IT’S been a dreadful two years for restaurants and anyone who relies on the sector for their livelihoods.

The Olive Press – and me, specifically – has had a tough time surviving without the regular weekly trips snuffling out great new local eateries, not to mention the monthly escapes to winkle out the best dining secrets further afield around Spain.

Well, I’m out grazing again, acting like a bloodhound on the hunt to sniff out a morsel, whether that be close to home on the Costa del Sol, along the Costa Blanca or somewhere in the wilds of Teruel.

Since writing a book, Dining Secrets of Andalucia, over a decade ago, I’ve had a keen weather eye on my local region, which has improved massively for foodies since then.

That Andalucia now has a staggering 20-plus Michelin stars within its borders is something few would have thought possible in 2010.

It’s the same with Madrid, which easily rivals San Sebastian and Barcelona, as Spain’s food capital nowadays and well worth a gourmet-tour in 2022, whatever the budget.

And let’s not forget the east coast, which I have gotten to know well over the last few years, having launched a trio of newspapers there.

Valencia is today one of must be the most exciting places to chow down, what with its phalanx of female chefs, such as Vicky Sevilla, in Sagunto, coming to the fore, not to mention Quique Dacosta, who is fast becoming the country’s top kitchen whiz.

Now the pandemic is finally easing, I’ve sauteed a list of chestnuts – one a month – ready for the ultimate gourmet tour of Spain this year. 

THE DELIGHTFUL DOZEN!

DEESSA – Madrid 

We might as well start with Señor Dacosta, the genius of the East with a collection of Michelin stars to compete with the best.

Having tried and failed to eat at his Denia nerve centre on three separate occasions, this year I’m planning the next best thing: his new restaurant Deessa, at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz hotel, in Madrid, which earned its first Michelin star within months of opening. 

OK, it may not be the Real McCoy, but one of my all-time best meals in Spain was at the diffusion restaurant of El Bulli legend Ferran Adria, at Hotel Benazuza, near Sevilla, in 2009. 

A 25-course menu to celebrate his quarter century at El Bulli (then the world’s top restaurant for nearly a decade), he was on hand, alongside Ronda’s now celebrated Benito Gomez (of Bardal), to roll out a masterclass. 

SOLLO – Fuengirola 

A revisit to try the food of the now-legendary King of Caviar, Diego Gallegos, on the Costa del Sol is already well overdue.

While it’s just around the corner from Olive Press HQ, in Fuengirola, I last tasted Diego’s thoughtful food around four years ago.

An erudite and intellectual chap, Sollo deservedly has one of the very few ‘green stars’ handed out by the Michelin guide for his ethics and drive for sustainability. 

I first tried Diego’s creative food at the obscure (but amazing) Casa Piolas in Algarinejo, in the wilds of rural Granada, 15 years ago.

A trip I will never forget, these days he is known for his skills with the caviar that he brings in from Riofrio, also in Granada.

APONIENTE – Cadiz

Aponiente

Staying with fish, one place I am certainly going to visit, money permitting, is the new location of celebrated restaurant Aponiente, in el Puerto de Santa Maria. 

Angel Leon is to Spain, what Heston Blumenthal is to the UK. A magician consistently foraging for new tricks – and always with an environmental edge. 

Chef of the Sea, as he is known in Spain, he was the pioneer to take cod and tuna off the menu in response to overfishing. A man who bought his own fishing boat and deliberately used rare fish that nobody had heard of, less, knew how to cook.

Interviewed a few times in the early days for the Olive Press, today he is an international star, whose name is held up in Japan and America.

BAGA – Jaen

Baga

It was something of a surprise when the culinary desert of Jaen won a Michelin star a couple of years ago. 

But Baga gaining the plaudit says so much about the changes in Andalucia over the last decade: skillful chefs who trained abroad coming home to use the region’s great local ingredients.

Jaen is, after all, the home of two of the country’s four best olive oil denominations, it is also not short of vegetables and great wild game, like partridge and venison.

Head chef Pedro Sanchez Jaen even has the right name to weave magic in his hometown and his dishes, including beef tartare with smoked eels, sound wonderful.

Small, little-known locally, let alone abroad, this is one joint I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into.

