I joined a long line of visitors to this corner of Southwest Spain called Caceres: Romans claimed the site in 34 B.C., followed by Moors, who protected the city with brawny stone walls spliced by towers (20 still standing) until a skirmish with Christians in 1229 ushered in the Catholic monarchs’ glory days. Their severe stone churches and princely mansions still marshal a tangle of cobblestone lanes beneath gargoyles grimacing from rooftops and ornate family crests above palatial doors—a town as unchanged since Medieval times as the cloistered nuns who sell their sweet confections behind turntables, shielded from sight and sound.
Those secret sweets are part of the lure of Caceres today. The tiny town claims top honors as Spain’sCapital of Gastronomy, and it doesn’t take long endorse that title, starting with the polished fare of the Parador de Caceres, a hotel formed by the union of two Medieval palaces celebrating regional food and wine in its kitchen.
Jamon, jamon, jamon
Thanks to its menu, just call me The Ham Whisperer. I was instantly seduced by the near-transparent slices of air-dried Iberian flesh claiming pride of place on the lavish breakfast buffet. From then on, it was nonstop jamon, climaxing in a final ultra-ham dinner: jamon-wrapped melon; jamon on toast; scrambled eggs with you-know-what, as well as croquettes, ravioli and quiche starring the hallowed meat. In between, the kitchen devised a puff of eggplant paired with pork gratin, coiffed with slender breadsticks; skewers of local lamb on couscous; turbot with garlic and tomato; a creamy soup glorified by truffles and cod fritters; and pork (ham’s close cousin) crowned with a sumptuous grilled acorn/Casar cheese sauce brightened by the region’s signature toasted paprika.
At the luxe Palacio de Golfines, Iberian ham and supple Torta del Casar cheese again led the menu, followed by another nod to tradition: pork with smoked paprika, sauced with more of our new favorite cheese, and migas (breadcrumbs sanctified with garlic, lush olive oil, and more smoked paprika).
In contrast, chef/patron Eustaquio Blanco, in his contempo new restaurant, has discarded formality in order to outlast the Recession by offering “goodly portions made with good products and served with lots of love.” Edible evidence: an ultra-creamy pate of partridge adorned with dried fruit; carpaccio of pork (clearly the creature most venerated in this region); heart-stopping Torta de Casar, queen of local cheeses. Oh, and eggs scrambled with asparagus and langoustines—and those are just the starters. We ate ourselves silly, right through to a finale of drunken cake with helado (ice cream).
Amid the tapas bars studding the Plaza Major stands the more ambitious Cayena Kitchen Club, where bantering chef Ivan Hernandez offers demo classes of a menu we’ll then enjoy at the adjoining café. He calls it “peasant cuisine”—hearty farmyard provender. I call it heaven: cold gazpacho-like soup centered with chilly cantaloupe granite, followed by caldereta, a lusty stew of the region’s famed smoked paprika, sweet peppers and garlic (“garlic in cooking oil is the best smell in the kitchen”) seasoning lamb shanks married with twice-cooked potatoes. Coquillos, our dessert, favors wafers of deepfried pastry arising from ice cream in a honey drizzle. (Class and lunch 50 euros; reserve at www.cayenakitchenclub.com ).
Local Product, Exotic Influences
A prime reason for the city’s gastronomic awards is its superior local products: cheeses, olive oil, Iberian ham, honey, wines, paprika and cherries. Another is its rich cupboard of influences: Moors, Jews, the cuisine of neighboring Portugal, convent baking, farm fare and Spanish flair, from traditional dishes to the cutting-edge brilliance.
At Atrio, a 14-room hotel carved from another former palace and home to its Michelin-two star restaurant run by Jose Polo and his husband, chef Tono Perez, create stunning dishes. Atrio also boasts what’s hailed as the best wine cellar in all Spain: 3,400 labels, including 50 astronomically-priced Mouton Rothschilds and a whole room of Chateau d’Yquem, perhaps the most-coveted wine in the world.
But we came for the food. Atrio’s 13-course tasting menu segues from Fake Peas (crispy pork and “peas” of wasabi, butter and cream) to Bloody Mary (tomato and green onion ice cream); from cutting edge risotto with paper-thin mushrooms and translucent cylinder of pigs’ trotters to traditional roasted suckling goat; from our beloved Torta del Casar with quince jam and spicy oil to “The Cherry Which Is Not a Cherry” (a “fruit of pasta, gelatin and liqueur”) with “pit” of cinnamon-covered white chocolate. Plus, there was an unannounced Course 14, a galaxy of homemade candies. Atrio’s sommelier par excellence chose the 2013 Riazzo, a tempranillo from the Riviera del Duero, to accompany our three-hour extravaganza.
Pursuing our love of Torta to its source, we motored through the countryside to the Museo del Queso (Cheese Museum), which was housed in a humble shepherd’s home in a town named Casar de Caceres. Then we toured one of its famed cheese plants, Quesos del Casar, S.L., which transforms the milk of grass-fed sheep into rounds of ultra-creamy, slightly citric taste—spoon, then swoon.
Enroute back to town, we restored body and spirit at the Palacio de Arenales Spa Hotel, via more Iberian ham croquettes (yes!); a genius, wild-card salad of pickled quail and cashews; then pork roast—this time sauced with local honey, cinnamon and lemons.
A stroll through Caceres reveals a feast for art lovers as well, from its grand cathedral, sporting a majestic carved wooden altarpiece and Black Christ, writhing in a side chapel for over 500 years, to the synagogue-turned-chapel of St. Anthony when Jews were forced from Spain, and a 12th-century Arab home, now a museum. The futuristic Visual Arts Center, founded by Helga de Alvear in 2010, is a showcase of that connoisseur’s eye for provocative contemporary works as witness to our times. The tiny 7 Jardines combines its pleasures: coffeehouse, art gallery, live music, poetry readings, and palm trees rising from the grassy patio.