In Cáceres with José Pizarro
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. I was shadowing the popular chef over a whirlwind weekend to discover his secret haunts in Cáceres, a magnificent World Heritage city and which was holding the title of Spain's Gastronomic Capital in 2015. 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.
By Fiona Dunlop
- 1 A FIRST TAPEO
- 2 EXTREMADURAN DELI DELICACIES
- 3 THE BELLS TOLL
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 Cacharrería (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 carrillada, 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, 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, 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
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, 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. 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.
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