LADLES OF SPAIN
Pamela Bone sets out on a taste tour of the intriguing Spanish province of Castile
WE learn much about Spanish politics from group lecturer Gijs van Hensbergen as we travel by coach over the mountains from Madrid to La Granja, in Castile, in northwestern Spain. We are on a tour called Gastronomic Spain with the up-market travel company Martin Randall, and it is excellent despite my initial doubts.
This is my first group tour. Do I really want every detail of my travel, accommodation and meals organised for me, I ask myself. Well, yes I do, I decide, when it’s this good.
To reach Castile, we cross the Navacerrada Pass, over the mountains that were the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s great novel about the Spanish civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls . We also cross the bridge the character Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the republicans, blows up in the novel.
As we climb, olive trees give way to pine and the air becomes much cooler. There are eagles up here, vultures, and wild boar, and environmentalists are even restocking the mountain forests with wolves, to the chagrin of the local shepherds.
We arrive in La Granja to great excitement: the king is coming to visit. What is more, he is going to be in the building next to the restaurant where we will be sampling bean stew and red wine. And all this at 10.30 in the morning.
Security is tight. Schoolchildren sit on the footpaths in patient rows, well-dressed citizens gather in excited groups, and down the street a clutch of chefs in their white hats and aprons hurry on their way to prepare the meal for the royal person.
The Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, turns out to look like any other elderly man in an expensive suit. By all accounts he is a good and popular king who has been a great unifying force during the resurgence of Spain’s historic left-right divide.
Van Hensbergen tells us that at a recent public appearance a woman from the crowd approached the king to pin a republican badge on his coat. Instead of turning her away, he said: ‘‘ Madam, please pin it on my left lapel, to be closer to my heart.’’
To return to the bean stew: we’ve already sampled the best food in Madrid, from casual tapas to the finest of fine dining, but this bean stew, or judiones de la Granja, is the true taste of Castile, according to van Hensbergen. The stew is made of dried butter beans, magic beans which, when left overnight in water, swell to three times their size, soften and thicken the sauce like a mayonnaise.
There is much ritual involved in the cooking of this dish, including washing the wooden spoon every time the pot is stirred. If this is not done, the stew is bound to spoil, it is said. The meal is indeed delicious, though my enjoyment lessens when I learn it contains pig’s ear.
From La Granja — where our walk in the gardens of the palace of the Bourbon kings has to be postponed because of the security that surrounds the royal visit — we travel on to our hotel in Segovia, a medieval walled city dominated by an immense Roman aqueduct, cathedral and the famous Alcazar castle. This castle, a source of inspiration to Walt Disney, is where Queen Isabella of Spain promised Christopher Columbus the funds he needed to journey to America.
We are here, not only to dine at some of the fine restaurants of the area, but to sample the signature dish of Segovia, roast suckling pig.
It is a specialty at Restaurante Jose Maria, at Cronista Lecea 11 in Segovia, and we’ve come especially to try it. The pig is wheeled, whole, to the table. It smells wonderful, but I can’t look. It is first chopped up with a plate to show how tender it is and then the plate is smashed on the floor. It is served in big chunks and one pig (it must be less than three weeks old) feeds six people. I can’t eat it. I’m a hypocrite, I know; I do eat meat, but this poor little pig is too much.
This is no country for vegetarians, despite the famous bean stew and even though the Catalan national dish is simple crusty bread first rubbed with garlic and raw cut tomato and then sprinkled with olive oil and salt.
A lot of fish is eaten, but also a great deal of meat. We’ve been served milk-fed lamb; I couldn’t eat that, either, but others said it was delicious and supremely tender. We’ve had numerous tastings of the famous Iberian ham, which comes from pigs fed on acorns. Only the left hind leg is used in the very best ham, we are told, because that is the one the animal sleeps on and is thus more tender.
I am struck by the vast differences in the food of Spain: peasant dishes, where the meat is roughly chopped and heaped, and dishes served in new city restaurants, their exquisite presentation and tastes reflecting the country’s growing wealth and sophistication, and putting Spain at the forefront of international cuisine. On this tour we have sampled the spectrum.
Martin Randall’s tour, Gastronomic Spain, will run again from June 4-11, 2008. Gijs van Hensbergen will also lead two Gastronomic Catalonia tours in 2008. More: www.martinrandall.com.
Let’s meat: Serving suckling pig in Segovia, top; alfresco dining overlooking Segovia rooftops, above; chefs hurry to cook for the king in La Granja, right