SPAIN

Savouring Hidden Gems in Central Spain
By: Mary Luz Mejia

If there’s one thing you quickly discover when driving through Europe, it’s that its gems are often a bit obscured but worth the effort of discovery. In the picturesque Zamoran town of Toro for example, a group of us stand at the its centre, built in the shape of a fan. Our indicating landmark is the 12th century Collegiate church of Santa Maria la Mayor, behind which there’s a stunning, verdant view of the Duero River that flows to nearby Portugal where it’s called the Douro. We’re in the Castilla y Leon region to uncover some of central Spain’s best and finest culinary treasures, and tiny Toro is as good as any place to begin the journey.

We’re in what Spaniards call, “Tierra del Vino” or land of wine. There’s even a designation of origin (DO) for Toro wines, where it’s said wine-making has been a way of life since the 1st century BC. The area’s early Celtic Tribes learned how to ferment grapes from the Greeks and used the Duero as their trade route. Stop at any tapas bar in town and ask for a bottle of the barkeep’s favourite- you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised as we were over a lunch of seafood tapas, with a requisite order of Spain’s beloved Iberico ham (or jamón in Spanish). This soul-satisfying fare likely fuels the impromptu serenade given by a sprightly older man behind the church. He sang an old ballad with a twinkle in his eye, as he firmly grasped my shoulders (so as not to escape?), all the while perfuming the air with what I good-naturedly call “Eau de Bellota with a side of Toro DO.”

In nearby Guijuelo, the epicentre of jamón production, we stop at a meson called El Pernil Iberico, to fully enjoy the fruits of the land. A meson represents a no-fuss, rustic setting where the focus is on good, hearty food. Grilled cuts of the famed Iberico (don’t miss the secreto cut), acorn-fed pigs arrive at the table with the most impossibly crisp on the outside, tender on the inside yellow fries. Cherry-red (a tell-tale sign you’re eating Iberico), nutty-nuanced, toothsome slivers of the hand-sliced ham also hit the table before literally disappearing, served with the perfectly paired Castillian queso Iberico (aged, hard cheese made of cow, sheep and goat’s milk). It’s possible our lunch ham is the multi-award winning Bernardo Hernandez Beher Iberico Ham, whose production facility sits a few blocks from the meson. This is the revered, free-range, black-hoofed, acorn-fed breed that’s cured with a sea’s worth of salt and fresh mountain air. It’s also the same ham that travelled to South Africa with the Spanish National Football team during the previous FIFA World Cup- for a spot of patriotic protein. Their “Ham Cathedral” sports a thirty-foot ceiling of whole, hanging legs, curing with patience and care. It’s an almost hush-toned, spiritual experience.

The same level of artisanal artistry is demonstrated throughout the region, especially in its cheese making. It’s worth exploring the world-renowned Monte Enebro cheese made in Avila’s Tietar Valley by sisters Maria Jesus and Paloma who took the “project” on when their retired father passed away. The soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese at Queserias del Tietar follows a traditional, hand-made recipe. Its loaf-like or “mule’s leg” shape is covered with a light blue/gray rind developing from penicillium roqueforti spores. Snow white inside, with a silky mouth feel and savoury, rich, almost lemony notes, it’s enough to make even devout non-goat’s milk cheese fans convert. Monte Enebro can be found in some Canadian cheese shops, so if it’s an entirely local specialty you’re after, look for Vicente Pastor’s fabled Zamorano.

We meet up with Felix Vicente Pastor, considered one of the most outstanding cheese makers in the country, at his farmhouse dairy in Zamora. Production is limited, given the family operation takes care of every detail, including sourcing its own milk from their herd of Churra breed sheep. Slow ripened (6-12 months) in high humidity cellars results in a flavour that’s intense without being overwhelming. I buy a small wheel for around 20€ at the farmhouse to bring home after Felix slices a piece for the group to savor. We taste walnuts, grass and a delicious buttery note in this piquant cheese; perfect alongside a crusty loaf of bread, some of the region’s ham, olives, tomatoes and a bottle of red. Or sample his and other stellar Spanish cheeses at the historic Restaurante El Ermitaño (Benavente, Zamora) where chef Pedro Mario Alonso will happily curate a regional cheese course par excellence for guests. Make sure you ask for a Hacienda Zorita cheese made with organic, raw ewe’s milk. They’re sublime, especially the buttery, soft “torta” style queso.

Taking the time to sample a glass of the blushing rosé from Cigales, a crisp, fresh white from Rueda or a full bodied red from Toro throughout the region’s eateries or wineries, is a must. The stunning 13th century Abadia Retuerta near Valladolid, is a former monk’s abbey turned elegant winery and estate/hotel, and it’s one of the finest places to taste Spanish terroir. We sit down to a beautiful lunch at the intimate Vinoteca, helmed by Chef Pablo Montero who just added a Michelin star to the property’s accolades. When the Abadia Retuerta Seleccion Especial is opened- one of their most lauded and award-winning wines combining Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and rounded out by Syrah and Merlot from the estate, we sip slowly and breathe deeply. Looking out on the tidy rows of vines, surrounded by the elegance of cloistered Romanesque-Baroque monastery walls, eating and sipping from the land, we’re literally steeped in Spanish cultural heritage. And it’s one of the most delicious ways to explore this or any food-proud region.