Unusually, mist hangs low over the fields as our air-conditioned coach leaves the beaches of Alicante behind and heads inland to El Palmeral de Elche. For much of the year in this subdesertic region of eastern Spain, the days dawn bright and clear with not a cloud in the Wedgwood-blue sky. In July and August, rain falls only once or twice and the temperature hovers consistently around 30C. No wonder around a million British holiday-makers flock to the Costa Blanca every summer.
Today it’s cooler and there’s a dampness in the air. A surreal sight looms on the horizon. As tall as pylons and laden with dates, El Palmeral de Elche’s 11,000 trees make it Europe’s largest date palm grove; even dwarfing many in the Arab world. Planted during the Moorish occupation, along irrigation channels fed by the brackish Vinalopó River, the palms protect a patchwork of huertos (plots) where all manner of horticultural crops are grown, nourished by a compost of palm prunings. Tomatoes, citrus and verduras (desert greens) are the main ones, along with succulent dates harvested in the autumn.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palmeral is an essential stop-off for foodies. Recognising this, the Hospes Amérigo hotel in Alicante offers gastronomic tours themed around seasonal crops. In summer, this means tomatoes — ‘ecological’ heirloom varieties in myriad shapes, colours and sizes. “That flavour peaks in August when we have 300 hours of sunshine,” says Santiago Orts, a botanist who grows unusual varieties for chefs as part of his Gastrobotánica programme. “More sun means higher levels of plant sugars, which leads to better flavour.”
The tour I’m on, Discover the Tomato, includes a visit to the huertos, a talk by Orts on the biology of the plant and a gourmet dinner themed around the fruit. On the menu are tomate asado (roasted with salt, basil and ‘bourbon barrel flavours’ redolent of Alicante’s best wines); a cold tomato soup with rojos gordos (ruby-red prawns) from Dénia; cherry tomatoes stuffed with silky, salty oysters accompanied by cubes of smoked fish; bacalao (dried salted cod) fried in flour with a tomato and olive oil sauce; a briny Bloody Mary mix in an oyster shell made of white chocolate, served on crushed ice; and a trio of gazpachos (green, red and amber).
But it’s not all about the mighty tomato here in Alicante. Back in the real world, I sit on a high stool at a stainless-steel counter in Cerveceria Layton, a backstreet bar, and tuck into sangre (cubes of congealed pig’s blood dotted with onions, seasoned with rosemary and garlic), habas (broad beans) stewed in their juices with herbs, and spicy Padrón peppers, dipped in salt and slightly blackened by roasting. At Nou Manolín — the tapas bar that inspired Joël Robuchon’s Michelin-starred L’Atelier restaurants — my meal begins with pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato), slices of Ibérico ham carved in front of me, and a plate of chargrilled aubergine, courgette, red pepper and wild mushrooms. The main course is arroz a banda, one of the region’s celebrated rice dishes, laced with Dénia prawn and fresh squid.
This is the authentic taste of Alicante, a down-to-earth port city that millions of tourists pass through but few explore. As well as beaches — Postiguet, Albufereta and the Coves of Cape La Huerta — it has an idiosyncratic Mercado Central (central market) built in a Modernist-Moorish style, a marina where millionaires step into the nautically themed Darsena restaurant, a clutch of decent seafood restaurants and some distinguished wines, including the Marina Alta white, perfect with shellfish, and Tesoro de Villena red, a dessert wine with aromas of fig and prune.
My best discoveries, though, are the city’s food shops, selling everything from cheeses, hams and vacuum packs of mojama (air-dried tuna) and hueva (tuna roe) to honeys, jars of preserved fruits and beautifully packaged boxes of turrón — an almond-based Alicante confection available in two forms: blando (a smooth paste) or douro (like a hard nougat studded with almonds).
The best turrón comes from Xixona, 20 miles north of Alicante. One of its famous brands, Antiu Xixona, has a cafe on the seafront in Alicante, the Explanada de España. Here you can watch the world go by over a turrón ice cream or local speciality cafe con gelo (black coffee poured over ice). On the other side of the esplanade is Peret’s, a kiosk serving the best horchata: a drink made from milk and chufa (tiger nut). This, like turrón and El Palmeral de Elche, owes everything to the Moorish conquest.
Five culinary classics
1. Boutique La Granadina: An Aladdin’s Cave of local hams, air-dried tuna, cheeses, olive oils, vinegars, wines, liqueurs and more. Calle Gerona 7. T: 00 34 965 211 151.
2. Espí: Opulent shop for those with a sweet tooth — turrón, almonds stuffed with turrón paste, chocolates, honeys. Lopes Torregrosa 17. T: 00 34 965 214 441. www.turronesespi.com
3. Mercado Central: Popular art deco food hall, ideal for a crash course in regional produce. Avenida de Alfonso el Sabio. T: 00 34 965 140 841.
4. Cerveceria Layton: Earthy tapas and cold beer. €10 (£9). Alberola Romero 2. T: 00 34 965 211 722.
5. Discover the Tomato: A three-night stay at Hospes Amérigo costs from €875 (£770) for two, excluding flights. Includes breakfast, a visit to the El Palmeral de Elche and a gourmet dinner at Monastrell restaurant. T: 00 34 965 146 570. www.hospes.com
Four places to savour the taste of Alicante
Huge hams dangle overhead, bowls of red Dénia prawns are lined up on the bar, and the waiters are a blur as they present 50 tapas options every day
at this Alicante institution, founded in 1972. Rice dishes range from the familiar (seafood) to the bizarre (kokotxas — ‘cod cheeks’, triangular nuggets from the lower jaw) but you can opt for ham croquettes or a simple steak boccadillo (toasted roll).
■ How much: From £31 per person (pp)for assorted tapas and a main, with drinks. Calle Villegas 3. T: 00 34 965 200 368. www.noumanolin.
Hidden behind the grotesque casino in the marina, this nautically-themed restaurant, shaped like an ocean liner somehow manages to be tasteful. Views of superyachts through wraparound windows help, but the real class is in the 150 rice dishes, including arroz a banda with prawns and a drier version with pork and vegetables. It may be the gastronomic playground of the rich, but prices here are reasonable.
■ How much: Three-course meal from £19pp without drinks; wines from £12.70. Marina Deportiva, Muelle de Levante 6. T: 00 34 965 207 399. www.darsena.com
Chef Maria José San Román is a force to be reckoned with, running not only this smart restaurant at the Hospes Amérigo hotel but also an acclaimed tapas bar, La Taberna del Gourmet. The food is innovative Mediterranean: tapas (Ibérico ham, cheeses, grilled prawns, oysters) followed by lobster with a cold soup of tomates ecológicos (organic tomatoes) and radishes, then baby roast churra lamb with cucumber salad.
■ How much: Three-course meal from £33pp, without drinks; wines from around £13. Rafael Altamira 7. T: 00 34 965 146 575. www.monastrell.com
One of a chain of casual bar-cum-restaurant-cum-shops, this is a place to eat any time of day: desayuno (breakfast), almuerzo (elevenses, in practise, 11.30am-12.30pm), lunch (2pm onwards), la merienda (after-lunch snacks) or dinner. The chain specialises in hams, dozens of which line the walls of the marble-topped bar. Best of all, there are hampers to take away.
■ How much: Three-course menus from £16pp, without drinks; beers from £1.75. Hampers from £48-£350. Calle Gerona 5. T: 00 34 965 213 008.
Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)