17 April 2011

Eating out in Alcalá - las ventajas de las ventas

On every country road in the Province of Cádiz you will see buildings bearing signs saying "Venta", usually with a few 4-by-4s and assorted farm vehicles parked outside.  The dictionary definition of venta is a sale, from the verb vender, to sell.  I had to search for some time to find this secondary definition: "A poor inn on roads far from towns or villages". 

The ventas of Andalucía date from the times when most of the seasonal work on the land was done by itinerant labour.  Some enterprising housewife saw a business opportunity and set up shop to provide cheap, filling meals for them, the idea caught on and to this day they provide good value food for farmers, manual labourers, hunters and the odd tourists who have strayed off the beaten track in search of "the real Spain".    

Ventas are also found along major highways and are used by lorry drivers and other travellers  - the equivalent to transport cafés in Britain.   They are somewhere in between between a roadside pub and a restaurant, unpretentious, and usually run by the families that own them - somewhat anachronistic in the day of the Little Chef and the Happy Eater.

Breakfast is served from very early in the morning until midday, and usually consists of coffee (with or without brandy), tostada (toasted rolls) with chopped tomato, garlic and olive oil.  A savoury alternative is paté or fouagra (the Spanish pronunciation of foie gras).  Bright orange manteca colorá, pork dripping flavoured with red pepper, is also popular and delicious on toast.
Lard on toast - Manteca colorá

If you ask for butter, you will probably be given a tub of margarine - believe me, olive oil is much nicer.  If you want jam, ask for mermalada; if you want marmalade, tough.  They don't eat it here!  But there is usually a selection of sticky cakes, and occasionally churros, doughnut twists,  made for dipping into thick hot chocolate.

Most customers sit at the counter to eat their breakfast, dropping litter on the floor around them;  this is quite normal, but if it puts you off there is usually a dining room you can adjourn to.  Since the ban on smoking in public places came into effect last January, the atmosphere is a lot more wholesome.

Acelgas con Garbanzos
Lunch is usually served between 2 and 4 pm.  There is almost always a fixed-price menú del día, three courses and a drink for seven or eight euros, but you may have to ask for it and it might be presented in spoken rather than written form, since it changes every day.  Some places don´t offer a menú del día at the weekend.  The starter is often more substantial than the main course, especially the thick vegetable stew known as berza, or garbanzos con acelgas (chickpeas and chard).  

Jabalí en Salsa
To see the main menu, ask for la carta.  There will usually be a choice of home-cooked stews, casseroles and grills, and ventas are the best place to sample locally-sourced game such as rabbit, venison, jabalí ( wild boar), or pheasant and partridge when they are in season, at very reasonable prices.  Unless you are near the coast, you are unlikely to get a wide range of fish or seafood but there is usually pescado en salsa (some sort of white fish in tomato sauce).   

Sweets are very rarely home-made, often just a tinned peach or the ubiquitous flan (creme caramel).  Arroz con leche (cold rice pudding) is a lot better than it sounds.

Some ventas are closed in the evenings, others stay open and serve evening meals too.   Some remain very rustic, with two or three big scrubbed tables which you sit round on benches. Others, like La Duquesa near Medina Sidonia, have gone upmarket and would probably turn you away if you turned up in your working clothes with cow-dung on your boots.  Some have shops attached, where you can buy wine, cheeses, frozen game, or olive oil in bulk.  Many will have hams and chorizos hanging from the ceiling around the bar - another reason to be grateful for the smoking ban.

Sundays are traditionally when Spanish families get together for a long lunch, and the ventas have become the preferred venue for many;  half the price of conventional restaurants, and nobody has to do the cooking or washing up.  It´s a good idea to arrive well before 2 pm  if you want to eat on a Sunday.

There are a number of ventas around Alcalá.  In walking distance is La Parada, on the Poligono la Palmosa (not to be confused  with the restaurant called La Parada in the town centre).  It is dwarfed by two coach-party stopover places, La Querencia and Los Corzos, but is a bona fide venta.   The Venta Patrite, near the campsite, is about 5 km from the centre of Alcalá.

A few miles northwest of the town, towards Paterna de Ribera, is  the Venta La Liebre, small and friendly and a great place to try Alcalá specialities.  There is another venta on the way to the Santuario, Venta La Ermita, popular with pilgrims paying their respects to Nuestra Señora.

A little further afield, on the road towards Ubrique, the Venta del Puerto de Galis is in a spectacular location and popular with bikers, hikers and hunters.  In days gone by this was a famous meeting point for smugglers; literally an inland "port".  The wild boar in sauce, jabalí en salsa, is to die for.   Don´t drink too much though as the road back gets even more tortuous after a couple of beers.

Venta del Puerto de Galis
Preparing tagarninas (wild artichokes) at Venta Patrite
Venta la Liebre (the Hare)

1 comment:

Tumbit.com said...

I can remember asking my very first Spanish teacher here in Spain what exactly a "Venta" was after seeing such signs, and being given an unsatisfactory answer, Thanks for clearing that one up - of course, I have always 'known', but never seen it set down in words that have explained it as well.