Many, many years ago my husband and I visited a small Spanish village in the mountains. It had been a beautiful, quiet day, full of adventure and new experiences. For lunch, we found a small restaurant with a terrace. We ordered off the menu, selecting dishes that we had no idea about. We loved the strangeness and the novelty, we were craving authentic experiences.
My dish was a rabbit stew, Andalusian style. Chopped roughly in bite-sized pieces, bones and all. Thrown together in a pot and fried with garlic and thyme. Liver, heart and kidneys – all coming together to a rustic, unpretentious dish that was so delicious I couldn’t stop thinking about it even 15 years on.
Now that we have moved to the same area, Andalusia now being our new home, I just couldn’t wait to return. I wanted to chase the same experiences again. My pursuit of the rabbit, my quest to relive this moment of authenticity.
The Alpujarras: Culinary experiences cultivated in seclusion
From the Costa del Sol we take the car and drive to a region that is renown for its rural and backward character, the Alpujarras. A mountainous region, unusually rich in water. With fertile slopes and terraces that have been planted with citrus, olives, wine. This is Andalusia at its finest: white washed villages hugging the steep slopes, built so closely together that there is almost not way to get through the narrow laneways. Century old settlements, hardly touched by time, charming with their rough and rustic character.
The backwardness of the Alpujarra villages is not just a result of their high altitude setting and the fact that passable roads came to the region only very slowly. The area has seen many conflicts over the years. It was the last refuge of the Iberian Muslims during the time of the Reconquista. They were Berbers who built houses the same way as they knew them from back home in the high mountains of Morocco.
During years of civil war and unrest, the difficult terrain proved hard to keep under control. The mountains were perfect for rebel fighters and guerillas. The villagers were oftentimes innocent bystanders during times of conflict and political instability.
A day in Pampaneira
As we walk through the narrow streets of Pampaneira, sometimes so steep that we have to hold onto the house walls, we are reminded of times long gone. There is tourism here, but it’s of the gentle kind. The market square is busy with foreigners that are exploring the colourful souvenir shops and enjoy a cup of coffee in the shade of the restaurant umbrellas. But as we venture further into the village we leave all of this behind.
The illusion is almost perfect. The trickling stream that has been given a bed right in the middle of the laneway. The washing that hangs out to dry. The pots with flowers, the views across the roofs and chimneys to the to the green mountains. We accidentally find a small public lavatory where the women used to come together to wash the laundry, exchanging gossip over big basins filled with cool mountain water. Dreams of the countryside, of a simpler life, of peacefulness.
But we are here on a culinary journey. The area is known for its cured serrano ham. We step into one of the deli shops and marvel over chorizos and pata negras, wildflower honey and small wheels of aged cheese, the outside rubbed in mountain herbs. We admire the handwoven carpets and tapestries, some of them depicting rural scenes. They are handmade in the village, the huge loom is at work in the upper storey of a small shop.
The rediscovery of the rabbit
Somewhere deep in the maze of streets we find a small restaurant with only four tables outside. We order typical mountain dishes – a grilled rabbit with a beautiful crust and tons of flavour. It is served with potatoes for the poor – thick slices of oily cooked potatoes with strips of green pepper and onions.
We also order a kid stew. Just like our rabbit many, many years ago it comes in a sticky and thick sauce. It is chopped into small chunks, the meat still attached to the bones and the fat. There are bits and pieces of offal, adding a variety of flavours to this beautiful, almost celebratory dish. We dip soft white bread in the sauce, enjoy the boast of flavours.
From our place on the tiny terrace we can overlook the streets below. The cats from the neighbourhood come to play. Children head home from school for their lunch break. Wanderers like us explore the silent village streets.
We have found what we were looking for. A perfect meal in the quiet setting of the Alpujarras. On our pursuit to find authentic experiences we have once again found a setting of remote indulgence on the simplest of terms.
The Alpujarras and villages of Pampaneira continue to be one of our most favourite destinations in Andalusia. The hands of the clock continue to move only slowly in the Alpujarra villages. We love the balance of a gentle tourism and the authenticity of the villages. There is no doubt in our minds that we will be back soon.