A Moveable Feast: a culinary journey through Spain’s most extreme region
“Pork cheek on langoustine served in a creamy soup”. The waiter hurries away as discreetly as he appeared. We are on course 6 of 10, on day 3 of a 6 day culinary journey, and I’m full. I eye up the plate in front of me and decide to give it my best. My fork breaks the thin crisp of pork away from the soft flesh of the langoustine. As I part land and sea I admire the transparency of the rings of fat which encircle the meat. The smell is sensational. And as I take the first taste I arrive at the real surprise. I can eat a lot.
The problem of course is that we are in Spain; a country where food is more certain than the time of day. To be more accurate, we are exploring Extremadura aboard the Al Andalus train; a region that borders with Portugal, forgotten throughout history but celebrated by those in the know for its superior pork products. We have been snaking our way through the sparse dehesa landscape punctuated by acorn trees where wild black pigs are reared for bellota ham, whizzing past haciendas and stopping in a string of old Roman towns from Seville to Madrid. Originally built for the British monarchy in the 1920s, today the train offers gastronomic trips that unfold both on board and in local dining establishments.
It’s Wednesday and we’re in the medieval town of Cáceres, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the birthplace of Toño Perez. As a young boy he helped out in his father’s pastry shop; now he is a Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef with two Michelin stars, running a fine dining establishment right from the centre of his hometown.
“I have a wonderful larder here,” he says, speaking about Extremadura. “My region allows me to use the best possible ingredients and express my roots in my cooking, literally.” His restaurant Atrio, which he set up with partner José Polo in 1986, celebrates local produce and elevates it to an international level in an honest and uncomplicated manner. Of course, pork features heavily on the menu, often married with seafood and fish in understated combinations. Wild mushrooms are buried under a cappuccino of duck liver and crispy corn. Retinto Sirloin, native to the region, is prepared in two ways; a tartare comes with a mustard sorbet that plays with hot and cold sensations, while a lightly cooked tender cut is coated in a pistachio crust; textures colliding and flavours mingling on every plate. Yet the biggest surprise comes at the very end with the arrival of a crate of fresh cherries on every table. Is this Toño’s gentle reminder that everything starts in the field, or could it be a light-hearted joke at our expense, expecting yet another flawlessly presented dish on a clean white plate?
By 5pm, exhausted after a larger than usual lunch service laid on in celebration of Relais & Chateaux’s 60th anniversary, Toño is still smiling. “I’m used to cooking for 10 to 15 people, not 50!” he exclaims. It’s been a long day for the Cáceres chef. Just that morning he’d joined us on board to cook us breakfast. Already the Migas with fried egg seemed like a distant memory. “But it gives me great satisfaction to see all my guests leaving happy.” Happily we leave, with just enough time for a glass of jerez and a tapa in the town’s main square before departure.
Over dinner the train crosses the countryside once more, and as I gaze out of the window at the sheep grazing in the fields while a dessert of Torta del Cesar, a cheese made from their milk, vies for my attention, the concept of food miles seems so distant. Food for thought indeed.
The moveable feast comes to a spectacular end on Friday as the Al Andalus pulls into Aranjuez. After a regal morning at the Royal Palace we lunch at Casa Jose, a local family joint turned Michelin star eatery. Celebrated internationally for its plentiful garden, its menu is bursting with greens and vegetables; we try fried asparagus, Carlota courgettes with grilled squid, black garlic. It’s a garden of earthly delights.
Back on the train we’re greeted by a man with 8 knives. Nico Jimenez is a maestro cortador and takes his jamón very seriously. “To really get a taste of the bellota, you need to try the meat from all areas of the leg”, he says. “That way it’s possible to experience all the taste sensations from the same animal: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and, of course, umami.” He starts to cut the ham enthusiastically, switching between blades as he gets further in. “This can take up to an hour,” he informs us. The sommelier swiftly turns to serve the cava. Later, when I am once more surprised by the ability of such a simple ingredient to awake such a multitude of sensations in my mouth, I pause to savour this moment. I had travelled to Spain’s extremes to experience the origins of its gastronomy, and I had not been left cold.
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