My Spanish Story: A passion for Andalucía’s food

Food writer Fiona Dunlop explains her fascination for Andalucía and how its culinary roots inspired her latest cookbook.

My Spanish Story: A passion for Andalucía's food
Fiona Dunlop has a passion for Andaluz cuisine.

Over a period of about 40 years my fascination for Andalucía has ripened into an undying passion. The more I discover and the more layers I unpeel from this bewitching land, the more I love its people, landscapes and history, and the more I taste, the more I realize how much Andalucía still owes to the Moorish cooking-pot. The result is my latest book, Andaluz – a Food Journey through Southern Spain, in which 21 cooks present over 100 recipes with a distinct Moorish accent.

Back in the late 1970s when I first landed in the region, it really did seem like the moon – gastronomically speaking. Today’s trio of top products – extra virgin olive oil, jamón ibérico and sherry – were unknown in villages of the sierra, while those ubiquitous polytunnels for growing year-round vegetables had yet to be invented. Life beyond the cities and embryonic costas was disturbingly poor due to two very tight yokes: wealthy estate-owners on the one hand, and Franco on the other.

This extract from my book describes my first experience when I arrived in Sorbas (Almería province), a village surrounded by spectacular karst formations and semi-desert.

It was late autumn, meaning that the annual matanza (slaughter) was kicking off. Every morning, agonizing squeals rang out as the fattened pigs met their makers, hardly romantic, but at that stage I had no idea about the resultant joys of jamón, salchichón or chorizo. While monsieur (my French painter-boyfriend) wielded his paint-brushes or cogitated in a hammock on the roof terrace, I would set off with my camera to try and record this timeless place. Inquisitive faces framed by black headscarves peered out from tiny square windows but it was the monumental karst landscape sliced by canyons and speckled with sculptural cacti that electrified me most.

One evening we were invited to dinner by the Sorbas butcher in his shop along with similar village dignitaries. Here, following a spread of tasty (piggy) victuals, we were rather formally presented with a huge pan filled with… goat’s head soup. Little did they know about the Rolling Stones album, released a few years earlier – or perhaps they did? When encouraged to eat the goat’s eyes, said to be the greatest delicacy, I demurred, but the cheeks were a treat.

Gastronomy in those days was a mere afterthought, as rural Spain, in particular impoverished Andalucía, had hardly advanced since the hardships of the Civil War. Sorbas’ two grocery shops were woefully basic and I was shocked to find no butter, a product of the greener north that was alien to Andalucía. Instead there was a tasteless spread called Tulipan, which still exists today… Even vegetables were sparse in that desert area, so low-grade pasta, pork chops and tinned sardines became our culinary mainstay – hardly gastronomic. A special treat came when the postman cooked a pan of snails for us…

In a nutshell, it was as if those eight centuries of Moorish rule, which brought an agricultural revolution in the form of water-wheels, irrigation channels and terracing as well as rice, chickpeas, artichokes, eggplants, almonds, bitter oranges, pomegranates, dates, saffron, sugar-cane, figs, apricots and more, had never existed. Yet today, researching my book by talking to chefs and market traders as well as diving into an online version of a 13th century Al-Andalus cookbook, I have discovered recipes that have endured and even long-forgotten ingredients like couscous that are making a comeback.

While top Andalucian restaurants shoot up the Michelin-star ladder, what is clear is the huge culinary chasm between innovative young chefs in cities like Seville and Málaga, and those of small towns and the countryside, where old habits die hard. This is where I will always go to indulge in earthy, unpretentious, comfort food, where ingredients are close to their source and dishes light years away from molecules, foams and the like. Andalucía my friend, you are an eternal star!

Andaluz – a Food Journey through Southern Spain is available on Amazon worldwide. Fiona Dunlop leads a foodie tour, Secret Andalucía, with Toma & Coe; the next is in June 2019. 

The author has chosen one of her favourite recipes from the book to share with The Local readers. 

RECIPE: Bodegas Mezquita’s Cod, olive and orange salad (Remojón)

Córdoba, the city where Al-Andalus kicked off in the 8th century, offers the greatest range of ‘caliphate’ dishes. This classic appetizer (or lunch main course) is refreshing, textural and perfect during the winter orange season. Bodegas Mezquita’s twist comes from the intense Pedro Ximénez dessert wine dressing, as well as slow cooking the cod to make a velvety confit.. If you lack time, just poach the cod in lightly salted water or milk, gently simmering for 5 to 7 minutes depending on thickness.

Serves 4


1 large, juicy navel orange, peeled

7 1/2 oz (210 g) cod fillet, about 1 inch (3 cm) thick

1 1/2 cups (350 ml) extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 heaped tablespoons toasted almonds, roughly chopped

1/2 hardboiled egg, finely chopped

1 red onion, thinly sliced into half rings

8 pitted black olives, cut into rings

salt and white pepper

3 teaspoons PX reduction, or simply use Pedro Ximénez sherry

snipped chives to garnish (optional)


Divide the orange into segments and remove all seeds, inner skin, and pith.

In a small saucepan, submerge the cod in the olive oil. Place over low heat and slowly cook the cod, keeping the temperature as close to 212°F (100°) as possible (use a kitchen thermometer if you have one). It takes about 50 minutes.

Turn the fillets over halfway through.

Once cooked, skim off the white layer that has formed on the surface of the oil (in fact, the fish gelatin), then

remove the fillets with a slotted spoon. Allow to cool.

Mix the garlic, almonds, and hardboiled egg.

To serve, arrange the orange pieces on a platter, followed by chunks of the cod, onion, olives, and almond-egg mixture. Season with salt and pepper.

Mix the PX sherry with 4 tablespoons of olive oil and drizzle over the salad.



Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.