LA­DLES OF SPAIN

Pamela Bone sets out on a taste tour of the in­trigu­ing Span­ish prov­ince of Castile

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­tures: Pamela Bone/Jenny Vint

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

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