Sometimes even the best-made plans unspool alarmingly – but when they involve the gregarious chef, José Pizarro, that seems almost par for the course. Fiona Dunlop embarks on a voyage of Extremaduran discovery with the London-based chef.
Hyperactive, he moves at lightning speed between his three London restaurants, his home city of Cáceres and finally Talaván, his family village. Because despite living in London for the last 15 years, he remains ultra faithful to his roots. As Cáceres holds the title of Spain’s Gastronomic Capital 2015, I am shadowing the popular chef over a whirlwind weekend to discover his secret haunts in this magnificent World Heritage city.
Overlooking the empty, rolling plains of Extremadura, the old walled quarter exudes austerity and nobility. Spiked by sober Renaissance towers and sprinkled with cobbled plazas and patios, it is harmonious, compact, proud and without ostentation. You sense a distinctive history, one of fierce battles against the Moors and of returning conquistadors laden with New World plunder.
A first tapeo
I soon find out that a tapeo in Pizarro’s company is even more protracted than the Spanish norm, the pace set by his epicurean hedonism and sociability. On our first evening, as we meander through narrow streets flanked by red-ochre and grey granite walls, he visibly hums to the magic, pointing out details, coats of arms, spotlit rooftops and hidden bars. It feels like a series of illuminated theatre-sets and, yes, there is a cast too. Although I remember old Cáceres from a decade ago as being museum-like and deserted, times have changed and today back streets buzz with people spilling out of tapas bars, disappearing into walled garden bars for cocktails or slipping inside a mansion which has taken on a second life.
The king of the latter is La Cacharría (c/ Orellana 1), home to a striking fusion of the baroque and the modern which adapts well to the Cáceres zeitgeist. Dazzling chandeliers light hand-painted ceilings, carved Virgins cluster beside glass cases of butterflies, stuffed peacocks beside modern furniture. Juan Miguel Arroyo and Alberto Barroso are the masterminds, astutely combining the sale of quirky antiques with a sophisticated choice of tapas. Cue a José chat.
For a change of scene, we head downhill outside the old walls to the immense, arcaded Plaza Mayor and a small, modern tapas bar, Minerva (Plaza Mayor 26). “The first restaurant I ever worked in was right behind here – though it’s long gone now” he tells me. Here José wants me to taste a carpaccio of retinto, a special Extremaduran beef, in this case studded with blackberries and foie gras, as well as a classic carillada, or braised Iberian pork cheek.
He is also keen to revisit a landmark restaurant where he used to dine with his late father. This is El Figón de Eustaquio, (www. elfigondeeustaquio.com), founded in 1947 on the delightful Plaza de San Juan where palm-trees vie with tapas bars (or taperías as the Cacereños call them). Here too is my hotel, the Palacio de Oquendo (www.nh-collection.com/hotel/nh-collection-caceres-palacio-de-oquendo), another beautifully renovated 16th century mansion. José of course knows El Figón’s owner who conjures up a table for us outside where we settle into some excellent red Ribera del Guadiana, a plate of jamón Ibérico de bellota from the hills of Montánchez and an unusual salad of pickled partridge.
Extremaduran deli delicacies
“It used to be a very poor region” explains José. “People in my village ate cats and hunted foxes well into the 1960s – they even ate potato peel.” This reminds me of Luis Buñuel’s 1933 documentary, Land without Bread, filmed in Las Hurdes in the north of Extremadura, which so explicitly highlighted the lack of food, even bread, that it was banned. Today’s crisis may be distressingly evident in street beggars, but in the city’s many delicatessens you are confronted by a vast array of stylishly packaged local produce. At the better ones, there is also a salivating line-up of porcine products.
José remains loyal to local pimentón de la Vera (paprika), as well as olive oil like the Vieiru brand, lentils, Torta del Casar (sheep’s cheese so unctuous that you scoop it up with a spoon) and all dimensions of sausages and chorizo. Jars of pollen are another personal addiction, along with aromatic Extremaduran honey which he uses in salad dressings.
Next day I track down the chef’s favourite charcutería: Gabriel Mostazo, (www.mostazo.es) established in 1967 and an Aladdin’s Cave of extremeño products which extend to an excellent cava, which I later taste. The winery name, Via de la Plata, refers to the old pilgrimage and trade route that ran from Seville to Cáceres and north to the Way of St James, a clear symbol of the Catholic pulse of the region.
The bells toll
In fact the old quarter is still a hive of ecclesiastic activity, from several churches to five working convents. At one of the latter I follow José’s advice, practice my Ave María and buy a box of almond biscuits through a little turnstile. Santa María, the Gothic-Renaissance cathedral also wins Pizarro’s approval, and its soaring arches are superb, but he’s also stirred by the sound of its tolling bells. I climb a tight spiral staircase to the belfry where, unexpectedly, beyond the massive 15th century bronze bells, stunning views unfold over the old quarter as well as north over the empty plains. That, I am soon to learn, is the direction of Pizarro’s village, 30km away.
Before, however, I visit an art collection housed in a sober early 20th century mansion on calle Pizarro, (although his surname is rooted in the region, José assures me the iniquitous conquistador was not an ancestor). Here, at the Fundación Helga de Alvear (www.fundacionhelgadealvear.es), temporary thematic exhibitions may feature pieces from the art collection amassed by this gallerist since the late 1960s, beside shows of emerging artists or commissioned works. It’s an ambitious project on three beautifully refurbished floors, currently showing “….and there was time” (till January 31st 2016).
