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2000s Archive

A World Away

continued (page 2 of 3)

And to eat. Four centuries after its glory days, the monastery retains a reputation for good cooking, thanks largely to the efforts of a 77-year-old monk named Juan Barrera. Although he has now retired, Fray Juan ran the hospedería— the public inn and restaurant that the friars operate off the side of the main cloister—for more than 40 years. When he was a young man, his order sent him to a hotel in Seville to learn the business, and when he came back, he set about turning Guadalupe’s hospedería into one of the region’s great treasures. “The first time I made stuffed partridge, it was 1966, and I prepared it for Juan Carlos—he was still prince,” Fray Juan recalls. “The king and queen, ministers, presidents—I cooked for them all.”

What he cooked drew heavily from Extremadura’s peasant repertoire but with the trace of cross-cultural exchange that is the hallmark of monastery cuisine. You can taste it in the nutmeg Fray Juan uses to season his meatballs and in the wines—not just Sherry but Cognac, too—that go into the cream sauce for his baked hake. Even his migas, the most humble of Extremaduran dishes (bread crumbs slowly sautéed with olive, garlic, and bits of chorizo), come dressed up with chunks of pork rib. He has passed these subtleties on to Fray Javier and the other monks who continue his work at the inn, though they now serve meals in a shiny dining room designed by Rafael Moneo, the architect responsible for the Prado’s new wing.

“Religion and cooking go together,” Fray Juan says of his twin vocations. “They both provide sustenance.” The formula certainly worked for Charles V. In 1556, dejected, gouty, and having just abdicated the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles retreated to the Hieronymite monastery at Yuste, in northern Extremadura. There, in a bucolic tuck in the Vera Valley, the sedan chair used to carry the emperor over the mountains is still on display. Charles went to Yuste to die in ascetic spirituality, but his was hardly an abstemious end. Records show he required daily slices of the region’s excellent ham and enjoyed numerous rounds of the amber-colored beer the monks once produced. He would have been there in time to delight in the friars’ greatest invention: pimentón, the brick-red paprika that gives so much of Spanish cooking its flavor.

“Columbus brought back the first peppers and gave them to the monks, so we have them to thank,” says Ramón Mirón, whose family has been making pimentón for nearly 100 years. At the Santo Domingo mill, in Aldeanueva del Camino, he shows me the peppers that have arrived, already dried and smoked over wood fires by the farmers who grow them in the Vera Valley, just over the mountains, to be ground into three kinds of powder—sweet, bitter­sweet, and hot. It’s a dirty job. When Mirón introduces me to Alonso Varela, his head miller, I take in only the crinkly eyes and orange jumpsuit. But as I go to shake his hand, I notice that his flesh and hair are the same color as his outfit. It’s like coming face to face with an Oompa Loompa.

The Hieronymites also had a monastery in Murcia, and that Mediterranean region continues to make its own version of pimentón. “But in Murcia, they dry the peppers in the sun instead of over a fire,” says Mirón. “Their pimentón might be a prettier color, but it doesn’t have the smoky flavor that ours does.” Or the prestige: Pimentón from the Vera Valley is widely considered the country’s best.

That’s the irony of Extremadura, a region that has so few resources and yet produces some of the most delicious, most emblematic foods of Spain. In the area around Jerte, the great mystery is the microclimate, miraculously perfect for growing cherries. Planted in neat terraces carved into the sloping mountainside, the trees are so gorgeous, and their fruit so delectable, that nearly all local commerce revolves around them, and jams and liqueurs made from the fruit are on sale even in the valley’s hardware stores. Cabezuela’s main tourist attraction is a cherry museum, which lays out, in rather painstaking detail, the harvesting process. In the town of Jerte itself, the cozy hotel Tunel del Hada offers “cherry therapy” at its spa, with cherry skins and stones ground up and added to everything from bath salts to massage oils.

It’s almost animistic, the power the extremeños invest in their native products. Another example: the raw sheep’s-milk cheese called Torta del Casar, possibly the most coveted (and expensive) food in all of Spain. It’s a sexy cheese, intensely aromatic and so creamy that eating it requires cutting a circle through the top rind and scooping out the liquid inside with a spoon. More than anything, though, Torta’s mystique is derived in part from its origins. Since the dried flowers of a local thistle, not rennet, are used as a coagulant, rumor had it that the recipe was first devised by medieval Jews seeking a way to make kosher cheese, or perhaps by exceptionally resourceful shepherds. For centuries, Torta was made only in the spring months, when it was too damp for regular cheese to harden properly. Although production has been mostly industrialized around Casar de Cáceres, the small town just north of Cáceres itself, mechanization can’t wholly erase the element of chance that goes into the crafting of something so temperamental. Ricardo Regalado heads the board that awards cer­tification to Tortas del Casar, and he’s worked as a cheesemaker since the 1970s. But walk­ing past his sheep farm’s birthing stable, he still shrugs at the magic of it: “A Torta is a living thing,” he says, as if that somehow explains something.

Toño Pérez and I are seated on the plush sofa in his restaurant’s lounge, surrounded by polished silver vases and thick art books and potted azaleas that stand out against the blood-red walls. With his partner, José Polo, Pérez opened Atrio in 1986. Although neither had any experience at the time, their restaurant is now ranked among Spain’s best. Yet for all the acclaim, Pérez defines his ambitions in distinctly local terms. “So many of our clients are people from Cáceres. We’re creating this gastronomic project together with them, teaching them to eat, educating them about food.”

Although his decidedly modern cooking employs techniques (potato foam accompanying the octopus) and ingredients (crayfish with the pigs’ feet) from the rest of Spain, he sees his food as intimately tied to the region where he grew up. “Torta del Casar is like taking a bite of the fields,” he says. “It defines Extremadura.” A few minutes later, talking about pimentón, he says the same thing, then repeats it about wild mushrooms and game. Everything edible defines Extremadura. Listening to his words, I finally get it: Here, local products don’t simply engender pride. They evoke identity. What you grow and make—succulent cherries, smoky spices, complex cheeses—is who you are.

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