surinenglish

An epicurean escapade

Andrew Forbes on a vineyard tour in a 4x4 vehicle.
Andrew Forbes on a vineyard tour in a 4x4 vehicle. / A. FORBES
  • A road trip through the gastronomic heartland of Spain

Seville's northern ring road is one of the few displeasures of driving in Andalucía. The seemingly unending forest of ugly roadside billboards, towering over shabby industrial units are an eyesore. And the traffic is intense.

Yet soon enough I passed beyond the heavy haulage lorries and city traffic and joined the relatively peaceful Autovía Ruta de la Plata. With the cruise control set, and my Spotify playlist on, I felt like the road trip had finally begun.

This is one of my favourite motorway trips, following more or less the Roman road - the Silver Route - that originally ran the near 1,000 kilometres from the port of Gijón in Asturias and the mines of northern Spain, down through Extremadura and Castilla y León, to Andalucía's capital, and onwards to the Mediterranean.

Devouring Spain

Going north from Seville, the route takes travellers through Extremadura on a relaxing drive through oak-forested countryside and rolling pastures and onto some of Spain's most remarkable historical cities.

Exploring just a part of this ancient trading route makes for a fascinating and rewarding break in Spain, combining history, spectacular natural scenery, culture, and the opportunity to indulge in superb food and wine.

The options here for curating your personalised road trip are compelling and numerous. Once past Zafra, it's not long before one reaches Mérida, the capital of Extremadura. This UNESCO city is quite extraordinary, full of World Heritage, like the Ancient Roman Theatre, the Temple of Diana and The Acueducto de los Milagros.

Gastronomic Cáceres

This time my first stop is to be Cáceres - one of Spain's most remarkable medieval cities.

It's not close to an international airport (Madrid is three hours away by car) so this city still feels part of the 'hidden Spain'- authentic, and captivating.

In 2016 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in recognition of its preserved medieval architecture. So, for the modern-day visitor to the old town quarter, this means a fairytale-like experience, strolling within an ancient walled city of spires, towers, churches and historic palaces evocative of the golden era of Cáceres. The draw these days, though, is not just the history: it's the food too.

In 2015 Cáceres was recognised as Gastronomic Capital of Spain. Locals suggest it is home to 'original' fusion cuisine. Regional recipes are built on a rich cultural legacy left over centuries by the Romans, Arabs and Jews.

The city lies within a region of Spain renowned for unique produce including artisan cheeses, local red wines, organic olive oil, forest honey, high-quality cured ham, peppers and, of course, one of Spain's favourite spices, pimentón.

The city's main plaza is the place for an early evening stroll, discovering tapas bars where local ingredients are brought to the table in tasty country-style dishes. Try the 'caldereta extremeña', made with local lamb (or goat) with plenty of 'pimentón de la Vera'. The regional paprika also defines the local sausage too, called 'patatera' which is a little like chorizo.

Taking Cáceres cuisine to a whole different level is Restaurante Atrio. Two-star Michelin chef Toño Pérez has created gastronomic menus that alone are worth the five-hour drive from Malaga.

The ceviche, served in a bowl of passion fruit-infused ice is a delight on a warm summer's eveningwhile the scarlet-coloured carabinero cardinal prawn, paired with pork might sound a surprising combination but one that's superb.

Dishes are paired with wines from José Polo's wine cellar; a subterranean treasure trove of national and international vintages.

A culinary sanctuary

Continuing north, into the region of Castilla y León is to discover more of Spain's living history. There's the opportunity to visit cities like Segovia, evocative of the country's rich heritage of castles and kingdoms.

My next stop was Abadía Retuerta, close to the elegant and sophisticated regional capital of Valladolid - a gateway to Spain's winelands on the banks of the River Duero. This region, recognised for its creative chefs, award-winning winemakers and enchanting historic towns, is certainly worthy of the attention of the gourmet traveller.

Abadía Retuerta is a food and wine resort that likes to keep things local when it comes to the gastronomy. The menu in the abbey's Michelin-star Refectorio restaurant is most certainly more sophisticated than that offered to the monks who also dined here centuries before. But produce is still very much Castilian; foods like handmade cheeses, foraged mushrooms from the pine forests, chicory from the kitchen garden and game including partridge, venison and wild boar.

A morning spent exploring the estate's vineyards of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot is rewarded with an 'aperitivo campero'. Taking refuge from the heat of the sun, in the shade of an ancient oak, one comes across a picnic table set with cheese, cured meats, rustic bread and, of course, a chilled bottle of Abadía Retuerta award-winning wine. A magical experience - one of those times when simple food tastes extraordinary.

The greatest luxury can often be simplicity. Visit a local village or hamlet and you'll find ventas serving tasty specialities like white asparagus and milk-fed lamb called 'cordero lechal'. The meat is prepared on vine wood skewers (called 'sarmiento', which are taken from wine estates like Abadía Retuerta) and cooked on a wood-burning grill. It's a dish not to be missed.

Tilting at windmills

Returning home to the south you can always take the Autovía Ruta de la Plata again. But in the spirit of road trip discovery, I took the Autovía de los Viñedos, through Castilla-La Mancha, and some of the biggest wine growing areas in Europe, onto to the emblematic windmills at Consuegra.

Arriving at the Cerro Calderico ridge, above the town of Consuegra (in Toledo province) you can see probably the most famous of the La Mancha mills.

In total there are 12 remaining, each named after a character from Cervantes' novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

From the ridge you have a 360-degree view over the Manchego plains, where the exceptional 'Azafranes Manchegos' is grown and harvested - said to be the best saffron in the world.

Cordoba

It's then a four-hour drive back Malaga but a small detour to Cordoba makes for a monumental last stop on this road trip of UNESCO cities and memorable food and wine.

After all, Cordoba is Spain's only city with four UNESCO World Heritage protections. These are the Mosque-Cathedral, the historical old town, the Fiesta de los Patios and, most recently, the Medina Azahara.

Cordoba's food scene still holds a few surprises; some of which are the wines from Montilla and Moriles. These Denomination of Origin vineyards are fragmented among numerous small producers of little-known sherries. Cordoba is one of the few cities where you can find them in bars. Try a delicate 'fino' or a fragrant 'amontillado' (said to be named after Montilla). You'll find 'palo cortado' and 'oloroso' wines too. Few are distributed nationally or exported so take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy them in Cordoba.

It's a fine way to toast the end of a delicious road trip, shaped by a love of Spain, her food and of course her wine.