Cáceres

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 TO TALAVÁN FOR TENCH
  • 2 THE VIRGIN'S RIVER

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.

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.


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