NOOR – Cordoba

Noor Restaurant 2

Somewhat better known now than Baga, and no surprise, Cordoba being a popular international tourist hive, Noor still has just as much allure.There has been so much buzz about this place for a while and so many good reports, plus claims it is hard to book, so be warned.

Recently described as a ‘gastro-archaeologist’ its head chef Paco Morales imagines that he is the private chef of a former Moorish calif probably, quite literally, needing to cook out of his skin to survive. Original and intriguing in equal measures.

ELKANO – Getaria

Elkano Getaria

It was on a trip to northern Spain a decade ago that I tried the best turbot of my life.

In the small fishing village of Getaria, el Astillero, was simple, remarkable and sat right on the dock of the port. With the excellent Balenciaga museum, it should be noted, just up the road.

After continually mentioning it to chefs and foodies around the country, the one thing that kept coming back was: ‘try it’s near neighbour Elkano, it’s even better’. Fingers crossed, this year I will.

ASADOR ETXEBARRI – Axpe

If food tourism has become one of the biggest growth areas for the industry, it is places like this that have encouraged it.

In a tiny village, next to the little known Urkiola natural park, some 30 kilometres inland from Bilbao is Asador Etxebarri.

Google Maps sums it up perfectly as simply: ‘Rural retreat for refined Basque dishes’

Said to be the ultimate expression of simplicity, it is all about the ingredients and most of the dishes are cooked on an open grill. It’s long been on my bucket list.

BALUARTE – Soria

Oscar Garcia

This is the very definition of a gourmet tour, striking out to find this temple of cuisine in the sticks in Soria province.

Billed as Castilla y Leon’s ‘best chef’ Oscar Garcia is all about ‘tierra’ and is a genuine hero to his homeland.

Having set up Baluarte in 2008 it has been a huge battle to get this far, and he has become much more than just a chef.

Known for his ‘responsible gastronomy’ he has a local huerta (vegetable garden) where he employs only people with mental health issues.

Expect to eat some of the local black truffles, wild mushrooms and some of the best butter in Spain.

HOSPEDERIA EL BATAN – Teruel

Looking for THE most wonderful rural escape ticking all the boxes? Well Hospederia el Batan has it all.

This rural hotel in the wilds of Teruel province has great walks right from the door and nature literally banging on it.

We stayed here last summer, nearly running over a stag as we arrived, then listened to the bark of foxes and other creatures through the night.

It sits just 10 minutes from the gem of Albarracin (one of Spain’s most beautiful villages) and, best of all, is really a restaurant with rooms.

It even has a Michelin star and given, sod’s law, it was closed due to COVID last year, I’m hell bent on a return this year to give it a proper test run!

BON AMB – Javea

It’s been nearly three years since we celebrated the launch of the Olive Press Costa Blanca north edition at Bon Amb.

The world has been through a whirlwind since then, but here we are… planning a return to celebrate our birthday in March at this same wonderful restaurant.

A taste of everything best about the region, Bon Amb perfectly combines style with comfort and luxury with authenticity.

Thanks to its chef Albert Ferruz, who started cooking at 12 and did his time in Paris, and Pablo Catala, a globetrotting, award-winning sommelier, you are in the most reassuringly reliable hands.

El MESON DE LA COSTA – Torrevieja

Meson Costa

On the other end of the spectrum to many of my choices, El Meson de la Costa is simply the very epitome of an excellent quality local.

Right in the heart of touristy Torrevieja, it ticks so many boxes in so many ways and does it without fanfare.

In a resort where you really struggle to find decent tucker it is a real oasis, focusing on good solid ingredients and with a great wine list.

Expect excellent seafood and the best steaks money can buy.

VORO – Canyamel (Mallorca)

You might assume that having had a newspaper on the Balearic island for five years that we’d know all the great places to eat there.

But things change so quickly in Mallorca – and so many places open and close – it is hard to keep tabs on what is good or not.

One reliable place is that of Marc Fosh, the expat Brit, who has kept his Michelin star for eight years running now.

But another, I really want to try is Voro, in a sleepy rural corner of the island, where you expect plenty of good hikes and beaches but not adventurous, creative cuisine.

The difference though is the wunderkind Alvaro Salazar, from Jaen, who has made the Cap Vermell hotel not just a great place to unwind, but now to feast!

Describing his food as ‘dishes with heart and soul’, you certainly get a good flavour by a visit to the website.

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