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Cooking Holiday in Spain - I finca I’ve found paradise
by Jacqui Thake of Sunday Mirror

Spanish winter sunshine

It's midwinter and I’m sitting in glorious sunshine, absolutely bowled over by the sensational scenery laid out around me like an art gallery full of masterpieces.

It is so, so beautiful here on the outskirts of Algodonales in southern Spain’s Andalucia that I can’t find the words to do justice to the layers of gorgeous greens and rich browns of the mountains that totally surround our holiday idyll. Olive trees are scattered over the slopes and a dramatic blue sky outlines a horizon full of shrubs and bushes.

Donkeys bray in the distance, and the high notes of a cockerel crowing harmonise with the gentle sound of the bells from a nearby herd of goats.

Any minute now our hosts will serve up a traditional Spanish tapas lunch and the aromas are wafting from the kitchen on to the terrace, where husband Tom and I are relaxing with glasses of wine.

It’s difficult to believe that just a few hours earlier I’d felt so miserable – eyes streaming and nose pouring from a winter cold as I shivered in the wind-whipped car park at Stansted.

Now I can throw away the Vicks inhaler – this clear mountain air is all I need as a decongestant, and the promise of more sun-filled days further lifts my spirits.

A terrace at Finca Alta Cocina The 12 x 6 metre swimming pool
The cookery school kitchen The guests’ lounge

Daytime temperatures in winter can reach 20ºC (68ºF, bring a woolly for after dark when it can plummet to a frosty zero). Given the surroundings and the climate, it’s no wonder so many people in Britain up sticks and move here, and that’s exactly what our hosts William and Eva did.

We’re staying at the unique country house which they have recently renovated to open as a cookery school and B&B.

Tranquility and haute cuisine in Southern Spain

Finca Alta Cocina (it means country house of haute cuisine) comprises two houses – guest quarters with five double en-suite rooms and a comfortable lounge, and the main building where our hosts live and where superchef Eva conducts her cookery classes in a kitchen to inspire even the most inexperienced.

Courses run from Friday to Sunday and Monday to Wednesday. A fantastic value package includes bed and breakfast plus two lunches and two dinners (which you play a part in cooking) along with wine.

The meal we helped prepare on our last night was the highlight, with stuffed squid, tortilla Española (Spanish omelette), lomo de cerdo asado (roast loin of pork), patatas a lo pobre (potatoes with green peppers), roast veg and coconut caramel custard.

Eva specialises in Spanish and Mediterranean cookery but will happily provide courses in anything that takes your fancy.

If the heat of the kitchen gets too much – or indeed if you just want to use Finca Alta Cocina as a B&B and a base to explore this beautiful area – you can cool off in the inviting pool, prettily set off on two sides by colourful plants.

Just across the way is one of two delightful pergolas, where you can relax with a book or take a siesta.

Lazing in the Spanish sun . . . or perhaps paragliding in Spain

Whether you’re helping to cook the food or just eating it (evening meals are available without lessons too) you’ll find it so tasty and plentiful that serious exercise will be needed or you won’t want to show those swimsuit shots when you get home.

William and Eva plan to install a mini-gym in the huge basement of the guest quarters – but it’s more fun by far to climb their very own mountain, which is part of the six-acre estate. It’s a bit steep but the view from the top is well worth the effort.

There are lots of larger mountains to challenge the seriously active, but if you prefer to take your exercise on the flat it’s only a 10-minute walk to a small cluster of restaurants and bars.

And a 40-minute walk will take you into the pueblo blanco (white hill town) of Algodonales where you can watch the bustle of the lively locals from a cafe in the square.

The town is world-famous as a base for paragliding and hang-gliding flying schools, where you can take lessons and/or hire equipment.

Flyers often land in the field next to Finca Alta Cocina after taking off in the hills. “So they drop in for high tea, do they?” quips husband Tom.

William and Eva suggest partners may like to split up so while one goes hang-gliding the other can take cookery lessons – a kind of fly-and-fry break!

This is a big area for horse-riding too, but the easiest way to explore is, of course, by car. While you don’t have to have your own transport – William and Eva can recommend a cut-price cab service from the airport – we found a hire car essential as we wanted to pack in as much as possible during our short stay.

So much to see, so much to do!

There are certainly many lovely places to visit. The nearby town of Grazalema is another place where you can again watch the world go by from a cafe in the square. I recommend the Cafeteria Gumores, where we had three bottles of water, two coffees, a cheese and ham roll, a plate of squid and a tortilla all for 10 euros (£7).

Put the nearby mountaintop town of Zahara de la Sierra on your itinerary too, where breath-taking views include a huge lake where you can swim in the hot summer months.

The closest big town is Ronda, 25 minutes away, and we also made trips to Jerez and the busy city of Seville, which are both within an hour’s drive.

We enjoyed the friendly grandeur of Cadiz (a 90 minute drive), which claims to be the oldest city in Europe with so many layers of history – built by Phoenicians, ruled by Moors, invaded by Sir Francis Drake (but we’ll gloss over that) and it was the home port of Christopher Columbus for his epic voyages to the Americas.

Zahara pueblo blanco and its magnificent lake

If you don’t feel you’ve been on holiday unless you’ve spent time on the beach, then you also have a choice of Sanlucar de Barrameda (90 minutes) or San Pedro on the Costa del Sol (75 minutes).

But if you’re anything like us, you’ll find it difficult to tear yourself away from the peace and tranquillity of Finca Alta Cocina. It truly is somewhere very special, and when you learn of all the trials and tribulations its owners have been through to create such a jewel you’ll wonder how it ever got off the ground.

William and Eva had to overcome problems with water and electricity supplies, a succession of recalcitrant builders, an avalanche and flooding. But they’ve done it and this gorgeous place has to be seen to be believed.

Finca Alta Cocina had just one teething problem during our stay when the hot water failed in the guest quarters. William promised to get the plumber in the next morning – only to be told when he called that the poor man had died!

What's the deal?

  • Finca Alta Cocina has low opening rates until July. A three-day cookery break is €396pp (£295) sharing double en-suite room. For partners or guests who don’t want lessons, price including all meals with wine is €320 (£239). Extra day's B&B cost £26pp a day. See www.finca-altacocina.com or call 00 3485 6026094 or 00 3463 6402895.
  • There’s a fast overnight train service from St Pancras to the south of Spain via Paris. For fares and info see www.raileurope.co.uk

Written by By Jacqui Thake 06/01/2008

This article has been reproduced with the permission of the Sunday Mirror newspaper
© Copyright 2008 Sunday Mirror - www.sundaymirror.co.uk

Published 21 January 2008

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