Miguel Herrera. / SUR

Ronda's inspiring social chef

Miguel Herrera shares his generous appetite for life, supporting disadvantaged youngsters and saving lost plants

ANDREW FORBES

I'm surrounded with the abundance of nature; from the sound of songbirds along the riverbanks, the gentle curiosity of Sofía, a white donkey that leans towards me for attention, to colourful, if somewhat nervous, hens and cockerels that clear the path as I walk onwards. Each side of me is verdant produce, from wild artichokes to climbing beans, and ahead, is kennel, vibrant with 12 Spanish Mastiff puppies that cuddle and clamber among themselves.

Hotel Cueva del Gato

I'm enjoying an informal tour of the idyllic grounds of Hotel Cueva del Gato, near Ronda. My guide is Mohamed, a young immigrant from Morocco, whose time here on the finca is giving him the opportunity to start a new life, to learn valuable agricultural and hospitality skills, whilst also feeling part of an extended family in Spain.

Soon enough Chef Miguel Herrera joins me, and enthusiastically explains his intentions with this diverse organic fruit and vegetable 'huerta' on the banks of the River Guadiaro.

«We're saving historic species of fruits and vegetables here,» Miguel tells me, pointing out freshly cultivated plots on this rolling countryside that faces the iconic Cueva del Gato cave system and its beautiful, natural river pool.

Reclaiming lost produce

Vintage species of Ronda pears, and Ronda tomatoes are being saved from extinction. They hope to recover the art of Ronda perry-making too, using the pears to make a kind of cider. Miguel is even planting vines from times before phylloxera, when the nearby ancient city of Acinipo was at the heart of winelands that exported across the Roman empire.

This charming estate is more than just an agricultural experiment though. It provides much of the organic produce for Rustic Experience Andalucía, Miguel's hospitality and catering business that has inspiring social and environmental goals.

«The Covid-19 crisis has been our biggest challenge,» explains Miguel. But as a former amateur boxer, he tells me he's «experienced at rolling with the punches».

The small family business, which includes the delightful Cueva del Gato Hotel & Restaurant (reopened in 2019), also encompasses El Golimbreo, an inclusive cooking school in nearby Ronda.

This supports his catering service El Cuchareo, which delivers events and wedding cuisine; as well as L17 Rustic Food which has on trend 1940s style food trucks - «slow food on wheels» he says.

Already at 33, Miguel has created a reputation as a talented chef who has a passion for this part of the world, its local ingredients, and regional recipes. He tells me his business is not only about sharing the culture, traditions, and food of Ronda with visitors, but also about promoting and teaching sustainable agriculture as well as supporting disadvantaged youngsters through training.

It's an ambitious project. Yet, as our conversation continues, I cannot fail but be captivated. Last June Ronda's town hall marked Miguel's significant contribution to the local community during the Covid-19 crisis with an award - recognition of how in times of hardship, some businesses rise to the occasion and encourage a community's altruism and solidarity.

Cocina inclusiva

Earlier in the day I visited El Golimbreo, Miguel's organic cooking school on Ronda's Calle Jerez. Courses are available for holiday visitors, and children. The kitchen also supports young vulnerable people who can learn valuable cooking and hospitality skills, while creating a delicious daily menu available for eat-in and take-away.

The kitchen collaborated with the town hall and the Red Cross, enabling it to also offer meals to local families in need. It's an extraordinary undertaking and one that shows the passion Miguel not only has for 0km food, but also for the local community. The school has already touched the lives of so many. «It's probably my greatest achievement,» admits Miguel.

Born in Algodonales, in Cadiz province, about 40km north west of Ronda, Miguel had a challenging upbringing, learning to cook at home as a child, so he could care for his ill mother. It shaped his view of the world and motivated him to make a difference, to create positive change.

As clients of the cooking school's kitchen, the Cueva del Gato restaurant and Hotel or the local catering business, locals and visitors alike are helping make that change a reality.

A highlight of a stay at Cueva del Gato rural hotel is a meal in the riverside restaurant. It's the chance to be immersed in the culinary culture of the Sierra de Cadiz, Serranía de Ronda, and Genal Valley.

Making a difference never tasted so good.