Time seems to stand still uphill from here beneath the Casa de las Veletas (now the excellent Museo de Cáceres). Other than the impressive walls themselves, surprisingly little Roman and Muslim history has survived, but here is the exception: the multiple horseshoe arches of the underground aljibe (water cistern), an 11th century Almohad structure of recycled Roman columns standing in watery shadows. Go early to find yourself alone in this evocative setting.
To Talaván for tench
At the age of 44, José Pizarro has already won a string of national awards, but this particular weekend sees him presented with la tenca de oro (the golden tench) in the village where he grew up. If like me you’ve never heard of tench, think carp, it’s close. This fish lives in the Almonte, a tributary of the Tejo river which runs close to José’s village, Talaván, so making the perfect excuse for an annual fiesta in its honour as well as, this year, in that of José.
In true Spanish style the village population of 900 has tripled, brass bands are out in force, food (yes, tench) sizzles and drinks flow freely. On the main square I enter José’s family house to be welcomed by the extended family gathered for the occasion, which includes his two older siblings and a flock of nephews, nieces and cousins. I am entranced to meet his doughty mother, Isabel, at 82 as sharp-eyed as they come, who regales me with stories of young José. “Oh he was always running around the countryside chasing birds and crickets, or in the village on his bike. He eats a lot but he’s very slim – look at him!” Her pride and affection are clear.
Isabel reiterates what José has already told me, that he never spent much time in the kitchen. “As a boy in Extremadura I wasn’t allowed there. I was a bit naughty in fact. My father’s mother, Faustina, was a real cook – that was the only thing she ever did. Here in my mother’s house you wake up and the house smells of churros or overcooked lentils!” Later Isabel recounts in detail her three main dishes: cocido (pork cuts, vegetable and chickpea stew); cabrito (kid goat with dried red pepper and white wine) and roast marinated lamb. She certainly knows her cooking, as do many of her offspring and neighbours who pile in with dishes for the party.
Food is omnipresent in this large house from the kitchen to an attic room packed with dried red peppers, tables of tomatoes and giant squash. Outside on a little roof terrace with panoramic views, José announces “That’s the property I’d like to own” pointing out a farmhouse crowning a distant hilltop. He has his work cut out, as the previous night he described his dream of converting a house in the old quarter of Cáceres. Stay with us José – London needs you!
The Virgin’s river
Before the ceremony, a group of us drive a short distance to the Sanctuario de la Virgen del Rio where Talaván’s patron saint is housed in a riverside hermitage. José is so attached to her as a symbol of his village that her image even adorns his tins of paprika in London. Today, although her statue has been carried to the village for the fiesta, we still enjoy the moodily beautiful site, with soft evening light fading over the slate hills and river. “I love this place” muses José.
Meanwhile, back in Talaván, every step taken by the prodigal son brings congratulations plus the essential double beso and a chat fuelled by his charismatic warmth. Late in the evening, the official ceremony finally allows him to publicly express his deep attachment to his origins, the village and its inhabitants in a concise, emotional speech. Rapturous applause and cheers leave him beaming and visibly moved – before he heads off to celebrate long into the night. Here’s a man who not only masters cooking and running a demanding business, but who seriously knows how to party.
Atrio: the peak of gastronomic Cáceres
José’s virgins don’t end at Talaván, because next day, in Cáceres, I am whisked to a hilltop just east of town to see the Sanctuario de la Virgen de la Montaña, an exquisite little baroque chapel, home to a sweet-looking statue encased in a riot of gold-leaf and cherubs. Outside we admire an expansive urban panorama against a backdrop of the plateau, breathe in the hot, dry air then head back downtown.
Religion and art are all very well for the spirit, but it is lunchtime and gastronomy calls – loudly. The time has come to enter Cáceres’ gourmet temple, the hotel-restaurant Atrio (http://restauranteatrio.com) situated at the highest point of the old quarter. The palacio, spectacularly converted in 2010 by the architects Tuñon + Mansilla, ecompasses 14 guest-rooms, roof-top pools, choice contemporary art (Sean Scully, Andy Warhol, Tapiés for starters) and a leafy patio. However the focus is on one key element – the restaurant and its award-winning wine-cellar, one of the world’s best.
José is greeted warmly by the visionary owners, José Polo, the manager, and Toño Pérez, the chef who has garnered two Michelin stars. Polo’s baby is the wine cellar, its circular racks squeezing in some 35,000 bottles of unrivalled quality. The oldest, an 1806 Château Yquem, is just one of 78 Yquems, beside a heart-stopping range of Pomerol, Château Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion and, closer to home, Vega Sicilia and Gonzalez-Byass.
After our tour of the bodega led by the charming, pixie-like sommelier, José Luis Paniagua, who turns out to be an old school chum of Pizarro (more besos) we finally sit at a circular table with José’s partner, Peter, to embark in conquistador style on a voyage of gastro-discovery. From turnip and herring ravioli in apple and cucumber jus to an ink brioche of Iberian pig’s ear or a risotto incorporating shitake reduction with white truffle, it is all exquisite.
15 heavenly dishes later, we stagger upstairs to the roof terrace to collapse on sofas beneath a cerulean sky, watch flocks of small crows ebb and flow around San Mateo’s bell-tower, contemplate the distant plains, feel the remoteness and slowly experience the light morph into gold. “One hour here really means one hour” says José, “Unlike in London, here you have time.” At last it seems José Pizarro has slowed down.
Caceres is best reached by road from either Seville (2 1/2 hours directly by motorway) or from Madrid (over 3 hrs, by motorway to Trujillo, then N521 to Caceres). Ryanair, Easyjet and BA all fly from the UK to Seville, and numerous airlines to Madrid.
Published in association with SPN: the go-to digital resource for all-things Spain, penned by food & travel writer and Spain specialist, Fiona Dunlop