Calentita Food Festival, Gibraltar
The fish and chips shop certainly looks British. The chain café is British, I know for sure. And that iconic red mailbox – well, we would all recognise that.
But the market square that they are all placed around feels more like continental Europe. It’s got the atmosphere of a place where locals gather together in the evening after the hot day has subsided – rather than the English tradition of office workers soaking up sunshine during a lunch break on the dozen or so summer days when there’s actually sun to be felt.
We recognise these culutral symbols but are not used to seeing them together – but it’s this combination that creates Gibraltar. A British territory at the very end of Spain, it is a blend of the two countries. Pubs where ales are served by a waiter with a Latin accent.
Gibraltar is more complicated than this, though. Sitting at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, it has always been a meeting place for different races. Within the small territory – just 6.8 km2 in size – there are pockets of Italians, Moroccans, Irish (and many more) amongst those who identify as having British or Spanish heritage.
That’s why a world food festival in Gibraltar is seen more as a celebration of the local community than an exotic journey around the cuisines of the globe. At least, that’s what I take away from the annual Calentita food festival, which is held in the main square with its European atmosphere and its British shops.
It’s warm in Gibraltar this time of the year and the sun disappears late in the evening like all the other summer revellers. All through the square are different stalls – about 50 of them – serving various types of food. There’s the Moroccan stand with its meat skewers; the Argentinian stand with a mix of barbeque meat; the Indian stand with curries; the Hong Kong stand with dumplings; and so on.
Some is cooked right in front of your eyes, while some was clearly made in the kitchen of a local home earlier in the day. There are different levels of professionalism here – but that is certainly not a negative thing. It’s what makes Calentita such a special local event. There may be some fulltime chefs working at some of the stands but many of the people here are just making the meals they learned from their family for celebratory community occasions like this.
One of these people is Justin Bautista, who is running the stall serving local Gibraltarian food. He works as a designer but has learnt how to cook traditional local meals from his grandmother, known as Mama Lotties. He’s now turned these recipes into a cookbook (and you can find out more about it here).
“They’re all home cooked meals enjoyed by almost every family,” Justin tells me.
“There are a lot of stews, fresh fish meals because the seafood is a very vibrant part of Gibraltar. A lot of the recipes are also pasta dishes because of the Italian nature of the cultures here and there’s a lot of Spanish influence – but there’s a big mix!”
By the time I meet him at his stall, he’s sold out of many of his signature dishes like a spinach pie and a sweet potato tortilla. Even though there are dozens of food options from around the world, the dishes from Gibraltar are just as popular. Perhaps it’s an indication of how eclectic the diets of residents here can be.
“We are a melting pot of cultures,” Justin says when I ask him to describe Gibraltarian cuisine – although I’m not sure the cooking reference is intentional.
“It’s the Spanish influence, the Portuguese influence, the overall Mediterranean – especially the Genoese and Italian – is a big part of Gibraltar. So all that mixed and batted around makes what Gibraltar cuisine would be described as, I guess.”
The focus of the Calentita festival is food but a large stage in the centre of the square hosts performances from local groups. There are the schoolgirls doing their choreographed dance routines, the flamenco club takes their turn, and then the singers blast out some impressive vocal ranges. Just like the culinary offerings, there is a mix of professionals, veteran amateurs, and newcomers. Again, it’s about the community and the cheers from the audience are not just for the talent but for the celebration of inclusion. The diverse cultures are represented in the range of performances but ultimately they are all Gibraltarian.
I get the sense that it’s important for the people here to be proud of what they have – for centuries they have lived with a constant threat of invasion and even now there is conflict over the ownership of the territory. But that’s politics and this is life. The residents of Gibraltar have always defended their land because it is theirs, not because a particular government has raised its flag overhead.
Whether it’s the local language (English is the official language but many people speak in the Spanish-based ‘llanito’, which has a mix of Mediterranean sounds), the concentration of different religions, the military uses of the mountain, or the food, people in Gibraltar have always made do with what they have and turned it into an advantage.
Seeing as this is a food festival, perhaps it’s appropriate to finish by looking at how this relates to food. The traditional dishes were mostly created from necessity but have been embraced as much as anything else.
“We don’t grow anything here, there’s no agriculture,” Justin Bautista explains to me.
“So historically fresh produce was scarce so we had to make do with what we had here – which was potatoes and starchy foods. Things that would fill you up because back then there wasn’t a lot of money.”
And that’s where the word Calentita comes from. It’s the name of a national dish that’s a bit like a pancake or a flan and it’s made from chickpea flour, salt, pepper and water. Very simple but nourishing. But now it has been taken as the name for a festival that has rich and diverse foods from all over the world. It’s an appropriate symbol for Gibraltar and what the community represents these days.