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An Interview with Emma

Walking in Spain, David and Emma Ilsley

Emma and David Ilsley arrived in Las Alpujarras almost 15 years ago, and immediately fell in love with the quiet simplicity of the region and its unassuming people.

Passionate about producing their own food, they now grow a wide variety of vegetables on their nearby finca in Mairena, where you can stay on several Inntravel holidays.

Sole, their wonderful cook, uses these ingredients to create authentic Alpujarran dishes in their restaurant – sometimes traditional, sometimes with a modern experimental twist. We thought we'd have a chat to Emma about the local culture and cuisine...

Inntravel: How did you first get to know Sole?

Walking holidays in Spain, Sole from MairenaEmma: Sole (Soledad) first came to help with breakfasts when we had our first son. We had a French chef at the time doing seasonal work until he suddenly had to return to France. Sole (pictured here in orange, with her friend Carmen) offered to help in the evenings and suggested she cook a 'chicken in almond sauce' dish. We left her to get on with it - and the result was wonderful. Our guests loved it and we haven’t looked back since.

Inntravel: What local dishes does she enjoy cooking? Are they ‘authentic’?

Emma: Absolutely. Sole is completely self-taught. None of her recipes are written down – just handed down by word of mouth through the generations of her family and those of her friends. She often suggests dishes and then tweaks them, if necessary, for northern European palates, though she is a fun cook and loves experimenting with traditional dishes and flavours, often based on chicken or rabbit, to give them a modern twist.

Inntravel: Any favourites?

Emma: Sole’s Migas is delicious – it’s a simple, but tasty mountain dish that is a staple of the local farmers, made from bread or flour, and accompanied by fish, eggs and even fruits like grapes and pomegranates. She also makes a wonderful cold soup, sopa de ajo blanco which is remarkably tasty – it’s made from local garlic and the almonds for which this area is famed – and is so refreshing on a warm summer’s day.

Inntravel: And how did the Moro connection come about?

Emma: At about the same time we arrived in Mairena, another couple, Sam and Sam Clark were also looking for somewhere to set up home. They had a successful restaurant in London and travelled throughout Andalucia and Morocco in a campervan looking for authentic dishes to re-create back in London. They looked for where the local people ate and then dined there themselves, making notes and interrogating the chefs. Over the years, we became firm friends and eventually persuaded Sam to run a cookery course at our hotel. 
 
Inntravel: And is Walking in Spain, Emma Ilsleythat how Tom Ryall came to be running your cookery courses since then?

Emma: Tom first came here as Sam’s sous chef. In fact, we would host “team-bonding” weeks for all the staff from their London restaurant, Moro, so that the staff – chefs and waiters – could learn about the history of the dishes they served each night back in London. It was a huge success and they would often disappear with Sole on her foraging trips into the surrounding countryside looking for herbs and salads. It was almost impossible to keep them out of the kitchen when they got back.

In fact, it was such a success, that we’re now offering a “weekly herb forage with Sole” to all our guests.

Inntravel: And now Tom is running the course?

Emma: Yes. He fell in love with the place and, when Sam was too busy, Tom took over. He enjoys working with Sole, hearing stories of her childhood and learning about her recipes and style of cooking. During Tom’s cookery week he encourages a hands-on approach for the guests, letting them try their hand at dishes and techniques and encouraging them to experiment, too.

Inntravel: What else will they be getting up to?

Walking in Spain, Cheese making in las AlpujarrasEmma: We thought it important to meet local food producers, too. Not large commercial concerns, but the smaller cottage industries that can be found within a few minutes of the hotel: Adolfo makes sublime olive oil in his ancient press which is so good that it is served in Moro in London; Carmen, a lady from the village, makes incredible goat’s cheese (right) from her small flock; while Juan and Nola produce award-winning summer white wine, Veleta Buena Vista, at their traditional bodega in Ugijar. This is just a 15-minute walk away from our finca and makes a lovely informal experience for guests before dinner.

Inntravel: Why is April a good time to visit?

Emma: It’s always during April that we get a first taste of summer.  The first sight of bee-eaters is always a highlight – the flash of kingfisher blue as they flit between the telegraph wire,  the poppies, the feeling of warm air on bare arms – and a firm favourite – sitting on still sun-warmed stone flags in the darkness listening to the distant hoot of our local Scops owl.  April is also the month for Mairena’s spring fiesta, in honour of San Marcos, patron saint of our village and spiritual caretaker of the animals and all things agricultural.

Inntravel: You mentioned that the bodega made a good pre-dinner visit. What about a nightcap?

Emma: At any time of year we thoroughly recommend a small bar beside the church that has only recently opened. It’s fast becoming the heart of the community here in Mairena, thanks, in no small part, to its charismatic owner, Juan, who will often take out his guitar and sing. It’s very informal and always spontaneous but there’s something magical and very relaxing about sitting in the square with a glass of local wine, absorbing the gentle rhythms of a gypsy guitar while the last of the sun’s rays stream over the hills. We love it and I’m sure our guests will, too.

Walking in Spain, Mairena

Posted: 27/04/2012 13:55:00 by | with 0 comments
Filed under: gastronomy, Morocco, slow, Spain


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