Extra Helpings: A Foodie Tour of Cáceres, Spain

Photo by Ventura Carmona via flickr

Paul Richardson, The Guardian, March 25, 2015

The first hurdle is the name, a volley of Castilian consonants that’s tough for non-Spaniards to get our mouths around. Then there’s the location. Remote and poorly communicated (the nearest Spanish airport is Madrid, three hours away by car), for decades this rough-cut jewel of a city has been waiting for a moment of glory that, with its election as this year’s Spanish Capital of Gastronomy, may have finally come.

It’s certainly puzzling that this gorgeous town, one of Extremadura’s two provincial capitals and the region’s historic hub, has remained so little-known, despite the free annual Womad world-music festival (held in May), not to mention the monumental stone citadel of the old town, built by the returning conquistadors with their new-world swag.

But now it turns out there’s another great reason to go: the food and drink. Cáceres is a place of genuine flavours and simple preparation, reflecting the city’s proximity to rural Spain. Dishes include migas, a rustic fry of breadcrumbs, garlic, bacon, chorizo and peppers, and lamb caldereta, a shepherd’s dish flavoured with rich and smoky pimentón de La Vera – paprika, the star spice of Extremadura. The pungent vacherin-style sheep’s milk cheese, torta del casar, has been known to out-run even Monty Python’s “very runny” one.

You could easily spend a day – as, living close by, I sometimes do – trawling the old town for tapas, for three-course lunches at madly cheap prices, and for big glasses of artisan extremeño wines like Mirabel, a world-class red made by Anders Vinding-Diers (a resident Dane).

Fans of churros, the fried, take-no-prisoners Spanish breakfast snack will enjoy the insider thrill to be had at Churrería Ruiz (Calle de Santa Gertrudis 15), which has been frying since 1950 and where the thick porras are golden-crispy, not excessively greasy, and beg to be dunked in the morning’s first café con leche.

Cáceres has come quickly to the notion of food as souvenir. Among the legion of old-town shops advertising productos típicos extremeños, the one to look for is high-end charcutería Gabriel Mostazo. I go here in the morning to stock up on acorn-fed ibérico ham from the nearby oak forests known as the dehesa (a whole leg costs €280-plus, so ask for slices to be vacuum-packed). I’ll also buy tins of pimentón, jars of holm oak honey, and boxes of chocolate-covered figs from nearby Almoharín before heading for Plaza Mayor and the temptations of the midday aperitivo.

Cáceres is one of those old-fashioned, generous Spanish cities (Granada is another; Barcelona is not) where you are still offered a free morsel, known here as a pincho, with every drink. My recent orders of icy Mahou beer have come with, for example, potatoes in alioli, stuffed fried mussels called tigres, and tortilla of wild cep mushrooms. The most popular and authentic pincho is a juicy slice of Cáceres’s signature sausage, patatera (made with pork meat, potato, and pimentón), on a piece of hot toast.

The pincho is one thing, but the soul of cacereño eating is in the tapería, a homegrown neologism for the tapas bar. For a crawl round the classiest taperias in town, start in the Plaza Mayor at La Minerva), head up to Tapería Yuste on the Plaza de San Juan, and thence to El Paladar de Felisa, Hornos 25, and, leaving the best till last, to La Cacharrería.

My personal favourite among the newer wave of gastrobars, La Cacharrería is tucked away among the stone corridors of the old town, hard by the cathedral. Chef Juan Miguel Arroyo’s cooking is imaginative and soulful: I’ve loved his tapas of pork loin with pimentón praline, his date and patatera croquette and his turrón of foie gras – and at about €5 apiece, they are also keenly priced.

It’s rare to find a restaurant in Cáceres that doesn’t incorporate a tapas bar – a reflection perhaps of it gregarious and leisurely drinking-snacking culture. Those I’ve enjoyed in the past, like Rafa Arnaiz’s excellent Mesón San Juan (two courses €17) and the posher Oquendo (mains around €20), are being joined by a new generation, often with younger chefs and further from the centre, like Javier Martín with his €30 tasting menu and Botein, with seven courses for €52.

If ever I get a craving for proper old-fashioned extremeño eating – wild boar stew, suckling pig, pickled tench – you’ll find me in the whitewashed, vaulted dining room of El Figón de Estaquio, where the menú regional costs €26 and some of the black-waistcoated waiters seem to have been there since the place opened in 1947.

But one place rules the roost in old-town Cáceres. Chef Toño Pérez and his partner José Polo opened Atrio in 1986, overseeing its eventual transformation from a bourgeois French-style joint in an ugly downtown block to a hyper-chic restaurant-with-rooms in an old-town palacio. The accolades for Atrio’s stunning redesign by architects Tuñón + Mansilla, to house José Polo’s immense wine list (rated best in the world by the Wine Spectator for several years running), and for the rooms above the restaurant (doubles from €280 room-only), hung with original artworks by Tàpies and Warhol, have been unceasing.

But the food’s the thing (tasting menu €129). Inspired by the simple truths of extremeño cooking, Perez and Polo have won two Michelin stars by creating the region’s pre-eminent alta cocina, arguably doing more for the image of their hometown than any number of tourist campaigns.

When it comes to selling itself, Cáceres has always been a little lukewarm. But in its brave new role as Spanish gastro-capital, it seems at last to be turning up the heat.

Paul Richardson is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain (Bloomsbury, £7.99)

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk


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