Article by Geoff Garvey

ON New Year’s Day my partner and I were headed back from a Christmas break in Toledo with the needle on the fuel gauge hovering scarily close to empty. The gasolineras were on holiday too and it took several abortive stops and some complicated directions from a man walking his dog before we found an independent owner who lived above his petrol pumps. He opened up especially for us. The Spanish are like that.

That problem solved, we badly needed a top up of sustenance ourselves as our own tanks were running on empty. Same story – every restaurant we passed was closed for the fiesta … until we crossed the border from Castilla-La Mancha into Andalucia. 

Heading along the N502, it was after 3pm when we pulled into the anonymous country town of Alcaracejos in Cordoba province and spotted the drab exterior of Venta-Bar Tic Tac, proclaiming its name to the world on dusty green awnings. Its appearance certainly lived up to its name – tacky; the sort of place you wouldn’t normally give a second glance. But hunger forced us to reassess our culinary expectations. And it was open.

Beyond the glass doors we could see people eating tapas at the bar. Now close to desperate we decided to bite the bullet (probably literally) and fill up with whatever miserable tapas were served.

Inside, the bar was functional but clean with tiled walls, tacky Christmas décor and lots of mirrors. I eyed a customer jabbing a fork into a slice of tortilla at the bar, and asked for the menu. “You want to eat tapas or a full meal?” asked the barman.

Bar Tic Tac Venta
TOP GRUB: At Venta-Bar Tic Tac on the N502 in Alcaracejos

 “A full meal, if we can,” we both chorused.

“Comedor,” he said pointing towards an inauspicious looking door at the rear of the bar. If he’d said ‘open sesame’ the scene that greeted us on the other side of it couldn’t have surprised us more:  a cavernous dining room, white linen cloths, gleaming cutlery and at least 40 tables, all occupied. The place was buzzing! But like magic, they found us a table for two.

A waiter arrived with a broad smile, a bowl of olives and menus. As he poured us two copas of manzanilla sherry we related our experience of finding everything closed in Castilla-La Mancha.

“Oh, they’re strange people over there. This is Andalucía! We are always open!” he replied, almost singing the words like an anthem.

He wasn’t wrong. Ventas are virtually unknown outside of Andalucia, but these humble wayside dining haunts are ubiquitous here. Originating from bygone days when much of the region’s seasonal work was done by itinerant labourers, they specialise in hearty home-cooked fare at working class prices and they’re open when everywhere else is shut.

Our waiter reappeared like a sorcerer with a bottle of house red wine, a large bottle of mineral water and a basket of oven-fresh bread. Everyone was eating menú del día. It was all there was. But what a menu! There was none of your predictable soup-or-salad followed by tired old filete de lomo or revuelto. The choice was quite mind boggling.

There was salchichón and chorizo ibérico, salmorejo, tortilla de jamón, sopa castellana, ensalada de pulpo and salteado de verduras – and that was just for starters. Mains included cerdo ibérico a la brasa, merluza, fritura de pescado, liebre (hare) con arroz, hearty rabo de toro, to give just a taster of what was on offer.

The desserts range was equally extravagant with three varieties of flan: pan de Calatrava from Murcia, tarta de Santiago, a Galician speciality, pudín and all kinds of fresh fruit, pineapple too.  The entire feast, including drinks, came to an astonishing €9 each! How they manage to turn in a profit with those margins is a topic for a university thesis…

Garvey’s Top Ten venta dishes (and where to try them):

1) Liebre con Arroz. Hare cooked in rice. (Bar Tic Tac, Córdoba)
2) Pollo Ajillo. Chicken fried with heaps of garlic – finger lickin’ good! (Venta El Tunel)
3) Ajo Blanco. The classic cold Malagueno soup made with breadcrumbs, garlic and ground almonds. (Venta Alfarnate)
4) Rabo de Toro. Succulent oxtail stew. (Venta La Duquesa)
5) Jabali al Horno. Oven-roasted wild boar. (Venta Puerto de Galis)
6) Alcachofas a la plancha. Pan-fried artichokes, an Andaluz delicacy. (Venta Esteban)
7) Gambas Pil-Pil. Shrimps in sizzling spicy oil. (Venta Marinetto)
8) Sardinas en Vinagre. Ten times better than the traditional boquerones! (Venta Pinto)
9) Salmorejo. The classic cold soup from Córdoba province made with breadcrumbs, olive oil and tomatoes. (Venta del Pobre)
10) Carne Mechada Tasty cuts of larded pork (cerdo ibérico). (Puerto de Galis)

Indeed, ventas already have a special place in Spanish history. They crop up in the pages of Cervantes’ Don Quijote and have long been places where weary travellers could seek shelter from the slings and arrows of bad weather and tedious journeys.

A true venta is on a highway, not tucked away down some city street. It often sells local produce, like pots of honey and pates, and its pedigree is generally denoted by the quality of the hocks of jamon iberico hanging from the ceiling.

Venta General
RUSTIC: Venta Puerto de Galiz in Alcalá de los Gazules, one of Geoff’s favourites

Of course, there are ventas and ventas. Nineteenth century traveller Richard Ford turned up at one venta in Granada province, optimistically called La Grande, and soon wished he hadn’t. After describing La Grande’s ‘colossal inconveniences’ he decided to bed down for the night, but found another collection of hungry guests lying in wait for him.

He wrote: ‘However devoid of creature comforts this grand hotel, there is a grand supply of creeping creatures and the traveller runs the risk of bidding adieu to sleep and passing the night exclaiming “Ay! de Mi!” as the pulgas (fleas) begin to bite.’

In other venta adventures, Ford would often ask the ventero (owner) what he had by way of vittles. ‘Hay de todo’ (Everything you want) would invariably be the reply. Then, as each of the dishes Ford suggested were dismissed with a shrug, it eventually dawned on the Englishman that there was nothing he wanted at all unless he had brought with him. Many travellers did just that, using venta kitchens to cook meals from the ingredients they had purchased along the way.

That’s not the case today. Andalucía’s ventas today are generally very good, a number of them outstandingly so. Indeed, some have upped their game beyond the simple fare served to famished travellers to become restaurants in all but name.

Many, such as the Venta Alfarnate in the upper reaches of Axarquía, northwest of Málaga, have been serving travellers for centuries. Set in an isolated spot in the midst of brooding hills, it’s not hard to see how it became a hotspot for brigands and highwaymen.

Claiming, with some justification, to be the oldest inn in Andalucía, Venta Alfarnate was frequented by some of the region’s most fearsome 19th century bandoleros, including the most terrifying of them all: El Tempranillo. This notorious latter-day Robin Hood who was said to ‘charm’ the gold rings and bracelets off his female victims, arrived unannounced one hot day in the 1820s in a less-than-charming mood. Finding there were no spoons for him to eat with, he forced the other unfortunate diners to eat their wooden ones at gunpoint, cracking their teeth in the process.

Indeed, the venta once had a jail cell for holding outlaws en route with their captors to justice in Málaga. The well-preserved cell has been turned into a dining alcove which must make it one of the most offbeat places to eat anywhere in these parts. Particularly so when a life-size effigy of another notorious bandolero, the Madrileno Luis Candelas, is giving you the evil eye from a stool in the corner…

Garvey’s Top 10 ventas

Now comes the controversial bit – my pick of Andalucia’s best ventas.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few good ones along the way, and it’s geographically biased because the west of Andalucía is where I live. But at any one of these you’ll be royally served and there’ll be no eye-watering when you get the bill.
If you feel that I’ve missed one of your favourites please add the details in the comment section. The address relates to the nearest conurbation which may be quite a few kilometres away.

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