I arrived in Gran Canaria at the end of January, just as the island was revving up for the onslaught of Carnival. February was certainly an experience – an explosion of riotous colour, outrageous drag queens, thumping drums, outlandish costumes, sultry hip action, huge dance parades, all-night parties, and a spectacular fireworks display.
But while Carnival is the big one, don’t be fooled into thinking the rest of the year is quiet.
Canarian culture is filled with a rich tapestry of customs and traditions, many of which involve some kind of party. There are numerous fiestas held around the island throughout the year, with almost every town seeming to hold its own celebration at some point.
So imagine my delight when my friends, by now fully aware of my love of Canarian cheese, announced a Fiesta del Queso (yup, that’s right – a cheese festival!) in Montaña Alta de Guía. I was all set for a trip to cheese heaven!
Getting to Montaña Alta was an experience in itself. One of my friends drove, though we soon got lost in the confusing maze of roads criss-crossing the interior of the island – a feature of many of our road trips. However with a few wrong turns and some animated discussion we made it to the main town of Santa María de Guía, known simply as Guía. It was here the fun really began…
Montaña Alta is about 14 kilometres from Guía. Those of you who speak Spanish will have noted the significance of the name of the place we were heading for – Montaña Alta means High Mountain. The town is perched at an altitude of 180 metres above sea level, and the road to the top is steep and winding. So steep that the only way my friend’s car – which was modern and powerful – could get up the hill was to accelerate hard. Which was slightly terrifying as it’s a two-way road with 180-degree bends and we couldn’t see what was around the corner we were accelerating into. At times I wondered if my joke about cheese heaven was becoming a bit too literal. Needless to say I was incredibly relieved once we reached the top!
It was soon clear that the Fiesta del Queso is no sleepy provincial festival. People had flocked from across Gran Canaria, locals and tourists alike. It was difficult to find a parking spot and, at times, the streets were so crowded it was impossible to walk at anything faster than a shuffle.
The festival at Montaña Alta de Guía forms part of a larger cheese festival, with events also taking place in the towns of Guía and Galdár over a two-week period spanning the end of April/beginning of May.
But while cheese takes centre stage, it was by no means the only entertainment. There was a variety of traditional Canarian food and drink to sample, performances by local bands and dance groups, a number of stalls selling handicrafts, and demonstrations of traditional food-making techniques.
For me, cheese was the main event. So led by my nose, I headed for the cheese stalls.
Guía is famous for its Queso de Flor, Flower Cheese, which has been made locally for centuries – it’s said the first reference to Queso de Flor appears in a book from 1678. The recipe has been passed from generation to generation.
It’s an artisan cheese made entirely by hand from the milk of sheep, cows and goats that graze on the rich, wild grasses growing in this area, a product of high temperatures and frequent rain.
Queso de Flor is predominantly made from sheep’s milk (min. 60%), plus cows’ (max. 40%) and/or goats’ (max. 10%) milk. Rather than being made the traditional way, it’s coagulated with vegetable rennet that comes from thistle flowers (cardoon) and flowers from the globe artichoke, hence its name.
There’s also Media Queso de Flor, Half Flower Cheese, where the cheese is coagulated with a minimum of 50% vegetable rennet, and Guía Cheese, made primarily from sheep’s milk and coagulated with animal or vegetable rennet and other authorised fermenting agents.
There were five dairies plying their wares and their stalls looked spectacular, with a variety of cheeses piled high all made in traditional circular form with different coloured rinds. The smell was incredible, a dizzying aroma that set my taste buds tingling.
The consistency, taste and smell of the cheeses varied from dry and hard to smooth and sweet, depending on the percentages of milks and the amount of time they’d been maturing. I thought they were all delicious (there’s a surprise!) but there were several I went back to sample for a second or even third time. Just to make sure, you understand…
In addition to the cheeses, there were stalls of Canarian olive oil, with homemade bread to dip – also made to a centuries-old local recipe. There were plump fleshy olives to sample, and jars of picante red and green mojo sauce. This is a local speciality that’s delicious with papas arrugadas, small wrinkled jacket potatoes, famous across the Canaries, made from small new potatoes boiled in salt water and baked in their skins, which leaves a dry salty crust on the exterior.
At the end of the food samples, there was a large stall where you could try a selection of traditional food from Gran Canaria. The plate wasn’t beautifully arranged, rather a selection of different foods dumped unceremoniously together, but it was a good way to sample local specialities.
It included sancocho, a popular festival food, which is salt cod with sweet potato, and some large, soft potatoes covered in red mojo sauce. There were also chunks of a few different cheeses, bread, a boiled egg, and gofio. Gofio is a staple of the Canarian diet. It’s stone-ground flour made from toasted maize, barley and wheat. It has a number of uses, such as thickening sauces and stews, and is also used in desserts, notably gofio mousse and gofio ice cream. Here it was just dished up in a lump and was, for me, rather dry. I prefer the mousse.
Aside from food, there were a number of Canarian customs and traditions on display.
In the small town square, a low stage had been set up backing onto the church, Iglesia de San José de Montaña Alta. Here a band of local folk musicians were playing, while dancers in traditional costume spun in the square.
Traditional attire is old fashioned and designed to protect the skin from the searing sun. Women dress in long patterned skirts, some with an apron tied around their waist, long-sleeved blouses with a scarf around their necks and a straw hat. Men wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts with a patterned waistcoat and also a hat.
The dances generally began with all participants linked in a circle, then people separated into mixed-sex partnerships and spun each other around in pairs. I guess it could be described as similar to a ceilidh.
There were a number of stalls selling handicrafts and clothing, and some demonstrations of traditional food-making methods. The most interesting was the gofio-grinding machine. This was driven by a British-made steam engine that belched out black smoke and heat in a back room, while powering the grinding machines.
Finally, at the top of the village is the Casa del Queso, Cheese House, where visitors can watch cheeses being made and even try their hand at some of the processes. Unfortunately, we were too late to watch the cheese-making demonstration, but there was a wine tasting taking place so it wasn’t a wasted trip!
Festivities over, we wound our way down a different route – one better suited to my nerves – and ended up at El Roque de San Felipe, a cluster of houses crammed on a rocky promontory that juts out into the Atlantic.
This narrow strip of land has been settled for centuries, as it was originally the only area where settlers and labourers could live while working the land bordering the northern coast.
Today it’s one of the most picturesque places on Gran Canaria, a higgledy-piggledy assortment of colourful houses, connected by a network of alleyways and steps. It’s a wonderful place to wander slowly amongst the interconnected houses – this isn’t a place to live if you don’t like close neighbours! It’s very maze-like, but it’s impossible to get lost as each alley eventually leads to the sea, where waves crash around you and giant Gran Canarian lizards live amongst the rocks.
At the tip of El Roque is a small restaurant bordering a square that’s open to the sea on three sides. And so it was my day ended in a different sort of heaven – sitting at the tip of El Roque practising my Spanish with friends, the salty tang of sea in the air, the roar of the Atlantic pounding the rocks, a glass of cool dry wine in my hand accompanied by juicy fat olives, and a spectacular view along the north coast of Gran Canaria as the sun slowly faded into the sea.
I lived in Las Palmas during my stay in Gran Canaria in this gorgeous flat that’s now a hot Airbnb property (if you haven’t signed up to Airbnb yet, use my link for a discount of your first stay). However, there’s loads of accommodation all around the island. Check the latest hotel prices on Agoda, and see TripAdvisor for the latest hotel and apartment reviews.
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