Travel review: The Iris Zahara, Andalusia
by Sarah Akhurst
Nestling in amongst the stunning Andalusian coastline sits Iris Zahara, the beautiful Spanish home of chef José Pizarro. Sarah Akhurst perches by the infinity pool to soak up the view
There’s a real art to being a great host. I can hand round the drinks and snacks with the best of them, but there’s so much more to it than that. The perfect host wraps you up with this intense sense of belonging, even if you’ve never met them before. They talk to you like you’re the most interesting person in the room, laugh at your questionable jokes, and leave you with that sense that you will probably be best friends forever, free to rock up at their beautiful hillside villa any weekend you fancy. All that on top of also managing to hand round the (top quality) drinks and snacks. If you type ‘perfect host’ into Google, you should find the words ‘José Pizarro’ staring back at you.
We’re travelling to the town of Zahara de los Atunes (which translates as place of the tuna fish – more on that later) in Andalusia to take part in a unique weekend experience with chef José Pizarro, staying in José’s stunning coastal villa, Iris Zahara. Designed by leading Spanish architect Alfonso Alzugaray, José and his partner Peter have spent the last few years renovating this exquisite villa, which punctuates the craggy rock face in all its white modernist beauty.
With five double en suite bedrooms, a stunning ‘sorry, is this a movie set?’ dining room with views over the ocean to Africa, outdoor dining terrace and obligatory infinity pool, Iris is the couple’s sanctuary in Spain, but one which they are also happy to throw open to guests, either to hire yourself as a group of up to 10 people, or to enjoy as part of a very special bespoke experience with the glamorous perfect host himself. In a group of up to four people, José will take you to some of the region’s premier foodie hotspots, as well as host you in the villa while you soak up the 360-degree beauty around you.
We initially fly into Gibraltar and are picked up by José’s nephew, who whisks us to Iris. It’s around 3pm when we arrive, but José has adorned the outdoor dining space with foodie treats; plate upon plate of fresh prawns, plump silver anchovies, mussels, cured meats, cheese and picture-perfect Spanish tomatoes. With a glass of cava instantly in hand, we sit by the pool, a world away from the grey tarmac we left just a few hours ago.
For our first night, José has booked a tuna tasting menu at El Campero, a restaurant in local Barbate which specialises in the region’s most prized haul. I thought I knew food, but the tuna education here was a revelation. Across six courses, we sampled everything from loin to liver, belly to ribs (which are as delightfully meaty as you would hope) in a sensational exploration of what this mighty fish has to offer. Full of delicious food, we slope back to Iris for Spanish- style ‘free pour’ gins by the pool to round off the night.
The next morning, José whisks us off to the local market to pick up produce for today’s feasting. While some of us may be slightly regretting that final poolside gin, José is brimming with vibrancy, filling bags with fresh fruit and vegetables, olives, meats and a couple of huge lobsters, which very much set the tone for the rest of the day. From here we drive up to the sparkling white town of Vejer de la Frontera for jaw-dropping views, then make a final stop at a very exclusive tuna shop to pick up some mojama, the famous air-dried tuna which is more revered than Iberico ham in these parts (and which trades at an eye-watering price).
Back at the villa, José prepares a beautiful lunch with the spoils of our shopping trip, which extends for well over three hours and is probably one of the most relaxed experiences I have enjoyed since having a child 10 years ago (safe to say children under 12 aren’t allowed at Iris, and hurrah to that!). With his characteristic enthusiasm, he then spirits us off again, this time to a local stables, where for the first time in 30 years, I pop myself back on horseback for a saunter on the beach
I’m told by one of the Spanish horsewomen I have a good style on the horse... seems some cava and a glass of rare VORS sherry at lunch gives you all the confidence you need! Horses safely back in their stables, we meander shoeless along the beach as the sun sets.
Back at the villa there’s just time for those enormous lobsters and another few hours of great food, great wine and great conversation, in full denial we’re heading home tomorrow. I am brimming with the joys of José’s hospitality over the past 48 hours, and I feel I’ve made a friend for life. In fact, I’m quite sure, being such a perfect host, he won’t mind me rocking up unannounced next week, too. That okay, José?
How to book
Double rooms at the Iris Zahara cost from €299 (£264) a night. You can rent the whole villa for up to 10 people, from €860 (£760) a night. The experience with José PIzarro can be booked for up to four people and includes escorted tours, plus hosted dinners in the villa. Prices start from €6,000 (£5,300) per couple. For more info, visit josepizarro. com/iris-zahara.