At the Restaurante Don Mauro in the main square at Salamanca — the north western Spanish town once ruled by the Celts and Romans — we sit under the stone eyes of Teresa of Avila and Miguel Cervantes as our waiter follows up cheese croquettas and duck salad with a platter of finely sliced chorizo, salchichon, lomo and jamón — this is no ordinary ham; it is jamón ibérico from black pigs or wild boar. I am advised to let the ham sweat a little before eating it to release its fats. Sliced paper-thin, this is chewy, soft, smooth, salty, and clean — a complex, incredibly light mouth feel difficult to describe, but quite addictive. I later read that the distinct taste comes from the oleic acid-rich acorns that the pigs have been fed. I think the mountain air adds to it too.
The Restaurante Don Mauro, where the writer enjoyed varieties of ham like lomo, salchichon and chorizo
Just to digress a bit, in Spain, hams have their own DOs i.e., labels of origin and classifications from bodega to reserva and grand reserva (aged five years). Within ibérico hams, jamón ibérico bellota signifies that you are having the true champagne of hams. Bellota is Spanish for acorns and to make this cut (it gets a Black Label status) purebred black pigs, that are fed acorns, are allowed to roam free in oak forests in the mountains. Their ham is cured and dried in mountain air for a few months up to five years, and is amongst the great hams of the world along with Parma from Italy and Bayonne from France.
A two-hour drive from Madrid, medieval Salamanca — famous for its university and looks of a movie set — is a good introduction to Castilla y Leon, one of Spain’s largest regions. Like Catalonia and Andalucía, this region has a distinct history and cuisine. This is Iberia bordering Portugal, and once the heart and historic centre of Christian Spain when the kingdoms of Castile and Leon were untied in a political marriage. Toro-Zamora, Salamanca, Avila, Segovia, Burgos and Valladolid reflect the rich cultural heritage of this region and are easy to navigate over a three-day, sevenday or two-week trip.
For the foodie, Castile is meat lover’s nation. Beef from local Morucha cows, suckling milk-fed lamb and pigs (both black and pink) occupy pride of culinary place. Dishes like Cecina, a cow’s ham cured like jamón ibérico, arroz zamora, a rice stew from Zamora with pigs trotters and fried pigs ears, Castilian soup with lashings of garlic, paprika, cheese, bread and ham are typical of the region and definitely worth a try. Pan pueblo, the local ‘peasant’ bread, is served on the side, but despite being a bread lover, this is one bread I don’t develop a taste for.
Two hours from Salamanca, Zamora is famous for its Cathedral and Lent processions. This is a good base to explore the famed Toro wine region during the day and return to eat at the reasonably priced and accessible El Rincon De Antonio, a one Michelin star restaurant near the cathedral. It has a crowded tapas bar and quaint rooms with tables for a longer meal. We have the six course degustation menu, which includes a delicious signature chilled tomato cucumber and paprika gazpacho, chicken with mango jelly and veal with quince. But it is a simple plate of chickpeas offered with a flourish that is remarkable for its rich tomato and herb flavour and simplicity. Chickpeas are grown locally and are often served in stews, but this delicious bowl is served without any embellishment. The meal also gives me a chance to savour a memorable Toro wine called Abdon Segovia Joven, which has won the 2016 silver medal at the Catavinum World Wine & Spirits Competition.
Cathedral of Salamanca
Forty minutes away from Zamora and forty kilometers from Portugal, Toro is a charming little town that is very serious about its wine. It has been a wine-growing region since Roman times. The story goes that the old bell tower is made of strong Toro wine as the town ran out of water to finish it. Toro wines are always described as ‘big reds’ or ‘powerful reds’ and I soon discover why. At 16 per cent, their alcohol content is higher than normal thanks to the way the Tinta de Toro grape reacts to the sun. The Toro vines have also remained disease-free for generations, so you taste ancient grapes in the wines. Castile has three famous wine appellations — Ribera Del Duero and Toro known for their reds from Tempranillo and Roble grapes, Rueda for its whites made from the Verdejo grapes and Ciagles for its Rosé. Toro’s powerful reds have always generated buzz. Christopher Columbus is supposed to have loaded his ships with Toro wines on his voyages as their high alcohol content made them good travellers. Now vino buzz is that it is a good time to invest in Toro wines. Since LVMH has just bought a bodega here, there may be truth to this.
