LIKE a slow-cooked pork belly, the beautiful white town of Vejer de la Frontera has gently fused its ingredients to carve itself into the definitive food capital of Cadiz.
An incredible success story for a once unfashionable out-of-the-way town, Vejer is now – rightfully – one of the genuine culinary reference points for Andalucia.
Visitors now flock here from around the country, and it is incredible how many good places there are to eat in and around this gem of a white town.
A true gastronomic paradise with a melting pot of chefs from around Europe, at least half a dozen of its eateries would do well in Marbella or Madrid.
“We set the bar high,” explains James Stuart, boss of celebrated hotel and restaurant La Califa, which now has its own diffusion tapas restaurant, as well as its own twist on a kebab joint.
“There is plenty of competition between restaurants and all of us keep taking the level higher in order to get ahead.”
This is the serious goal that has to be taken by new restaurants like Peperoncino, which sits in a breathtaking location overlooking rolling hills and down to the sea in the hamlet of Patria, five minutes from Vejer.
Since opening earlier this year, its chef Benito – who trained with Jamie Oliver and Antonio Carluccio in the UK – has had to work hard to perfect his trade.
Only importing the best quality Italian ingredients, he has done a fantastic job creating a niche for himself with fresh, original dishes and true panache.
“I knew what we were up against,” explains the Iranian, who spent two years working in Jamie’s Kitchen in Leeds and York. “The quality of food around here is exceptionally high and if we were going to draw punters out here we knew it had to be something different. I hope I am achieving that.”
Another local entrepreneur Paco Pacheco, at La Tarantella, whose family own a trawling business, knows more than anything else that he has to get the offering right… and above all, deliver quality.
“There is so much competition now I had to work out carefully what would be my niche. I certainly know about fresh fish, but figured that what the centre still didn’t have was a good Italian restaurant,” he explains.
It is this level of thought that has helped to make this small Cadiz town into such a foodie Mecca.
Much of Vejer’s success is down to the local surroundings, which produce some of the best quality ingredients in the world.
The obvious examples are sherry, fish and the wonderful pork and beef from the classic brown ‘retinto’ cows, which you often see wandering around the nearby hills.
Of course the amazing ‘almadraba’ blue fin tuna, caught nearby is spectacularly good and the vegetables available are also of a high quality.
Another reason is the type of tourists who visit the town, which has seen a distinctly better heeled crowd than its nearby rivals on the Costa del Sol.
“We don’t just rely on beaches,” explains restaurateur Ramon at Vina y Mar, which has its own wine shop with over 200 references. “And many of the people who visit are keen food lovers, who come here specifically to eat.”
This is certainly the case and the huge mix of restaurateurs, who herald from France, Denmark, Britain and the north of Spain have helped to put together a rich and varied offering for them.
Frenchman Damian Giroud at long-running La Brasa de Sancho typifies the mix.
Having cooked since his teens – and even had a stint under the Roux brothers at Gavroche in London – he knows plenty about cooking.
Constantly evolving over the last decade, his restaurant is set in his elegant historic home in the heart of the town, with some fabulous outdoor tables.
“We hope we know what it is that makes people’s holidays great, good service and, above all, good food,” he explains.
His near neighbour Pedro Pardo, at Trafalgar, on charming Plaza de Espana is also doing well, with a fine mix of ingredients and style.
Recently opening a new diffusion tapas restaurant Trafalgar Taperia next door, Pardo has recently retired from his Madrid publishing house to concentrate on delivering quality for his restaurants.
According to his neighbour James Stuart at Califa – an emblematic place that is practically never quiet – everything began with Pedro.
“It all began in the late 1990s when Pedro and his partner Javier opened Trafalgar,” explains Stuart, whose hip hotel Califa conveniently put up the new influx of foodies across the square.
“It was the start of the food culture and we opened our restaurant in 2002 to give them some competition,” he continues, citing Trafalgar, Califa and Castilleria, run by Juan Valdes, as the three cornerstones of the scene.
But it is on the outside of town in the most obscure of locations that the bar is really being pushed higher and higher.
Up in Santa Lucia you have one of Andalucia’s best meat restaurants Castilleria that gets better and better each year and next door Venta el Toro, one of the most beautifully authentic restaurants around.
Describing its food as ‘comida de cuchara’, basically home-cooked ‘spoon food’, it just serves simple, delicious Andalucian classics.
Just around the corner is La Nueva Tajea and another beautiful spot with amazing views and a charming terrace to match.
From here, take a ten minute drive up to Patria to find out why laid back Dane Tomas and his lovely wife Ase are consistently topping many dining polls.
A stylish spot, overlooking fields down to the sea near Cadiz, the ambiance is second to none.
While the menu is compact, the regularly-changing specials are becoming increasingly experimental and always look delightful.
“A lot of our success is the fact that we use so many vegetables,” explains Dane Tomas, who lives next door with his family.
A laid back chap, who spends his spare time surfing, he sums it up perfectly: “We know we have to constantly evolve and create new things if we are to keep up with the excellent quality in town.”
Last, but anything but least, take a 10 minute ride towards the sea to Barbate, where you will find the stalwart Campero, easily one of Spain’s top fish restaurants and a lesson in hard work and discipline.
It is here that Jose Mellero and his team have been serving up the finest blue fin tuna for the last two decades. Miss it at your peril.
A little note of caution however, in recent months there has been a spate of new openings in Vejer, which, in my opinion, is starting to water down, just a little, the quality the town has worked hard to achieve.
A new food market and at least two or three new places is making it a touch confusing for the punter.
This is not to say that the quality of these new spots is bad, but you wouldn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, by allowing one too many places to open in the town.