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 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 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.
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