Interview with Heritage Cities chef: Mérida
Mérida is a place where visitors can enjoy the heartfelt way its local residents look back at the city’s rich history. It is a destination where you can see one of the most splendid Roman legacies in Spain, and where you can admire buildings and ruins from the Hispano-Visigoth, Moorish and low medieval Christian kingdoms.
Ramón Ureña. Head Chef at Velada Hoteles
Are there still vestiges of Roman gastronomy to be found in Mérida’s cuisine today?
Yes, although with time these recipes have gradually been adapted, reducing the amount of spices and saturated fats to give lighter, more Mediterranean-style and up-to-date dishes. The cuisine of Emerita Augusta (this was Mérida’s name under the Roman Empire) was one of the earliest examples of fusion cuisine, bringing together ingredients from almost all corners of Iberia (Spain at the time of Ancient Rome) and the rest of the Roman world. Our establishment’s philosophy is to recover recipes that have been lost over time, and to bring the up to date so as to strengthen one of the major attractions of our World Heritage Cities – “Gastro-tourism”.
We use recipes that Roman culture left behind in Spain, and especially in Mérida, varying them according to the time of year. A few of these would be: snails fattened with milk, Iberian cured ham with raisin bread, pork innards roasted in a bran crust (tripe stewed with trotters, chilli and wild mushrooms, covered with baked bran bread), lentils with chestnuts, roasted fresno wild mushrooms, boiled goose in white sauce, thistle ends and garum with Esparragalejo wine, Anguila meatballs with hydrogarum, and “puls”, the first food of ancient Rome: a paste of wheat flour and water, (we bring this up to date, in both sweet and savoury forms, like porridge), garum, a liquid obtained by pressing a range of fatty fish in barrels: salmon, eel, sardine, mackerel… with salt. Aromatic herbs are then added: anise, fennel, mint, basil, thyme, etc. Garum (fish sauce) is still used a great deal today in Vietnamese cuisine and can be bought bottled at oriental food shops. In Rome it was used to season all kinds of foods to enrich their flavour.
What other influences can be found in the culinary traditions of Mérida?
Mainly Portuguese and Moorish. Moorish tradition could be found for a long time on the banks of the Guadiana River, the Alcazaba fortress and some public baths. Portuguese influence is perhaps one of the most important, as can be seen dishes such as browned cod, pork with clams and coriander, soups and some typical desserts.
What are the most common ingredients in the city’s typical recipes?
The majority of main ingredients we use are locally and regionally sourced. We should make special mention, firstly, of Gata-Hurdes and Monterrubio olive oil – two very important designations of origin for the product. Others would be goat’s cheese and Serena tart, bread, rice, cod, Iberian meats (from cured ham to pork shoulder and fillet), almonds, tomatoes, vegetables, fruit, Vera paprika, lamb, Retinta beef…
Give us a recommendation of a dish that visitors should be sure to try when in Mérida.
The star dish at our restaurant is cod in “almodrote” – juicy sliced cod with a compôt of tomato, strawberry and pine nut/garlic mayonnaise. For the traditional full menu, you could start with a green bean salad and king prawns with fresh bacon. Next carpaccio of Iberian pork fillet with acorn mousse and Iberian ham oil. Other options are tomato and cherry soup with freshwater crab, and Alcántara-style quail breast with turnips and coconut milk. To finish, crystallised fresh fig and mint served over orange and orange blossom cream.
Are there any gastronomic events held in Mérida that are worth visiting?
We usually hold three Themed Events during the year. In February, cod and olive oil; in June, rice; and in October-November, game and wild mushrooms. At these events I should underline the value of produce from our region and traditional preparation with innovative touches.
This has its origins in “macarraca”, a very basic dish eaten at mid-morning on hot days, prepared out on the land, whether in cultivated fields or on grazing pastures. The people would take the ingredients with them: fresh water in a clay jug, olive oil, vinegar, salt and garlic, in oil bottles and salt cellars made of ox horn, and bread. This was wholemeal, made of hard wheat meaning it would keep for many days in canvas sacks. Preparation simply involved crushing the garlic with bread and plenty of olive oil in a “dornillo” – a bowl made of holm-oak wood. The vinegar, salt and water were then added… time to eat. Sometimes big chunks of bread (“sopones”) would be left in the mixture. It would be accompanied by a bunch of grapes or a branch of olives. Bear in mind that it was supposed to be refreshing while not too filling, as work had to be continued afterwards.
Later, part of the water was removed, leaving a light-coloured paste to which plenty of diced (never crushed) tomatoes, peppers and onion were added. This is today’s “Cojondongo”, which continues to fulfil its initial objective: to refresh. Seeing as it has plenty of vitamins, it is eaten on its own, usually as a starter before a main meal.
This is today’s “Cojondongo”, which continues to fulfil its initial objective: to refresh. Seeing as it has plenty of vitamins, it is eaten on its own, usually as a starter before a main meal.
Ramón Ureña was born in Talavera de la Reina (Toledo province). His first steps in the world of cooking took place in the company of master chefs in the La Cococha Restaurant in San Sebastián, the Casa Vasca and the Hotel Palace in Madrid. As a head chef he was in charge of gastronomy at Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville and at Hacienda de Benazuza, in Sanlúcar la Mayor (Seville province). He has been head chef at Velada Hoteles in Mérida for the last nine years. His culinary skills won him first prize in the Andalusia Gastronomy Championship (1998-99) and at the competition hosted by Taittinger Champagne in 1999. His training in nutrition and dietetics are clearly visible in his creations, in which he tries to bring both these concepts together with gastronomy. He enjoys working with rice (the high plains of Extremadura are Spain’s second rice-producing region), paprika, tarts, wild mushrooms and regional produce. Furthermore, he is a keen promoter of Gastro-tourism.
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