During my latest culinary adventure, I had the opportunity to explore the remote region of Spanish Siberia, located around 3 hours southwest of Madrid. I spent my time in a charming village called Esparragosa de Lares, situated on the banks of a vast reservoir and surrounded by a unique landscape of rocky hills and outcrops. The area was so expansive that it was no surprise to learn that this was a popular location for filming spaghetti westerns. Despite the dry and chilly evenings, I was amazed by the region’s beauty. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how the locals survived in such a harsh and arid environment. I saw very few people during my stay, but there were plenty of sheep and goats roaming around. Although there was very little vegetation, apart from a few shrubs, the animals seemed to be in good condition.
Esparragosa is famous for a specific delicious vegetable; the clue is in the title, yes, asparagus. Unlike the UK, where our season is early May to early July, here, the season is in the autumn and winter months when the rains come. Even in winter, the temperature hovers around 10C, so the plants thrive. I am reliably informed that three varieties of asparagus grow wild in the region green, purple and white and are delicious. As we were out of season, a local cook packed me a lunch with the preserved white variety. It was the sweetest asparagus I have ever eaten. It just came with a bit of mayonnaise and a chunk of local bread, perfect on a warm summer’s day.
As I have mentioned, goat’s cheese here is a big part of the area. So, I had to track down a local farmer to understand more about the fabulous cheeses on offer. Queseria de La Jara, La Nava de Ricomalillo, Toledo is one such place. As soon as I walked in, I knew they were pretty serious about making a great product.
My guide, Luis, introduced me to the owner and goat farmer Adrian. Thank goodness he spoke perfect English, and my Spanish is non-existent.
He explained that he runs a thousand goats and makes many kinds of cheese. Some aged, some fresh and a very fresh, zingy blue goat’s cheese, not often seen in the UK. All were different and extremely good, and I was impressed with his passion and knowledge. Some of Adrian’s cheeses use fresh, raw milk, which is just what I wanted to hear. The Spanish law on raw milk cheese is slightly different from the UK. The time for maturing a raw milk cheese depends on the thickness of the cheese. So, the cheeses I saw in the maturing room need 45 days, and the smaller ones 25 days.
We are close to the Iberian pig region, home to the famous Jamón ibérico or Iberico Ham. So, everywhere cooks, eats or sells fabulous pork products. Pretty much every day, I was fed this stunning pork in some sort of guise. From cured ham, bacon, local fermented sausages, and bacon for breakfast to braised pigs’ cheeks and sautéed loin strips for dinner. Plus, simply the best pork scratchings I have ever crunched on.
Probably the best hot chocolate I've eaten
On my last day, Luis took me to a local café for what he described as his favourite breakfast. It’s a variation of what we had eaten daily, consisting of lightly toasted flatbread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Spoon over a puree of fresh sieved tomatoes, salt, and pepper, then top warm fried eggs. I couldn’t get over how simple and how tasty it was. In fact, having returned to the UK, I now have this as my breakfast staple.
No, his breakfast was Porras and hot chocolate. I had no idea what this was until he explained it was a regional variation of churros, a fried sweet snack native of Madrid. Porras are a thicker, flatter version of Churros that sometimes use baking powder, not yeast, as the raising agent and can be cut instead of extruded using a star nozzle.
They were hot, crisp, tasty, but incredibly filling and served with probably the best hot chocolate I’ve eaten. The reason is that the hot chocolates I have tasted are either too thick, sweet, or weak. However, this hot chocolate was the perfect combination of texture, sweetness and bitter flavour without being claggy. It was the ideal foil to the piping hot Porras, but I could only manage two before I was utterly stuffed; Luis, however, scoffed the lot.
Back to Madrid
Back in Madrid, I wanted to find a great local restaurant serving authentic local food. Luckily, I found a cracker a few streets away from my hotel on Calle Cervantes. It serves top-notch local food, and I wasn’t disappointed. This understated eatery on a street corner has an exciting menu and wine list.
I started with a plate of the finest Pata Negra acorn-fed ham, room temperature oozing with fat, sliced perfectly and wafer thin. Lomo, chorizo and a locally cured salami were all an absolute joy. Next, braised octopus with mayo, with a chunky puree of Swede and herb dressing. This was stunningly cooked to perfection, seasoned and well-balanced.
My last thing to try was a local breakfast before I left, which was a straightforward affair.
The coffee was excellent, and a yes again, ham with a tortilla, puree of fresh tomatoes and fried potatoes. Plus, a ‘potato omelette sandwich’, a cold tortilla in a freshly baked roll, is very lovely indeed and filling.
It really is well worth a trip.