I will get on to Cadiz, I promise, but first I’m taking you on a brief detour 1,000 km north to the Spanish coastal town of San Sebastian.
Being British it was the BBC that introduced me to this Basque Country culinary hotspot set on a sweeping bay. Back when daytime drinking was still a thing, and limp lettuce, cucumber and tomato was a salad, I salivated as I watched Keith Floyd veer among San Sebastian’s pintxo bars, hoovering up strange and exotic nibbles made from Foreign Ingredients such as anchovies and olives.
Two decades later – and to a more sophisticated audience – the Beeb dished up San Sebastian again. This time the food was less shocking and the chef – Rick Stein – arguably a safer pair of hands, but San Sebastian remained the star of the show, every bit as beguiling as before.
With several decades’ delayed appetite, perhaps the most surprising thing about visiting San Sebastian for real was that it was every bit as good as I had hoped it would be: narrow streets of characterful 3- and 4-storey buildings, superb seafront and at street level hundreds of small counters and bars competing to serve the most audacious tapas – known locally as pintxos. Even the heavy drizzle couldn’t dampen the experience.
So imagine the full face-palm impact of our first trip to Cadiz. Doh. To discover that for a couple of years we had had Andalusia’s answer to San Sebastian right on the doorstep, and well within striking distance for lunch!
Cadiz is an absolute treat. It is possibly the oldest, continuously inhabited city in Western Europe and it compares particularly well with San Sebastian: similarly picturesque and labyrinthine lanes, similarly dotted with bars and restaurants, and set on a similarly dramatic bay – in Cadiz’ case, dominated by a show-stopper of a cathedral that would not look out of place in renaissance Italy.
Throughout its 3000+ year history Cadiz has probably been dominated by North African culture as much as it has fallen under European rule, and many of the charming townhouses that pack together and create the maze of narrow streets of the old town are North African in style and Roman-influenced, clustered around tiled internal courtyards, hidden behind heavy wooden double doors. Oriel windows are another common feature of the local architecture.
Let’s talk about food. The Cadiz menu is dominated by fresh fish, and possibly the best time of year to visit is during tuna season. Along the Costa de la Luz tuna is still caught in the time-honoured manner established by the Phoenicians – the almadraba traps fish as they cross between the Atlantic and Mediterranean on their way to spawn (April -June). Fresh Cadiz tuna is unlike any tuna (or indeed fish) that I have eaten before – unctuous and melt-in-the-mouth delicious, so far from British supermarkets’ cardboard offerings as to be unrecognisable.
In Cadiz Andalusian pescaito frito is ubiquitous, and available all year round. Fish fresh from the sea, dusted lightly in flour and flash-fried – a simple treat to shame any convoluted Michelin-starred offering, and available every few tens of metres in any direction. Being just a few miles from Jerez and Sanlucar sherry is a common accompaniment to a meal in Cadiz, and local Manzanilla is recommended as the perfect partner to local Sanlucar prawns – the only prawn in Spain with a designation of origin.
Cadiz (and its casco antiguo or old town) is also famous for its watchtowers; in the 18th and 19th century these would have been among the first structures seen by travellers arriving by sea.
Along with the tall townhouses, the oriel windows and the stunning cathedral, these distinctive architectural features combine with palm trees and tropical planting, and glistening sea to give Cadiz unique charm and interest.
Highly recommended for day out or overnight with dinner.