Saturday, May 17, 2014


Annie pours Sherry in the kitchen.
Annie opens a bottle of chilled manzanilla Sherry and pours a round. It’s our first copa of the day, after completing the messy task of gutting and boning a heap of silvery fresh anchovies.

This is fish day at Annie B’s cooking class in the white village of Vejer de la Frontera (Cádiz province, Andalusia). Annie B is Anne Manson, who left her corporate catering company in London to move to Spain. She fell in love with an 18th century house in Vejer, turned the salon into a big kitchen and has been hosting cooking courses and Sherry tasting classes ever since.

Market orientation with Annie, in Barbate.
We start our day at the mercado de abastos, main market, in the nearby port town of Barbate, tagging along with Annie from seafood stalls to produce stands. Annie selects four gorgeous fish—two types of bream and two types of sea bass. We are going to bake all four in a crust of sea salt, so Annie tells the vendor to gut the fish but leave head, scales and fins intact.

At another stall we buy boquerones, fresh anchovies, and at yet another, clams. At a fruit and vegetable stand, Annie buys bunches of skinny asparagus spears to roast as a side dish and strawberries grown in nearby Conil to serve with cake. The vendor cuts open a small yellow melon and hands out samples to our group. So sweet. I buy one for the next day’s breakfast.

Local produce at the Barbate market.
Back at the capacious kitchen table, Annie gives us the day’s recipes. This four-day course is called “Mediterranean Low-Carb Delicious,” presenting appetizing and healthful summer dishes that are mainly gluten-free. “No bread today,” Annie reminds us. Our first task is to mix up a flourless chocolate and almond cake so it can bake while we get on with other prepping.

“This cake is the only thing I make that’s not with olive oil,” says Annie, as she creams butter and sugar in a blender. One of us whizzes almonds, cocoa and chocolate in a food processor.

Mixing up a flourless chocolate-almond cake.
She shows how to line a springform mold. Annie, who is Scottish, calls it a “spring tin,” with Bakewell paper (baking parchment to Americans). A few “conversions” of measures and nomenclature must be negotiated. We are all women in the class—two Canadians, an American, four from England (one via Hong Kong, another via Almería, Spain). (Two men have accompanied their wives to Vejer, but are not joining the cooking class.)

Once the cake is in the oven (Annie sets a timer, but she advises, “You’ll know it’s done when you press it, it springs back like the tip of your nose.”) we are introduced to a classic Andalusian dish, ajo blanco, a white garlic cold soup made with almonds. Annie’s version is made without bread. Lots of almonds and, a secret ingredient, apples, gives the soup consistency.

Take the center out of garlic cloves.
Annie shows how to remove the inner green shoot from each garlic clove, to avoid any bitterness. She also points out that, once peeled, apples turn dark. “Their skins protect them from oxidizing. It’s like Sherry fino, the layer of yeast that forms on the top keeps the wine from oxidizing.”

Chopping apples, garlic, to blend with almonds for soup.

We taste the soup. Wow! that’s a powerful wallop of garlic! Although only two cloves were used, the flavor is biting. Then Annie adds a spoonful of salt and a splash of Sherry vinegar. Another taste. The vinegar balances the sweetness of the apples and tames the sharpness of the garlic. Annie has her vinegar in a spray bottle and gives us a squirt on the back of our hands to taste. What a good idea, the spray bottle.

The ajo blanco goes into the fridge to chill. It will be served garnished with frozen grapes, a nice touch.

We whip up a quick salsa verde (green sauce) to serve with our main fish dish. Extra virgin olive oil into the blender, then spinach, parsley, mint, oregano, capers, Dijon mustard and a squirt of lemon. “Always start by blitzing the olive oil,”says Annie, “then add the herbs gradually to the oil. That way you’re extracting the herbs’ flavor, not their bitterness.”

Annie shows how to fillet an anchovy.
Preparing fresh anchovies.
And, it’s on to the anchovies. Annie demonstrates how to pinch off the heads, remove the guts and lift out the spines. Easy-peasy, but messy. We are all game to try. “When you finish, I’ll serve the Sherry,” she tells us. The anchovies are layered with salt and white wine vinegar. They will marinate overnight, then get dressed with olive oil and chopped garlic and parsley.

Annie keeps aside some of the anchovies, dusts them lightly with flour and pan-fries them in an instant. Along with mojama, thinly sliced air-dried tuna, we enjoy our first nibbles served with the manzanilla, a Sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameda.

