I drove south surrounded by olive groves for about 90 minutes. Quiet roads, mostly winding and narrow allowed me to enjoy the ever-changing mountainous scenery, but always with olive trees. It’s hardly surprising as home is Jaén, Spain´s largest olive oil producer. As I cross into Cordoba province the landscape flattens into the plains of the Guadalquivir River running towards the Atlantic Ocean; the silvery-green olive trees remain.
The odd white building reflects the sun between the green trees and re-earth. Rain clouds hover as the sun breaks through growing patches of blue sky. Iznajar (pronounced Ith-na-ha) a small town with a rich history and large lake is my destination. The reservoir that almost surrounds the town has 100km of shoreline; it´s aquamarine waters announce I´m almost there before I spot the tower of the old town.
I´m on an overnight trip, one long anticipated. I´m going to do a tapas cookery class at Finca Las Encinas just out of the town, but my first glimpse of water impels me towards it, momentarily finding my lodging is less important.
Yellow spring flowers set the foreground scene followed by silvery-green and backed by shimmering aquamarine ripples as a spotlight of sun hits the waters. Then the sloping hill town with its Moorish tower comes into vision and completes the view as the castle comes into the spotlight .
I´m hooked. Time is short, I´m already later than planned. I so want to get closer, explore and most of all be at the top of the town looking down. Mañana I tell myself and I head away to discover my accommodation for the night.
I didn´t find it straight away, that´s normal for me. I´d read the instructions on their website and thought I´d understood, even though I was coming from the opposite direction. No good. I´d have to ask. There aren´t any people wandering along the roads so when I spotted a weighing plant I popped in. Being the only car and woman amongst tractors and 4x4s laden with olives I gained some attention.
When I wasn´t understood at first a crowd soon gathered. Chins scratched and caps removed, the concentration on the lined faces of the men soon paid off.
“English you say.”
“Pues, she’s Japanese and he’s English” I reply.
More thinking. I go to speak again, a hand waves at me to wait.
“Si, si, Maki her name?” By jove he´s got it. Yes I smile. “Do you know how I can get there?”
Three minutes and excellent directions (perfectly described on the website from the lake direction) later I pull into the driveway. Chickens meander to my left, a veggie plot ahead and what caught my attention most a small pair of upturned wellies on a Prickly Pear cactus.
Large wooden doors opening inwards, a couple of small dogs and flower-filled terracotta pots greet me, followed by my hosts Clive and Maki Ridout. Shown to my room I dumped by bags on the bed under dark roof beams, checked the view from the windows and tested the loo then made my way down the steep and dangerously dodgy if drunk stairs.
Clive tells me we´ll start cooking at 6pm, I have an hour. I look at the sky knowing it´s going to rain again, no more blue today but jump in my car and head back to the water again.
I drive over a short bridge across the now, not so bright waters and then another longer one appears, a long stretch of road with water below and either side. I wish the sun was shining on me now. I slowly cross then return again looking at the water through rain-sodden windows and retreat to the water-side bar I´d just passed.
A cold beer on a rainy afternoon looking over the lake with an evening session of cooking and eating ahead brought a smile to my face, a holiday feeling that sun or no sun can´t dispel swept over me and I was eager to get going.
Introduced to the cozy kitchen Clive showed me the tapas menu, hand-chalked on a blackboard, which we were going to prepare, but first a beer? I didn´t say no or admit it wouldn´t be my first.
Unlike my home preparations there were distinct sets of ingredients set out, all neat and organized in different tapas we were to make. So ‘pinny’ on, beer glugged and hands washed Clive explained the tapas and their local history and off we went.
First as we were cooking for other guests too we made a traditional flan or Crème Caramel, an egg custard with pouring caramel sauce. Then came the tapas, our first job was to prepare the salt cod filling for the red piquillo peppers, then leave it on a plate to cool and make the pink base sauce with the remaining peppers, cream, cayenne and vinegar.
Then came the aubergine preparation, they had to be browned off in plenty of olive oil then drizzled with lots honey and put in the oven. The spicy potatas bravas were next, grinding chilli, garlic, pepper corns and cumin with vinegar to make a thick paste. Pre-boiled potatoes were then gently fried in copious amounts of olive oil and the spicy paste tossed in and into a serving dish.
Cutting the small gem lettuce into quarters and laying across an anchovy each piece, meant it was now ready for the last-minute drizzle.
Prawns were peeled, and all was ready for the final countdown.
With another beer gone, the clock ticking on, Clive said things were now going to heat up – and they did. With the last-minute prawns with garlic sauce, clams with jamon and fino sherry and the drizzle for the lettuce to go it´d be fast and furious, cook, plate and serve.
Both prawn and clam dish were last-minute, quick to cook dishes then came the garlic chip drizzle for the Little Gem Lettuce with Garlic chips.
I´m not a fire lover so chucking vinegar into almost smoking oil that would catch alight wasn´t for me. I watched the expert from a step backwards as he cooked the sliced garlic for seconds, threw in the oil and took the flaming pan to the table and drizzle it over the anchovy and lettuce hearts. It smelt delicious.
And to the table it all went, wonderful smells rising from lovely Spanish ceramic dishes and my creations within (wishful thinking!)
I dined with a German guest and her daughter proudly explaining each dish and completely agreeing with her enthusiasm over them all. A favourite couldn´t be decided upon and we certainly couldn´t empty all the dishes but had more success with the local red wine.
One very content lady went up the dodgy stairs without a hitch and recreated both cooking and sampling the dishes while drifting off to sleep.
Book yourself into Finca Las Encinas and ask for cooking class availablility as there is a maximum of four at a time in the cosy kitchen.
Fly to Malaga Airport (AGP) which is the nearest one if flying internationally. Granada Airport (GRX) is much smaller and slightly nearer if you´re taking a national or connecting flight. Car hire is available from both airports. Drive 50 minutes from Malaga or 45 minutes from Granada airport following the excellent directions on the Finca Las Encinas website is easy, coming from the opposite way thinking you know what you´re doing isn´t quite so!