Delicious Discoveries in the Heart of Spain
My sister and I arrived in Castellón, our shoes still wet from a rainy walking tour of Santiago de Compostela the day before. We’d traveled overnight via a series of buses from the very opposite side of Spain to escape gloomy weather in the northwest province of Galicia. Thoughts of sunshine and paella propelled us through the 17-hour journey that led us to the province of Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
We were on a quest for the ‘real Spain’ and an authentic rural experience. Castellón, our final stop and a rather industrial city, at first glance did not appear to be that. Things turned around quickly, however, the moment we met our Spanish host who whisked us away toward the rugged mountainous interior of Maestrazgo.
“Welcome to Aldearoqueta!” he exclaimed as he handed us each a fresh red rose. The words rolled out beautifully, as did the scenery of the Spanish countryside while we whizzed past olive groves and almond trees, the main agricultural staples of the region.
At Aldearoqueta, a rural retreat in the heart of Spain’s little traveled but vastly interesting Maestrazgo region, we enjoyed three unforgettable days of the best of everything – outstanding food and wine, an historical-cultural tour of medieval cities, tranquility in nature at our ‘little hamlet,’ and genuine hospitality that is rare to come by in a hotel setting.
Dining at Aldearoqueta: a celebration of seasonality and tradition
At Aldearoqueta, fresh local products are incorporated into dishes that are aesthetically pleasing and exquisitely tasteful. The talented chef, a native of Maestrazgo who has been with the hotel since day one, makes each dish special with her culinary creativity, deep knowledge of local ingredients, and technical expertise.
Nearly everything, it seems, is locally produced or obtained, from the olive oil, to the cheeses, to the fresh meat, game, fish, and wine. Quite frankly, we were spoiled rotten three times a day during our stay. Upon arrival at the hotel, we had just enough time to drop our bags and gush over the view from the terrace before being invited to a lunch of mountain rice in the dining room. This was accompanied by delicious local wine and, for dessert, a delicate tart with fresh creamy goat cheese from nearby Catí. We swore it was one of the best desserts we’d ever had, yet somehow each meal and subsequent glass of wine over the next few days surpassed the last.
Breakfast at Aldearoqueta is a simple yet wholly satisfying affair. A selection of four to five types of cheeses and cured meats from the region are served along with fresh bread, local honey, and jam, and luscious artisanal yogurt. The seasonal offerings also included a gleaming pitcher of fresh squeezed Valencian orange juice and ruby red cherries ripe from the tree.
For lunch and dinner, the chef prepares herb and pepper infused olive oils, creative salads with items such as foie gras or caramelized goat cheese and delicate lettuces plucked from her home garden, as well as an enticing dessert menu which includes ice creams of yerba buena (a mountain herb reminiscent of mint), honey, and lavender. We were never served the same thing twice, and we valiantly made our way through every one of the seven dessert offerings.
For the main course, we enjoyed moist dorade (Mediterranean sea bream), delicate roasted rabbit, perfectly tender Ibérico ham, and a variety of simply prepared seasonal vegetables. The accompanying wines were some of the best I’ve had – typically a dark red wine that bodes well for the earthy local cuisine.
Regional wines to be savored
Aldearoqueta serves carefully selected wines from local producers. Odisea, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Tempranillo, is excellent. It is produced by Di Vinos & Vinas, a small winery in Segorbia, Castellón, whose owners create soulful wines in the spirit of reviving the important enological heritage of the land.
Mr. Vicente Flors is another skilled local winemaker. After savoring his wine over dinner at Aldearoqueta we were fortunate to visit his small family winery Bodega Vicente Flors in Castellón. The property contains 70-year-old vines, a centuries old “stomping room,” an old wooden press, and other antique harvesting tools, and a cellar where wine is aged in French and American oak barrels.
Flor de Clotàs is made from 100% Tempranillo, the same variety used in Spain’s famous Rioja wine, and tastes distinctly of the fruit it is derived from “No hay transformación!” we were told as we sampled the wine at Vicente’s dining room table, indicating a difference between this and say, his other wine, Clotàs, which takes on the flavor of the oak barrel it is aged in. Clotàs is Vicente’s signature wine. It is less fruity than the Flor de Clotàs, a bit more refined, and tastes of vanilla, forest fruits, and subtle spices. We also tasted a sample straight from the barrel of the latest wine, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), which is currently being bottled and will soon be available in limited quantities.
Excursions and Activities
There is plenty to do in the area and much to be explored. Here are a few great ideas:
Queen of Truffles
Hunt for truffles at a local plantation. Spain produces nearly 30-40 % of the world’s truffles, the country’s first documented plantation having been established here in Maestrazgo in the 1960s. Queen of Truffles offers guided hunting excursions and educational tours. You may also purchase some of their gourmet products at Aldearoqueta. Truffle season is from November to January and from May to September.
Camino de las Eras, 40
46470 Catarroja, Valencia, España
+ 34 961 11 49 24
Quesos de Catí
Visit the Quesos de Catí cheese factory for an educational tour or a tasty sampling of artisan cheeses. This cooperative represents approximately five local farmers, producing some of Spain’s best goat and sheep milk cheeses.
C/ Hospital, s/n 12513
+ 34 964 40 90 92
Bodega Vicente Flors
At this family owned winery, visitors can enjoy an interesting tour of the old cellar and former grape stomping room. Tour the vineyard with its carefully tended vines of Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are 70 years old. Call in advance to arrange a visit.
Partida d’Encalvo, s/n
12118 Les Useres, Castellón
+ 34 671 618 851
Art Gallery Collblanc, Mariano Poyatos
Located 2 kilometers from Aldearoqueta, Gallery Collblanc showcases exhibits from artists in Valencia and across Spain. During the fall Mariano and a partner host pottery making classes in their workshop surrounded by olive groves.
Mas de Tomas, Partida Matella
+ 34 654 374 841
– Story and photos by Lindsay Milich, RFT Contributor
Want a great place to stay in Maestrazgo? Check out Lindsay’s review of Aldearoqueta Hotel, “the little hamlet.”