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We sat down with Alpujarras resident, hiker, guesthouse owner and author Emma Illsley to talk about walking in Andalucia, her recently launched cookbook, that she wrote with husband David, and of course asked her about the best Andalusian dish.
Can You Tell A Bit About Yourself?
We are David and Emma, we moved to the Alpujarra Mountains and Mairena village in 1998. Nearly a decade before that we were living in different parts of Spain and Portugal. We both worked for the British Council and were in Galicia, Oporto and then in the Canary Islands where we indulged in our love of windsurfing.
We initially came to the Alpujarra mountains as a sabbatical year on which we wanted time to think and plan where we would like to live and work. We fell in love with the Alpujarras. Both with the astonishing Spanish landscape and with the way of life. The small villages of Andalusia consist of families and of subsistence farmers still producing food and farming the land as they have done for generations. We both love hiking as well as cycling so we decided to set up as a small guesthouse in the middle of the Alpujarra mountains.
What Inspired You to Write the Andalusia Cookbook 'Las Chimeneas'?
We both write in our spare time and I had written another book Bee-eaters and other Migrants. In this, I chronicle what it is like to live in a small remote mountain community, focussing on the changes in the seasons and the local traditions. We were looking for another project like this. As our small restaurant was already getting fantastic reviews and many of our guests kept asking us why we didn't put together a book of recipes, the idea came about. From here the project emerged as a book that informs about the food we cook at our restaurant combined with content about local food production and traditions, as well as interviews with our neighbours. That is how “Las Chimeneas – Recipes and Stories from An Alpujarran Village” developed. The fact that we were put in touch with two very talented people, Anna Norman - a writer and editor who structured the book and gave us much needed deadlines, along with Suzy Bennett - a very experienced travel and food photographer, meant the project grew from a small idea into something much bigger.
What Is a Typical Dish for People to Try When Hiking in Andalucia?
Our dish pollo en asado or chicken with sundried tomatoes & peppers is very traditional. It uses the sundried produce that is famous in the Alpujarra Mountains. If you travel in September, you will see drying peppers hanging from the balconies and tomatoes on the rooftops.
Even just one generation ago people produced everything they ate. All our dishes are also made from ingredients that are grown on the terraces around us. To prepare the food, we work with Sole and Conchi who are from our village. Another traditional dish we like is carne en ajillo - a pork dish with an almond sauce. It is the dish that people used to make for special occasions such as birthdays or communions. As we are surrounded by almond terraces, there are plenty of nuts for this dish at hand!
Both dishes are delicious and guests give rave reviews and compliments to the chef regularly. The Alpujarra mountain range is also very famous for the air-dried jamon serrano which is delicious cut thinly as a tapas - or added to our broad bean dish in spring along with sundried tomatoes and the zest of an orange.
What Season Do You Like Best for Walking in Andalucia?
I love walking in September and October because there is so much produce in the fields such as wild grapes, figs and almonds. But every month has its delights. November has the autumn colours. Winter walking is fantastic in December and January with clear skies and views across to Africa with snow on the high peaks. The amazing almond blossom comes in February and then we move into spring from March onwards with an incredible range of birds and flowers. June in Andalusia can be warm for walking, but it is a very dry heat so more than manageable if you wear a hat and carry plenty of water - and then it is lovely to come back to sit out in the warm evenings. The only months that are too hot for walking in Andalusia are July and August.
When Is the Annual Harvest Of The Alpujarra Mountains?
We have several harvests in the Alpujarra mountains surrounding us. The olive harvest is in January and February and as many of the walks go through the olive terraces, it is quite common to walk alongside families in the fields. You will see them busy with their nets and long sticks, which they use to hit the olives off the high branches.
The other important harvest is the almond harvest in September. This is another interesting time to come walking in Andalucia as it often coincides with fiesta season. Every weekend sees a different village celebrating the day of their own Patron Saint. Our village fiesta of Santo Cristo de la Luz is the nearest weekend to 18th September. We love for walkers to be involved in these harvests, it’s a great experience and opportunity to spend time with the local Andalusians.
What Is Your Favourite Place In Andalusia?
It is completely biased to say it of course, but I love our own village of Mairena where Sherpa’s hikers spend their first night and their last two nights. It is partly because I have been here so long and know everyone in the village, but it is also because our village really hasn't changed much over the years. Pretty much the only tourists we see in the village are our guests! It is still mainly a village made up of farmers. Mairena has one friendly bar and a shop and the houses all have the traditional flat rooves based on the Moorish architecture of North Africa. Above our village, the ancient threshing circles have been turned into a lookout point and our olive mill is one of two in the whole province of Granada which is still a traditional press. The village locals are friendly and will always give a big grinned ‘Hola!’ as anyone walks by.
What Can Walkers Make from The Fruits They Can Pick Up on Their Hike?
We are always happy to give people the recipe for our delicious ajo blanco or white almond gazpacho. For most of the year it is possible to gather almonds in their shells, which does mean you then have to shell them but that's part of the pleasure. I have a quote from the local best-selling author Chris Stewart who is a regular diner at our restaurant. He once happened to be dining with a trumpeter who agreed to serenade the restaurant that evening!
"The trumpeter’s willowy wife offered me a spoon of her ajo blanco. This miraculous combination of garlic, almonds, olive oil, and the water of a clear mountain spring, was as good as it gets. It’s easy to louse this simple dish up – too thin or too thick; too garlicky or too oily… but Sole, who runs the show here from the kitchen, has the trick of getting it just right." – Chris Stewart
What Is the Best Thing About Walking in Andalucia?
David always says that coming to the Alpujarras is probably one of the shortest flights from Northern Europe that brings you to immerse yourself in something truly different and culturally exciting. Although it is a cliché, walking in Andalucia makes you experience a way of life that in much of the world has been lost. You will have challenging, varied walks with incredible views down to the Mediterranean and up to some of the highest peaks in mainland Spain. The norm is to hardly see another hiker for hours. Each night you will stay in lovely traditional villages and get to see a way of life little changed. People here for example still think that one of life’s pleasures is the privilege of being able to fill their jugs with spring water from the village source. Andalusians continue to grow their own food wherever possible, simply because they know, rightly, that it tastes so much better.
I believe that walking in Andalucia gives hikers a very rounded experience; get to feel fit, enjoy raw nature, and experience something life enhancing. On top of that, hiking in Andalucia is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life.
If you are interested in the cookbook Las Chimeneas – Recipes and Stories From An Alpujarran Village, please let us know and we can bring you in touch with David and Emma. If you are interested in walking in Andalucia and staying at David & Emma's guesthouse, have a look at our 8-day Hiking in Hidden Andalucia self guided walking holiday.