El Hierro is the smallest of Spain’s Canary Islands, but it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and dramatic, with over 800 distinct volcanos (including 500 open cones, visible in nearly every direction). Between the black lava ground and the blue sea, the tiny island’s cone-scape rises to a dizzying elevation of 5000 feet. Hang gliders take note: this is your island.
Even though we’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, west of Africa, we are in Spain. The residents of El Hierro are proud to be Spanish, and as far as they’re concerned, geography aside, this is Europe. And because this is Spain, food rules; El Hierro produces its own cheese, wine and liqueur. As far as a local dish, look no further than the quesadilla. This is not your cheesy Mexican-American snack. On El Hierro, a quesadilla is a sweet cake made with local cheeses.
For a quick quesadilla breakfast, I step into the Restaurante Mirador de la Peña, perched high on a cliffside with a postcard-picture view of the aquamarine coastline below. I grab a sweet coffee mixed with a healthy dose of an unidentified local liqueur. My quesadilla, a round cake, is sliced and drizzled with honey.
I also sample a platter of local cheeses, made from sheep, goat and cow’s milk. The cheese is soft and mild; some of it is smoked, another island specialty. The restaurant itself is stunning, a glass house built into the cliffside, designed by famed contemporary architect, Cesar Manrique.
After spending the rest of the morning ascending to the chilly island peaks white-knuckled through each hairpin turn, I needed a beer break. I grabbed my partner in crime and headed over to the local café in the village of Frontera for a 15-minute cold one. I ordered a beer and struck up a conversation with the locals, two older gentlemen still sipping their morning café con leches. I admit, I pretend that I speak Spanish, though my studied language skills are limited to Italian and Bad French. What I really do is speak Italian with a Spanish accent and throw an “s” at the end of every word. So far it’s worked out all right.
My drinking buddy and I were a bit of an anomaly in the sleepy town café, they don’t see many American tourists in these parts. My time at the bar was extremely limited; as we had gone fully AWOL from our guided tour. As I chugged my Dorada with two minutes to spare, another beer arrived. In the true spirit of El Hierro hospitality, the gentlemen bought us the next round. I was in my happy place, cordially prattling along in Spitalian, fully aware that lunch was already in full swing. Chug-a-lug. With many thanks, we bid farewell to our new friends and raced down the road to lunch at Don Din 2.
Lunch is delicious: Don Din 2 serves up local favorites – this is Spanish cooking with a serious island vibe. El Hierro’s own white wine is poured and the dishes begin to emerge from the kitchen. An antipasto platter with tuna, salad with fresh peppers and onions, red and green spicy salsas and a mixed cheese platter are just the first dishes to hit the table.
A Spanish classic, gambas al ajillo, is presented in a sizzling iron skillet. These shrimp are beyond fresh and bathed in cloves (and cloves) of garlic.
The next dish to emerge is a bit of a stunner. It’s something I have NEVER SEEN BEFORE. A brand new food experience! Lapas alla plancha is a El Hierro (and Canary Island) specialty. Lapas translates to “limpets.” Still confused? Understandable. I’ve got the Google search going in one hand as I’m fervently slurping these babies down with the other. Foodie multi-tasking at its finest.
Limpets, it turns out, are snail-like gastropods with a single half shell. They cling to rocks with their bodies and are found in the waters around the Canary Islands. We are served a variety of orange and black limpets, doused in a parsley and garlic sauce and grilled to perfection. I’m so excited to discover a whole new food; I’m in limpet heaven.
Lunch wraps up with tender roast chicken, slowly cooked in a beer marinade. The chicken is served with another island specialty, papas arrugadas or “wrinkled potatoes”, salty and delicious.
My time here in El Hierro is too brief, but I feel as though I’ve put more than a sufficient dent in the local cuisine. I end the day with a long hike along the volcanic coastline, taking the time to savor the island’s majestic beauty and appreciate the final, fleeting moments of my culinary journey through West Africa.
2011 Mileage Total: 44187