There are many amazing restaurants in Andalucia. In fact, I could travel around this wonderful land for the foreseeable future, eating lunches and dinners in restaurants that I know and love, belonging to people I admire and cherish.
My former favourite restaurant in Andalucia closed 8 years ago. It was one of my best-kept secrets: housed in a British built railway storage building, lost in a deep valley deep along the route of Mr Henderson’s Railway, in the mountains west of Ronda. Its name was Caserío de Ananda.
It wasn´t just the food or the charming patroness, Angeles. It was something about the place that moved everyone who ate there. I would drive clients for hours to eat at the restaurant and it was always worth the journey to see their reactions. When it closed, it was the end of an era, and I have missed not being able to take people there ever since. You can imagine my joy, then, when I discovered a similarly unique restaurant to take its place: Universo Santi in Jerez.
Universo Santi resides in a former private residence, one of the most beautiful in Andalucía. El Altillo sits atop a hill just outside the centre of Jerez de la Frontera, in the province of Cadiz. T Gonzalez – Byass, the founder of the largest sherry bodega in Spain, bought the house and its land in the late 1800s. He converted the property in accordance with his own tastes: lofty ceilings, perfectly proportioned rooms and intricate flooring that causes you to stop and stare as you pass through each elegant doorway into the next room.
Manuel Maria Angel González also planted over 300 trees, gathered from around the world. Today, mature gardens wrap the house, each tree and shrub seeming placed in picture-perfect symmetry as you gaze through the long French windows.
The beautiful estate provided owner Don Manuel with the respite he needed, surrounded by nature and away from the city. He had seven daughters who lived together in the house most of their lives. Extraordinarily, none of the seven ladies left a single heir and the house fell into disrepair. Eventually, renovation saw the property converted into the restaurant it is today – Universo Santi.
The restaurant has united various charitable organizations with private foundations and has garnered support from some of the greatest chefs in Spain. Martín Berasategui, Angel León and Joan Roza have all contributed recipes and appeared as guest chefs. Despite the collaboration of such esteemed culinary figures, it is really the restaurant’s namesake -Michelin starred Spanish chef, Santi Santimaria- who is at the heart of the project.
Known for his honest cooking, Santimaria relied heavily on local products and believed in always letting each ingredient speak for itself – rather than screening natural flavours behind other elements of the dish.
His sudden death in 2011 left his family reeling, but they decided to continue his legacy by lending his name and prestige to a community restaurant – along with his very own kitchen. After the closure of Santimara’s restaurant Can Fabes, the kitchen and its utensils in it were uprooted and moved lock, stock and barrel to their new home. It is now enjoyed by all the chefs at Universo Santi, almost as if Santi himself is still there overlooking their work.
It’s not just this incredible backstory which makes Universo Santi so unique, however. The restaurant’s founders also chose to make it a working environment for people with disabilities. All of Universo Santi’s staff have a registered disability of 35% or more.
Here’s where this article takes a personal turn: I went to Universo Santi partly to sample the food, but mainly to share the experience with my brother Reuben, who has Down Syndrome. Recently, he has been suffering from a period of deep depression, which has left most of our family and friends feeling useless. Nothing we try seems to lift the black cloud that seems to hover over him. I decided to take him to Universo Santi in an attempt to show him that there is hope – to let him see people like him who have a full life and a bright future.
I’m also aware that the best way to Reuben’s heart is through his stomach. I had hoped that a little magic might pervade the day, perhaps reminiscent of “Like Water for Chocolate” – a fabulous Mexican film where the emotions of the chef filter through to the food and affect all who eat it. Maybe lunch at Universo Santi would succeed in letting a chink of light into Reuben´s darkened world?
We were shown through to our private dining room by Angel, one of the coordinators of the project, who couldn’t have been more accommodating. We were also well looked after by Jaime, our charming waiter. His skill at pacing the meal and explaining the dishes was second-to-none.
As Reuben tasted the food, I noticed the flavours beginning to work away at him. Eventually, during the fourth dish, a huge smile engulfed his face – the kind that I hadn’t seen in months. As we savoured the fresh crab salad, tuna tartar, braised artichokes and wild sea bream (the most perfectly cooked piece of fish I’ve ever tasted) Reuben’s inquisitive nature fleetingly resurfaced – asking questions as I explained what we were eating.
It really did feel like a sort of culinary therapy. The honest food with its delicately measured flavours was awakening senses in Reuben that had lain dormant for a long time. For so long, his diet had been a traumatic topic for him – food reduced to a prescribed medical list of dos and don’ts. Lunch that day, however, was pure pleasure. It was a joy to sit and watch his face light up as the tastes hit his palette. For those 2 quiet hours, his depression vanished beneath his enjoyment.
Later, in the car, I asked him:
“What did you think of that, brother?”
He responded with one of his catchphrases, which I hadn’t heard for months. “3 words brother; Fab, Lu, Lous”.
I was grinning from ear to ear as we drove away. I didn’t know which was more satisfied by the experience- my appetite, or my heart.