Special Feature

“Have you eaten enough?” An inside look at what’s on Gibraltar’s plates

Justin Bautista, founder of culinary website Mama Lotties, shares the story behind the Rock’s special fusion of flavours

Festival goers enjoy cuisine at the Calentita food festival in Gibraltar (Photo: Leo Sayers)
Festival goers enjoy cuisine at the Calentita food festival in Gibraltar (Photo: Leo Sayers)

Gibraltar may be small, but its unique and diverse culture has influenced more than just its people, architecture and history. Gibraltar’s vast and multifarious society can be readily experienced in its distinct local cuisine.

The food eaten in Gibraltar is influenced by many cultures: British, Spanish, Genoese and Maltese, to name a few. Throughout Gibraltar’s history its cuisine has adapted to reflect the rush of immigrants who have travelled there over the centuries. In the late 1700s and 1800s, for instance, merchants from Malta, Italy and North Africa serviced the British Garrison stationed in Gibraltar, while Spanish and Portuguese immigrants eventually bolstered this fusion of food cultures even further.

Many traditional dishes were humble staples due to the lack of resources during the Great Siege, an important part of Gibraltar’s history during which the British Armed Forces held off the advances of Spain and France. The Siege lasted from 1779 to 1783, at which point resources where extremely limited; bread became almost non-existent, only rationed out to children and the sick. Many people were given only a handful of rice per day and suffered from scurvy due to the lack of fresh vegetables. Gibraltar was once again affected between 1969 and 1985, although not to such extremes, by the closed border with Spain under Franco’s dictatorship.

The colloquial term for a local Gibraltarian is “llanito”, hence many Gibraltarian dishes have come to be known by the same name. Some of these unique llanito dishes include Calentita, an oven-baked, pancake-like dish made with chickpea flour, Rosto, a pasta dish consisting of carrots, penne pasta and meat in a tomato and white wine sauce, Torta de Acelga, a chard or spinach pie, and the Menestra de Verduras, which is a stew of blended vegetables mixed with thick spaghetti. These, like many of Gibraltar’s meals, are comforting, hearty and full of flavour.

Gibraltar’s vast and multifarious society can be readily experienced in its distinct local cuisine. (Photo: Leo Sayers)

Gibraltar has very limited agriculture; however a few indigenous crops do grow on the Rock. Search carefully and you can find prickly pears, wild asparagus, pine nuts and figs.

Food is a large part of being Mediterranean, and Gibraltar is no exception to this archetype: family gatherings are always centred on meals, and questions like “what’s for lunch?” and “have you eaten enough today?” are routinely heard across the table.

Gibraltar’s restaurant scene similarly caters to an extensive variety of menus and influences. Aside from the traditionally-British fish and chips, you’ll find tapas, pasta and meats, and many of the local restaurants serve locally-caught fish and seafood from the Catalan Bay, known historically as Gibraltar’s fishing village.

Every year, locals and tourists alike come out in force for a celebration of Gibraltar’s contemporary food culture: the annual Calentita Food Festival (named after the llanito pancake dish). The festival is the best place to try some of Gibraltar’s eclectic cuisine. During the festival, the town square is taken over by stalls, tents and the rich aromas of cooking. One of the best things about the festival is that many of those preparing and serving dishes are not chefs or restaurateurs at all – they are simply locals, with ordinary careers, who want to share a slice of traditional Gibraltarian homemade food.