Annie, who is a qualified Sherry educator (she also has a cooking and Sherry course), tells us a little about this famous Andalusian wine. “If you go into a bar and ask for a “Sherry,” they’ll just look at you blankly. You have to be specific—a manzanilla, a fino, an amontillado, a palo cortado.”

The first pour is La Guita Manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda, followed by fino Domecq la Janda from Jerez and Gutierrez Colosia Fino from El Puerto de Santa María. We have triangulated the Sherry region nicely.

Jenny samples the clams with Sherry.

While we are sipping, Annie’s assistant, Pepi, prepares her version of almejas a la marinera, clams in wine sauce. Instead of diced ham, this version has a spoonful of pimentón de la Vera, smoked paprika. The wine, of course, is Sherry. The sauce is so delicious that Annie relents and gives us some chunks of bread to mop up the juices.

Glistening fresh sea bass, one of four fish to be baked in salt.

Now, it’s on to the plato principal! Four fish baked in salt.  Annie does the first one, showing how to place it on a bed of coarse sea salt, then cover it with salt, leaving a fin sticking up and an eye uncovered. “They are your thermometer,” she explains. “If you can easily pull out the fin, it’s done. If the eye is white and opaque, the fish is cooked.”

Hands-on, patting sea salt on the fish. (From left, Jenny, Geraldine, Helen and Sue.)

View from the roof terrace--Vejer spreads out, the Atlantic coast beyond.
While the fish bakes, it’s time to climb the steps to the top of the house, where lunch is served on the roof terrace. What a view! We look out on rooftops of the village of Vejer and, almost visible in the haze, the Atlantic ocean. We enjoy the chilled ajo blanco soup, served into short glasses, garnished with frozen grapes.

Crack the salt crust to spoon out moist fish. (From left, Carol, Annette, Geraldine, Jenny.)
Scooped off the bones, moist fish.
Back in the kitchen, the trays of baked fish are resting. We gather round to crack the hard salt casing, lift it off with the skin and scales, then scoop the moist flesh onto serving dishes.

To finish, we have the chocolate-almond cake with Sherry-soaked raisins spooned over, a dollop of crème fraiche and the sweetest strawberries ever. Gorgeous with a copita of PX, a liquid raisin wine.

Carol enjoys cake and PX wine.
The cooking class and lunch is supposed to finish by 4:30, but it’s almost 6 pm before we wend our way down village streets to our hotels. And, we’ll be meeting again in a few hours for a tapas crawl in Vejer bars with Annie.

Streets of Vejer.

Ajo Blanco
Chilled White Garlic and Almond Gazpacho

Serves 4.

½ medium apple, peeled, quartered and cored
100 grams blanched almonds (3 ½ ounces)
2 medium peeled garlic cloves, center stalk removed
300 ml bottled water (1 ¼ cups)
75 ml fruity extra virgin olive oil (1/3 cup)
1 ½ tablespoons Sherry vinegar

Wash and cut the grapes in half, de-seed and freeze.

Put the almonds, garlic and half the apple in a blender and whiz until paste is formed.

With the motor running slowly, add the water. Add the oil and vinegar. Finally add the remaining apple to allow for some crunchy texture. Season with salt.

Transfer to pitcher or bowl and chill for 2 hours.

Serve with frozen grapes.

Flourless Chocolate and Almond Cake

This dense chocolate cake is served topped with raisins that have been soaked in sweet PX Sherry. Annie keeps a jar of them macerating all the time, adding more wine or raisins as they are used.

Serves 6-8.

50 grams cocoa powder ( ½ cup + 1 tbsp)
100 grams dark chocolate (3 ½ ounces)
120 grams peeled almonds (4 ounces)
100 grams butter (3 ½ ounces)
100 grams sugar (9 tablespoons)
3 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
Icing sugar

Raisins macerated in Pedro Ximenez Sherry
Crême Fraiche

In a food processor, blend the chocolate and cocoa with the almonds into a grainy mixture. Pour into a bowl.

In the same blender, cream the butter and the sugar for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add one egg at a time and mix in the chocolate almond mixture until well combined.

Coat a 20-22cms (8-9 in) spring tin with bakewell paper. Fill with the chocolate mixture.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Turn onto a serving dish, cool and sprinkle with icing sugar before serving.

Serve with crême fraiche and PX soaked raisins.

Check out Annie’s web site for dates of upcoming cooking courses.


  1. This looks like a great day. Any day that includes a trip to the mercado de abastos is fine by me!

    1. Kaley: Yes! Love markets. Sorry I couldn't buy that gorgeous almadraba tuna.