WE’d gone to a tapas fest in Tarifa to pig out on pork. But a man in a pork pie hat on a poster had other ideas, adding a curious twist to this piggy tale.

He stopped us again in our tracks outside the Tourist Information Office where we went to pick up a map. A dapper gent, in spectacles and a cravat, presiding in spirit over Tarifa’s 1st Ruta de Cerdo Ibérico, held in homage to this local VIP: the Sage of Tarifa, R.I.P.

Juan Luis Muñoz is just a bust now, cast in bronze, that must have cost a bob or two – a fitting tribute to a legend, as we came to understand… although not from the Tourist Information Office which had no information at all about the iconic figure on their doorstep. Qué va, estamos en España!

“Try his grand-daughter’s … El Ombligo,” the girl behind the counter suggested. Which is how our tapas fest turned into a quest to uncover the legend of the Sage of Tarifa and locate his grand-daughter’s belly button (el ombligo in Spanish). It was the Sage’s bar once, a belly button-sized indent in a wall, hidden away in the Old Town. How he would have loved to have stepped down from his plinth and joined us on this glorious gastronomic tapas crawl around 32 bars with nothing but pig on the menu! Just like his own restaurant, where pork was all he served.

Just like the Monty Python sketch, without the spam!

Eating at Casa Juan Luis was like being a guest at his home for dinner, one of his customer said. “You had to knock at the door and walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room and it was always full of famous people – TV presenters and torreros.”

From bar to bar we went, eating and drinking and picking up titbits – a few pork scratchings about this enigmatic sage who bred pigs, claimed ham was better than Viagra, was a judge for a bullfighting version of ‘Spain’s Got Talent’ and drank deeply from the cup of life – all the better if it contained sherry.

“As Seneca was to Cordoba, so José Luis was to Tarifa”, he’s been described! A modern-day philosopher who promoted Tarifa wherever he went – on national TV, quite often, where he once upstaged avant garde Spanish TV presenter, Jesús Quintero, by bringing his donkey on the show! He lit up a room with his presence – sometimes literally. Sparks flew in the jamón Iberico pavilion at Expo 92, the day he was nearly floored by the King of Spain’s bodyguards when he offered the monarch a slice of ham on the tip of his very sharp knife! The King forgave him, the Queen too (and she’s a vegetarian)!

Elena: a pretty girl with a smile like sunshine
Elena: a pretty girl with a smile like sunshine

A rusty sign in the shape of a pig oinks plaintively in the infamous Tarifa wind outside the Sage’s shuttered restaurant today. But his memory lives on in the belly-button-sized Bar El Ombligo, opposite where we found his grand-daughter Elena; a pretty girl with a smile like sunshine doing her abuelo proud, dishing up designer hamburgers for a flurry of extranjeros. They were juicy and spicy, filled with the goodness of Spain – and just a touch of Sage…

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