering a crystalline lake. The site has been minimally manipulated by Manrique to exploit its natural beauty while adding such tourist-friendly functions as an amphitheater. But as dramatic as the grotto is, it almost pales in comparison to Manrique’s own home, created within and among five volcanic bubbles in the middle of a petrified lava flow.  

Manrique, an internationally known artist who hobnobbed with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock during a stay in New York in the mid-’60s, was killed in an automobile crash not far from his home, Taro de Tahiche, in 1992, and the home was repurposed as a cultural center by the CM Foundation shortly thereafter. From a landscape dominated by violent lava floes arrested in time, the visitor descends into a labyrinth of linked spaces, many open to the sky through the collapsed caps of the bubbles. Seating areas consisting of pillow-topped, whitewashed benches face pools of water fed from overhead streams. Galleries showcasing art both by Manrique and artists he collected, Miro and Picasso among them, emerge from the frozen floe to tantalize the viewer. More so than most any architect/artist trying to work with the landscape, Manrique took it as his subject. James Turrell comes to mind in this country, but, in photos at least, his Roden Crater in the Painted Desert of Northern Arizona seems much more minimal and at the same time more manipulated.

Lanzarote lies among the three eastern islands in the Canarian chain. Tenerife, the largest island in the Spanish-allied archipelago and its administrative center, is part of the western group and is also the first port of call for most travelers. Fortunately for our hardy band of food and wine fanciers, the capital city, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, is extremely pleasant and eminently walkable — not that we spent much time there. No, on our first full day in the city, we were immediately whisked off to the Casa del Vino La Barranda on the outskirts of town.

The House of Wine has been crafted from a handsome 17th-century hacienda, and in addition to presenting the compelling history of wine-making on Tenerife (and offering wine tasting and sales), it also houses a small museum dedicated to honey — thus putting together two of my favorite expressions of  the character of a place. Since this was a quasi-official visit (no diplomatic sashes, but a brief speech now and then), a display of local products — cheeses, mojos, candies, honeys, and more — had been laid out. Samples were duly (and truly) tasted and appreciated. And then lunch followed, this time with the distinctive wines of Tenerife. May I regale you with an overview of the menu? 

Humor me, for this was the introduction to an entire regional cuisine and its wines, and a precursor of what was to come in the following days. We began with another impressive cheese selection (a favorite was a semi-cured goat with a paprika coating) and a red wine called Viña Norte Tinto from Bodegas Insulares. Made with whole-cluster carbonic maceration, a technique used on many of the island’s reds, the wine tasted much like the exuberantly bright and fruity Beaujolais nouveaux that share the method — best sampled young and at the place of origin, in other words. A salad of tuna with watercress, beet mousse, and avocado sorbet followed (foams and mousses may have originated on mainland Spain, but they have not passed without notice in the remote islands), paired with a soft and floral Brumas de Ayosa Blanco Afrutado from an entirely different appellation.

An almond-crusted sea bass followed, this served with a slightly spritzy white, the Viñatigo Blanco Marmajuelo. Next in line was a dish of black Canarian pork with traditional almogrote, a sauce made from ripe cheese, garlic, and oil, partnered with the Presas Ocampo Tinto Barrica, a red as vividly fruity as the first but with the advantage of a little barrel age … and so on, including sips of the unctuous and port-like Humboldt Tinto Dulce. It was the island in microcosm, all in the space of, well, maybe three hours. 

Many of my trips are measured out in menus, you might as well know. They conjure up memories and images as surely as any slide show, digital or otherwise. And as many of our memorable meals were tied either to winery visits or tours of amazing natural features, the two are inextricably linked as well. Our next target after the House of Wine lunch was Bodegas Viñatigo, a small winery run by an extremely dedicated winemaker. We had tasted two of his wines at lunch and they were to be featured at dinner that evening, but as necessary as the wine-food hitch-up often is, there’s nothing like tasting wines with someone whose passion is palpable. And Juan Jesús Méndez is nothing if not passionate.  

His passion derives in part from an accident of history: Grape vines that reached the islands from Spain and Portugal centuries ago have since become extinct in their places of origin, leaving the Canaries a living horticultural museum of “more than 200 varietals that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.” Of this museum, Méndez is a self-appointed curator, and though he, too, uses the ubiquitous malvasía harvested from the steep slopes that are the setting for his thoroughly modern, stone-clad winery, it is wines made from grapes such as marmajuelo, gual, tintilla, and negramoll negra that catch our attention. The best of them are intense and powerful wines, both red and white, with more than a hint of volcanic minerality, but you will have to travel to Tenerife to taste them. Viñatigo’s Malvasía Clásico has just become available in San Antonio thanks to this trip, but the “museum” grapes are thought of as a hard sell due to limited production and unfamiliar names.  

The geography and culture that produces these wines is anything but a hard tourism sell, however. From Viñatigo in the north of Tenerife, it’s but a short hop to the colonial town of Garachico. Founded in 1496, it is another kind of living museum, and on the day of our arrival, it was decked out in streamers and painted drops in honor of a local festival. The decorations only added icing to a pastel-colored cake; the city’s architecture is clad in ochres, pinks, oranges, and even reds, and behind these meticulously preserved facades can be found attractions such as a well-regarded Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the old Convento de Santo Domingo. A simple yet effective white marble sculptural ensemble dominates a dramatic jetty at water’s edge just blocks from the town center; it is a stunning contrast to the nearby fortification that is the Castillo de San Miguel. Contemporary art is also a focus at one of two local hotels well worth considering, the coral-colored Hotel San Roque ( The public spaces in San Roque’s cloister-like interior are unexpectedly enlivened by dramatic sculptures, both large- and small-scale, but for a more totally traditional experience, the charming La Quinta Roja, presenting a pink face to the main square, is the essence of Colonial charm paired with all the essential amenities ( Contemporary art in a thoroughly contemporary setting was our dinner backdrop at Restaurante Lucas in nearby Puerto de la Cruz. If we weren’t already convinced that Tenerife’s cuisine had kept pace with its developments in art and the art of wine, this dinner would have done it. Viñatigo’s wines accompanied courses such as a salad of smoked eel with aged cheese and apple, and parrot fish on a sweet-potato bed. 

