I was so hungry, I didn’t even wait to take a seat before I took a bite, breaking through the crispy puff pastry revealing the tender, spiced meat pie filling. I had arrived in Murcia with a voracious appetite, after the drive from Malaga. My first stop was the city’s former post office, next door to my hotel. It’s an elegant period building given a new lease of life as a gastro market with food stalls, bars, and elegant, light-filled dining spaces.
That’s where the ‘pastel del carne’ immediately caught my eye, it’s pretty swirled pasty top promising a satisfying crunch and a hearty filling. This humble meat pie is a regional favourite, one of the countless tastes that the region of Murcia promises that will surprise and satisfy visitors.
This was how my foodie journey of robust flavours and homespun recipes began in this ‘hidden’ corner of Spain. A journey rich in gastronomic storytelling that brought to life the history and culture of this often overlooked region of Spain. Yet now, as Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy for 2021, the region of Murcia is enthusiastically captivating visitors with tales of a 1001 flavours.
Calasparra, in the northwest of the region, offers landscapes unique in Spain. Here you can stroll along the banks of ancient irrigation channels that continue to feed a constant flow of fresh water from the Segura river across verdant rice fields, nurturing one of the most prized ingredients in the Murcia kitchen. The award-winning rice is used in paellas and caldosas of superb quality, found even in the smallest of village bars.
If you’re drawn more to the Costa Cálida, the area’s Mediterranean coast, then Cartagena will captivate you with its grand architecture and remarkable Roman sites. Yet I promise it will be lunchtime and dinner that might well be the most memorable times of day, with the chance to enjoy fresh bluefin tuna (throughout the year, thanks to local pioneering companies that keep tunas in the Mediterranean), delicate seabream and fresh salads that celebrate the best of Murcia produce.
The regional capital is for those that desire their holiday dining with a little more sparkle. Murcia city, with its magnificent cathedral, now has a cluster of Michelin star restaurants that are temples for foodie pilgrims.
Chef Pablo González, who has been awarded 2 Michelin stars for his Cabaña Buenavista restaurant, had to shutter his business at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a heartbreak, yet also, an opportunity. He spoke animatedly as he offered a rare behind-the-scenes experience at his restaurant, a visit to his gastronomic research laboratory kitchen. Here Chef González explained that during those unnerving months in 2020 he and his team worked in the lab to research new dishes, undistracted by the business pressures of operating an award-winning restaurant.
For guests at Cabaña Buenavista restaurant the result is now a privileged opportunity to experience extraordinary storytelling, where each dish takes you through the region of Murcia, from the aromas and flavours of its pine-clad mountains of the Sierra Espuña across the fertile plains of rice, orchards, and vegetable fields, to the Mar Menor and beyond to the Mediterranean.
The wineries of the Murcia region are upping their game too, focusing on a boutique approach to production, creating sophisticated, bold and innovative red wines and fresh whites. They go a treat with the fresh fish, seafood and robust traditional dishes of the region.
So don’t let this week’s autumn equinox tell you that summer is over. Now’s a tempting time to experience Murcia’s sunny and dry climate, for an appetising autumn escapade where the sun still feels warm, and the evenings balmy enough for terrace dining.
Here are some suggestions on what to ask for when you are in Murcia and on the Costa Cálida. You will not have time to get bored.
Russian salad, made from eggs, potato and tuna mixed with olive oil mayonnaise is a Murcia speciality. Here it is truly gourmet, served on a crispy ‘rosquilla’ cracker, in the shape of a loop, and topped with anchovy.
If you see ‘Cordero Segureño’ on the menu, then my advice is to order it. This regional breed offers a very tender dish, especially when slow-roasted.
Mediterranean Spain is the place for rice dishes, and in Murcia the local rice grown in Calasparra has been recognised as amongst the finest in the world.
It is often prepared to a traditional fisherman’s recipe, using a flavoursome stock made from rock fish, local, aromatic ‘ñora’ red peppers, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Once the rice has absorbed the liquid, it is served with aioli.
Almost every menu is sure to include ‘ensalada murciana’, a favourite side dish or tapa made with local peeled tomatoes, large spring onions, tuna, and Murcia cuquillo black olives.
Chato is a rare breed pig from Murcia. The dry-cured loin is particularly good.
Murcia meat pie
This small, round ‘pastel del carne’ is the street-food of choice. They are so loved that the pies get their own day of celebration in the local Murcia spring feria! Spiced meat and chato chorizo are wrapped up in swirled, light puff pastry.
Murcia al vino cheese
This soft and creamy Murcia artisan goat cheese has designation of origin protection (PDO). Matured for 45 days, it is macerated in local red wine, giving the rind a distinctive colour and aroma. What can be better that cheese and wine?
Chances are you won’t find this treat anywhere else. Aromatic leaves from the region’s lemon trees are ‘wrapped’ in a batter of flour, sugar, eggs, milk, and yeast, and fried in olive oil. Once golden brown, they are removed, and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. But remember, don’t eat the leaf! It’s there to add essential oils to the crispy batter.
Fruit and veg
Long before Spain’s industrial farming of fruit and vegetables, Murcia was the country’s kitchen garden and orchard. Irrigated by the river Segura, these lands have long produced some of the most prized, PDO produce for gourmet chefs, from pears and peppers to rice.
Unique coffee from the ancient port city of Cartagena, a ‘café asiático’ is coffee mixed with sweet, condensed milk and the regional Licor 43 liqueur, finished with lemon rind, coffee beans and cinnamon on top.
There are said to be hundreds of wineries across Murcia’s three DO appellation regions of Yecla, Jumilla and Bullas, creating innovative new wines.
One of the most popular red wine grapes is Monestrell, and for white, expect Macabeo, Airen and Moscatel. Anyone is a good choice.