The walled city of Cuenca, and our first taste of Spain
The medieval city of Cuenca in the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain tumbles down the side of a mountain, one house atop another, all red-roofed and stone, with twisting cobbled streets, arched alleyways and walled flower beds connecting the various levels. The old town – famous for its casas colgadas (hanging houses), is sometimes called the “eagle’s nest,” perched high above, with the newer part of town sprawling outside the city walls below the Plaza Mayor with its 12-century Gothic cathedral, brightly painted houses with wrought iron balconies and potted geraniums, cafés and restaurants, family run markets, small sunny parks with old men walking old dogs, public art installations, and hardware stores where you can buy paella pans 3½ feet in diameter.
Six of us have arrived in Madrid on a night flight in early April. It’s a cool but sunny morning. We’ve been collected by our SpainOurWay.com hosts, Cheryl and Julio, driven the 2½ hours to Cuenca, and checked in at our 16th century monastery turned luxury hotel – el Parador de Cuenca – connected to the old town by the 100-foot span of the San Pablo Bridge over the Huécar River. Hungry, tired, and overwhelmed by the beauty of this ancient city, we’re now sitting in the restaurante San Juan off the Plaza Mayor anticipating our first meal together – coffee at the airport didn’t count.
I order sopa castellana, a rich, brothy soup loaded with garlic, paprika and locally-cured ham – a bit salty, but excellent. There is a basket of crusty bread, and a plateful of thick wedges of manchego (aged sheep’s cheese). A local red wine is served with a bottle of sparkling water to mix, in the lunchtime manner. Julio wants us to try everything, and orders numerous platos típicos (typical dishes) including ajo arriero, a creamy “mousse” made with potato, cod, garlic, olive oil and eggs to slather on the bread; morteruelo, an earthy paté consisting of pork liver, game meats (rabbit, partridge, perhaps quail), garlic, spices and breadcrumbs; and fried calamari (squid), crispy and tender and wonderful.
My soup is followed by zarajos: tender, young lamb intestines artfully twisted around grape vine twigs and grilled, served with garlic butter. The others enjoy paella with chicken and rabbit; spicy chorizo, and delicately sautéed fish with rice and peas. No one wants to sample my lamb intestines, which is fine with me as I am savoring every bite of this succulent dish. We share flan for dessert and afterwards – hours later – raise a glass of Resoli, the local moonshine brewed with cinnamon, orange and lemon peel, coffee, cloves and anise: To new friends. To our good fortune of eating together in Spain. Salud!
Next day we awake to cloudy skies and soft rain and linger over a spectacular breakfast in the Parador’s refectory. Eggs, bacon, “home-cured” salami and ham, cheeses, yogurt, jams and conserves, vegetable frittatas, buns both sweet and savory, almond cake, fresh orange juice and endless cups of hot, strong, magnificent coffee.
Out in the courtyard, our chariot awaits, and Julio takes us through farmlands of olive groves, apricot orchards, nut trees and sheep grazing on rolling pastures. We see grapevines just beginning to send out tendrils along horizontal wires, hillsides of eucalyptus for lumber and great stands of pine trees, tapped for their pitch used in the turpentine business – everything in neat rows separated by grey stone walls. It is still drizzling, and mists are stirring in the valleys. We ask if there is a winery nearby where we might spend an hour on this rainy afternoon sampling some local wines. Julio pulls out his phone and finds el Meson del Vino.
In no time we are in the small city of Requena, its main street lined with old gnarled poplar trees, their young leaves shimmering gold in the sunlight streaming suddenly through a break in the clouds, magically turning the whole place golden for an instant. We easily find el Meson del Vino – not a winery but a family restaurant started in 1954 by the current owner’s father. Although it’s only been a few hours since breakfast, here we are; the menu sounds fabulous, and so we sit and have another 3-course “lunch” starting with a large and beautiful salad of tuna, olives, blanched asparagus, and the most succulent, flavorful tomato I’ve ever eaten. Baskets of bread. Sparkling water served in lavender colored cut-glass goblets and a lovely local wine from the tempranillo grape. Then tender buttery swordfish, roast potatoes, and sautéed zucchini. And then more wine, and flan and espresso. (My journal says, “I am now officially off my diet.”) The flan is exceptional.
We are stuffed and drowsy now on this drive through the misty countryside to Picanya – a neighborhood of Valencia – and it is here that the truth sinks in. This trip to Spain is really all about eating and drinking. The in-between-meal times will be full of vertigo-inducing panoramic views, poignant connections with both animals and humans, and an abundance of cathedrals, fishing villages and olive groves. But the tasting of the traditional dishes, the pleasure of eating together, and the discussion of “the best calamari/mussels/sheep’s cheese/sausages/flan, etc. you’ve ever had” becomes the favorite topic of conversation on this 12-day tour with Spain Our Way.
Author: Nancy Shaw