Rabbit scented with rosemary and thyme had been on the menu at Lucas as well, and rabbit redux appeared at lunch the following day in a totally different setting — the dining room of the Parador de Cañadas del Teide in the middle of the spectacular Parque Nacional del Teide. The park, occupying much of the middle of the island of Tenerife, is named for its most impressive feature, the lofty volcanic cone called El Teide that is visible from coastal cities such as Garachico. The traveler to El Teide emerges from a forest of pines into a strikingly desolate yet extremely beautiful landscape set with sculpted rock formations and sprinkled with contrastingly colorful plants such as the tall, spiky tajinaste rojo from which a prized honey is made.

The Parador sits in the shadow of a looming and barren butte. With more than 400 rooms, it is one’s only choice for lodging in the park, and though it has the look of a mountain lodge as imagined by a late, Franco-era architect, its interiors are charming and, most importantly, the kitchen is a serious exponent of traditional Canarian cuisine. To the accompaniment of wines from the Presas Ocampo Winery we had visited on our way to the park, we sampled blood-
sausage “truffles,” a pumpkin cream soup, and conejo in salmorejo, a dish made from rabbit marinated in vinegar, wine, garlic, paprika, and aromatic herbs. At nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, the hearty food would have prepared us for an assault on El Teide itself had we had the time. But no, dinner awaited back in Tenerife; there was barely time to pass quickly through the delightful World Heritage town of La Laguna before briefly touching down at our hotel, the Sheraton Mencey, for a change of clothes and a deep breath. 

The reader with enough endurance to have gotten this far will now be thinking that eating and drinking were the only serious activities on the trip, and she wouldn’t be too far from wrong. On our first night in Tenerife, three of us took the advice of the concierge at the Sheraton and hopped a cab up the coast to the small port city of San Andrés for unfussy seafood straight out of the Atlantic — washed down with local white wine, of course. Another night, most of the gang got together at a classy little café and wine bar just a couple of blocks from the hotel, where we proceeded to, er, explore much of the wine list, along with plates of  the prized jamon Iberico not yet available in the U.S.

But on this night at the Bodega San Sebastian, an atmospheric restaurant with charm to burn, we were to taste the wines of Bodegas Insulares de Tenerife with octopus salad with black potatoes and leeks, scrambled eggs with morcilla sausage and fried peppers, and baby goat with rosemary and retama honey, another of the unique products of the island. I frankly don’t remember the chocolate dessert that concluded the evening, but I do remember the wine, since I brought back to San Antonio a split of the honeyed and heavenly Humboldt Verdello Dulce, a wine named for the famed explorer-naturalist who, in addition to lending his name to the eponymous ocean current, wrote an entire volume entitled Travels to the Equatorial Regions of the New World: Las Canarias. I am the proud possessor of this tome in Spanish, and though I suspect I will never read it all, I find it curiously comforting to be able to tie history to wine consumption — as if I needed an excuse.  

Two of the group did bail out at this point, and they missed two wineries and two meals. The wines of Bodega Comarcal de Güimar are produced from grapes grown on hillsides far enough above the sea to qualify them as some of the highest vineyards in the E. U., and our jeep tour of the slopes was nothing if not dramatic — after which we sampled wines such as the Brumas de Ayoso Blanco (also now available in San Antonio) smack on the seashore with dishes the likes of sweet potatoes stuffed with pompano and napped with saffron sauce. Later that same evening, the remaining troops managed to tough it up enough to make a high-speed run down the coast to Frontos, a new winery with distinctive architecture, impressive wines, and a kitchen helmed by a chef with ties to El Bulli, Spain’s (and perhaps the world’s) most famous restaurant.

But travelers without such a heavy culinary agenda can also find much to admire in Tenerife without ever leaving its capital city for the beaches in the south or the wineries scattered throughout five different denominaciones de origin. Any city worth its salt has a central park, for example, and though Tenerife’s Parque Garcia Sanábria may be a little off-center, it’s a leafy enclave filled with public art, and a particularly good portal — to those with sturdy shoes and a yen for exploring on foot — to landmarks such as the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Teatro Guimera, itself just a stone’s throw from a neighborhood filled with late-night street cafés and bars well worth crawling. (Sorry; I’m back to food and wine, but I simply can’t help it.)  

You will most likely have to take a taxi to Tenerife’s most important contemporary monument, the outrageously sculptural Auditorio de Tenerife by Santiago Calatrava, one of Spain’s most visible exports these days. (He’s doing the transportation center at Ground Zero in Manhattan and designed the avian addition to Milwaukee’s modern-art museum.) I frankly find the auditorium a little silly and self-indulgent — but it is undeniably dramatic, sitting as it does on a jetty in Tenerife’s busy harbor. Silly or sublime, the structure is certainly symbolic of the musical and dance groups that have been making their way to San Antonio recently at the behest of the local office of Canary Islands promotion. Even Humboldt might have considered it part of his appreciation of the island, “a quarter so varied, attractive and harmonious, that it would appeal to all.”

Oops, I got that from a wine label. Forgive me.