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Family cooking in a Malaga farmhouse

Mayte, right, leads the tour of Atarazanas food market in Malaga.
Mayte, right, leads the tour of Atarazanas food market in Malaga. / Manni Coe
  • Andalusian tour operator Toma & Coe offers guests an exclusive cooking experience in a beautiful family home

We arrive in Malaga during a monsoon. As I hurry, crouched and swearing from the bus station to our meeting point, people take shelter anywhere they can, caught off-guard by the heavy rain. Soon, the central nerve of Alameda Principal is a miniature river. This is my inauspicious start to a day of cooking and conviviality in an old country farmhouse - treats promised by luxury tour operator Toma & Coe (T&C) as part of its "Malaga Cooking Experience".

Respite from the downpour is eventually provided by Malaga's Atarazanas food market, housed in a cavernous structure built as a shipyard in the 14th century.

Led by T&C cooking guru Mayte Fernández, the small group I'm joining is taken shopping for ingredients. We're to cook arroz caldoso: literally meaning "brothy rice", it's a rustic dish that can be made with fish or seafood, but today we're doing it with chicken - free-range and wonderfully golden in colour.

Vivacious and attractive, Malaga-born Mayte worked as a flight attendant before starting to teach cooking. She became involved with T&C five years ago, when she met its English founder Manni Coe through a mutual a friend. As well as now running the company's "Malaga Cooking Experience", Mayte has her own culinary school, A Cooking Day, which also introduces clients to Andalusian cuisine and customs. She says that her home, as well as a passion for food, influenced her switch from flight stewardess to cooking teacher.

You can see why. After stocking up on goodies in Atarazanas, we're driven to the enormous 17th century farmhouse that's been part of Mayte's family since 1941.

The key from Harry Potter

Although just fifteen minutes out of the city, it's surrounded by olive groves and hills, now lush from the Biblical rain. We walk through the heavy front door - opened by a key clearly poached from the set of a Harry Potter film - into the room where Mayte holds her classes. It's a stunning blend of traditional Andalusian and contemporary chic, filled with light from floor-to-ceiling windows. Beyond them are the olive, almond, fig and pomegranate trees from which the family have reaped fruit for almost eighty years.

After drying our soaked feet, we're given our individual prep stations and assigned tasks. Straight away, it feels as we're in the house of a Spanish friend and their family - precisely the kind of behind-the-scenes experience that T&C specialises in.

"From the first moments", explains Mayte, "[our] clients enter a real family home and say 'hello' to my mother or maybe my father or uncle, who might also be around".

T&C founder Manni, who also joins us, explains that the cortijo and Mayte's family are key to the Malaga Cooking Day: "We've designed this tour to be fully immersive, so guests can roll up their sleeves and spend the day shopping, prepping, preparing and finally enjoying their culinary creations in a family home."

Teresa, Mayte's 74-year-old mother, soon makes an appearance, checking on the cooking and chatting with the group. She tells us that parts of the vast cortijo are without electricity owing to the morning's ferocious weather. But now the sun is appearing, burning off the sulky clouds and bathing the fruit trees in a watery light.

Each step of the cooking process is carefully explained to us. The chicken chunks are seasoned and browned in olive oil, after which a blend of fried-off garlic, onion and green pepper and grated tomatoes is added to the pot. Cue rich aromas and delightful sizzling. White wine, rice and water follow. Finally, a pinch of smoked paprika and a whisp of saffron are thrown in.

The rapid-fire Spanish of Mayte and Teresa provides a soundtrack to all this happy culinary activity. It's a dynamic that you wouldn't normally experience unless immersed in family of Spaniards - and even if you were, you'd be lucky to get as involved as we are in the cooking process. In Spain, the kitchen is a madre's (mother's) closely-guarded fortress, a room of culinary secrets that's often inaccessible to outsiders.

At about 3pm, we sit down to the final stage of a process that started that morning, in a rain-swept Malaga. It turns out that the arroz caldoso con pollo was worth getting soaked for. The ricey broth, laced with saffron and paprika, is as moreish as it is satisfying and the chicken, left on the bone for extra flavour, falls apart to the touch. We wash the hearty stew down with red wine from young, Malaga-based bodega Sedella.

After a lunch to remember, in so many ways, we say goodbye to Mayte's Mum and lock the door behind us with the Harry Potter key. As the taxi takes us back to Malaga, now drying off in pale sunlight, I think about cooking the caldoso myself, at home in Granada. But I doubt it'd be the same without a beautiful farmhouse overlooking olive groves, or a Spanish mother and daughter there to enthusiastically correct my mistakes.