As with the other Canary Islands, Lanzarote’s early history is veiled in myth and mystery, especially because it is the oldest of the Canaries, with about 180 million years. Populated for at least 2000 years, according to recent archaeological discoveries, Lanzarote was originally inhabited by Berbers, a people from North Africa. Grazing, fishing and agriculture were the main forms of livelihood for these first inhabitants, who became known as ‘Majos’.
Greeks and Romans certainly knew of the existence of these islands, as proven by excavations in Lanzarote, where pieces of metal and glass were found. These artefacts, dated between the first and the fourth centuries, proved that Romans used to trade with the people of these islands, though there is no evidence they ever set foot there.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Canary Islands fell into oblivion for almost 1,000 years, to be then rediscovered in the early 14th century by Mediterranean sailors. In fact, it is widely believed that the name "Lanzarote" derives from Lanzarotto (or Lancelotto) Malocello, a Genoese sailor, who first moored on the island in the early 1300s. After this, Lanzarote was invaded several times by Europeans, who sought to conquer wealth and glory, by capturing natives to work as slaves in their countries.
Over the years, many expeditions headed to the Canaries, but the ultimate conquest began, in the early 15th century, under the fist of the Norman explorers Juan de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle. Since Lanzarote was, at that time, an extremely depopulated island, natives were willing to sign a non-aggression and friendship pact with the invaders, receiving in return protection against pirates and slavers.
Later, Juan de Bethencourt named his nephew, Maciot de Bethencourt, the first governor of Lanzarote, and then returned to France. Maciot would then marry Princess Teguise of Lanzarote and found a town after her name.
But conquering Lanzarote – as well as Fuerteventura, La Gomera and El Hierro – was, actually, no great feat, since the small native population on these islands had already been decimated by the diseases introduced by the Europeans during the years of slave trading. So, to increase the local population, many slaves were taken from North Africa, and dromedaries were also brought to this island.
At the beginning of the Spanish conquest, the islands of the archipelago experienced different histories. While the bigger islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife still rendered fierce resistance – it took almost a century until they finally surrendered to the Spanish crown – the process of exploration and colonisation of Lanzarote was already going strong. Soon, the first churches were built and the surviving Majos were forced to convert to Christianity.
Do you want to eat traditional local food when you’re in Lanzarote? Many restaurants produce Spanish or Mediterranean dishes, but if you want Canarian food, here are 10 dishes to try:
Papas Arrugadas: Sometimes called Canarian potatoes – these are locally grown small potatoes and are boiled in very salty water (originally sea water) in their skins and served with:
Mojo SauceEvery restaurant has their own (often secret) recipe for Mojo. The red one can be quite fiery and the green one very garlicky and with a fresh coriander taste. Sometimes aioli, or garlic mayonnaise is served as well.
Estofado: This is a generic name for a stew, which will contain pieces of meat, sometimes goat, more usually beef, chorizo, chick peas and vegetables. The most common variant here is called Ropa Vieja, which is also found in South America and the Caribbean.
Gofio: This is a flour made from toasted maize and can be used in many dishes. Balls of it can be flavoured and fried, it can be used as a thickener in stews and it’s often used to make soft biscuits as a dessert.
Puntillas de Calamar: These are whole baby squids, dredged in batter and deep fried. Crunchy and delicious, they just need a squeeze of lemon to make the flavour burst out of them. (Pictured)
Boquerones: These are small anchovy fillets that have been pickled in olive oil, vinegar and garlic – delicious on their own or placed onto slices of fresh bread.
Lapas: These are limpets and are a real delicacy here – they are usually served in the frying pan they have been cooked in, with a butter and garlic sauce and freshly chopped coriander.
Pescado a la plancha: This is the fish of the day, served simply grilled and either with or without garlic. Most commonly it will be Dorada (Sea bream) vieja (parrot fish) or Cherne (Stone bass.)
Goat’s cheese: There are still several large herds of goats on the island and they produce some excellent cheese. It’s very white, and mildly flavoured and slightly salty.
La Santa prawns: You don’t see these on menus here very often, but when you do, order them! The little prawns caught around La Santa are so sweet and delicious. Generally, they are just boiled or steamed and served over salt crystals.
Bienmessabe: This is a deliciously sweet dessert dish. It’s made with ground almonds, honey and egg yolks and is very rich. It can come as a sponge cake soaked in it, or used a sauce over ice cream.
You can see our recipes and restaurant reviews in this section of the website: Lanzarote to eat.