Castilla y Leon
We visit the Monte La Reina winery, which is a chic modern winery spread over 3,500 hectares and exports over 2 million bottles a year. We walk past the concrete tanks for elite wines, the steel tanks for young wines and learn about frizzante (sparkling), rosé, reds and whites. The Monte la Reina Reserva is made from only the local Tinta de Toro Tempranillo grape, making it the one to put away for a long time. Later on the trip, I try the Marques De Caceres 2015 Verdejo as well as the Torre Nova Vendima Nocturne Verdejo 2015. Both these whites from Rueda are excellent — light, fruity, slightly herb infused, dry summer wines and surprisingly inexpensive.
Valladolid, an hour away from Madrid, used to be the capital of Christian Spain. At the Sibaritas Klub, chef Javier Pena, who was a contender for Spain’s Top chef title on the Spanish version of the show, is passionate about local organic produce form the region. Ewe’s milk cheese, Cecina (smoked cured cow ham) and membrillo or quince jelly are rolled into neat cigars and sprinkled with micro greens as a starter. Then there is Pena’s version of steak tartare — beef loin or lomo hung for 21 days, garnished with truffles from Assouria. Local Mona Lisa potatoes topped with a spicy Gyindilla pepper marinated in vinegar act as a counter point to the meat.
The vinescape of Peleagonzalo in the Toro wine region of Zamora in Spain
River fish, a type of trout from nearby Palencia known also for its Roman art, is served with a slice of tocino or pork fat, and a cube of ham gelatin. The fish is torched on the plate so it is seared to perfection leaving the green pea garnish and cucumber reduction untouched, as fresh flavours mingle with the seared fish.
The high point for me is the Castilian specialty – Lechazo or milk-fed suckling lamb. The lamb is marinated in a honey and broth blend and cooked for 24 hours at 62 degrees. It is then cooked further in a bag to retain its juices at high heat for fifteen minutes. Plated with sugared pine nuts, Judas ear mushrooms, beets, an intriguingly roasted onion skin, baby corn, acorns and a red wine reduction, the lamb is incredibly fall-off-the-bone tender and richly flavoured.
After a sweet semifreddo bomb shaped like the sun in planetary motion, we end with a decidedly un-local twist — banana flavoured candyfloss with marshmallows, dark chocolate and candied nuts over a passion fruit sorbet.
Fine dining aside, Valladolid is rocking tapas land. It is host to the national tapas competition, which is famous with chefs all over Spain, and now has an international version with chefs from around the world reinterpreting Spanish tapas.
Academia de Caballeria at Zorrilla square, the bustling city centre of Valladolid, Spain. Valladolid, an hour from Madrid, used to be the capital of Christian Spain
Los Zagales off the Plaza Mayor is where we find ourselves at a dinner hosted by the Regional Director of Tourism. The brothers Antonio and Javier Garcia have won this title thrice so don’t expect standard tapas here.
This is progressive, sometimes molecular, sometimes over the top, but always witty tapas. I am not sure I want my tapas to be too clever. Give me roasted peppers and patatas bravas and I am happy. But we are having the award-winning pinchon (tapas) taster menu. “Barack Obama in the White House” is a white bowl that opens to reveal a bed of black mushrooms. Tap into the mushroom bed and you get potatoes in squid ink and an egg yolk that bursts with several flavours all at once. It is delicious, no matter how politically incorrect the name is. There are some misses like a lamb slider that seems too literal and skewered prawns served over gazpacho and dry ice, which is an interesting combination, but I find the dry ice too distracting.
Then there is the outstanding blood sausage or morcilla masquerading as a chocolate Swiss roll — the sort of cake roll you get at supermarkets. It is even packed in a plastic wrap with the label design of a popular Spanish commercial cake. It is a medley of blood sausage, dehydrated pork, caramelized onions and cream cheese. This won the 2010 tapas competition and is still going strong on the menu. Ask for Tigre Toston. The Bocadillo de Calamares — a version of the popular street food fried squid sandwich is served in a plastic wrap, but oops, this is not plastic, it is potato skin denatured into edible plastic.
There is a blur of Castilian wines to go with the meal, but all attention is on the next clever dish. Los Zagales is packed to the gills, but this is the weekend and across Spain, especially in Valladolid, all tapas bars are awake and packed. The trick to be truly Spanish, says our host, is to bar hop and share tapas into the early hours of the morning both with friends you know and new friends you make.