Culture: Eric Ripert’s Eating and Drinking Guide to Castilla-La Mancha
If Castilla La Mancha sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read the Spanish epic novel Don Quixote. Or perhaps you’ve heard of its provincial capital, Toledo, a walled city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, for those for whom this region in central Spain doesn’t ring a bell, it should.
Located about 30 minutes by high-speed train from Madrid, Toledo is a good starting point for exploring this agriculturally rich region, which happens to be home to 11 Michelin-starred restaurants. Behind the old city walls, the surrounding area is dotted with vineyards, creameries and olive groves, and through it runs the fish-filled Tagus River.
Recently, Michelin-starred Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City visited the area with Restaurants50Best (organiser of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World), to film a short documentary about the area. As a writer, I was invited to participate.
I’ve found that despite his good intentions, Chef Ripert’s culinary tendencies don’t actually veer all that far from high quality. It’s a blessing in this part of the world, where many of the most notable cuisines aren’t necessarily the fanciest. Naturally, there are plenty of those in the show as well.
Here are the highlights of the food and drinks served by Chef Ribert in Castilla-La Mancha.
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It turns out that Ribert is a big fan of manchego cheese. “We have manchego all the time,” he says. “If not in the morning, I eat it late at night. So, he was keen to see where Spain’s leading cheese was made.
To be legally called Manchego according to EU law, it must be produced in Castilla-La Mancha. One of the best places to see this process is Finca La Prudenciana, a family-owned sheep farm and creamery in the small town of Tembleque. This is where the small, globally available Artequeso brand of artisan Manchego cheeses is made, using raw milk from the resident sheep flock. The cheeses are then aged on site for three to 12 months. It is owned and operated by husband and wife Alfonso and María Álvarez Sánchez Prieto with their children Marta and Santiago.
“I was very impressed with the way they make manchego, because they use all the modern techniques needed today to be able to sell manchego all over the world,” Ripert says. “But at the same time, they retain some traditional aspects in the way they make it.”
Pontezuela Real Estate
Spain is one of the world’s largest olive oil producers, and Castilla-La Mancha is the country’s second largest producing region. Located in the heart of the Montes de Toledo region, Finca La Pontezuela is home to 18,000 trees growing five types of olives, including the rare Redondilla olive. According to the family owners, they are one of only two farms in Spain that grow redondella plants.
“This type of olive is very difficult to find,” Ripert says. “When I get something special and delicious like this, I dream about what I can do with it.”
Visitors to the farm tour green olive groves and a modern oil mill. They also explore the state-of-the-art interactive visitor center built in 2020. It explains everything you need to know about olives and olive oil via videos, touch screens, interactive maps and visual guides showing how olive oil is used, harvested and produced.
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Tastings of 5 olive oils from the Elementos brand are also offered, including those made from individual varieties. The picolal olive oil is the spiciest, while the redondella is smooth and delicious.
The experience is “the opposite of going to the supermarket,” where the average bottle of olive oil is often “flavorless,” Ripert says.
This ancient winery dates back to Roman times. The old Vía XXV Augustobrigam-Caesarobrigam-Toletum road passes right through the property. Around the 11th century, Lord Laurenc el Grande may have planted some vines on this land. At the end of the 18th century, a French-style winery was built. At that time, wine was fermented in traditional ceramic jars, which can be seen on the property today as decoration.
In 1982, the Diaz Bermejo family purchased the winery, releasing its first vintage in 2002. Today, the winery produces award-winning red wines including Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and various blends. It is open for tours and tastings. Ripert describes the red wines he tasted as “fairly young, but first class.”
“Twenty or 30 years ago, Spain – with a few exceptions – was not producing really excellent wines. In general, they were producing quantity but not necessarily quality.” The situation is much different today. “They are very aware of what needs to be done to make Great wine.” “They have good land, good soil, good vines, and now they are using all the help they can get from technology.”
Restaurants and bakeries
Santo Tomé Obrador de Mazapan
Toledo claims the invention – or more likely popularization – of marzipan, a delicacy made from almond paste and sugar, which has been made here at least and dates back to the 16th century. (Despite its importance, the city of Lübeck in Germany and Sicily in Italy also claim this dessert. Persia is likely its place of origin.)
Santo Tomé, one of Toledo’s oldest companies, has been making fresh marzipan daily since 1856, and the scent of fresh marzipan wafts through the air to a steady line of customers outside.
The six-generation family-run bakery uses only fresh, locally grown Marcona almonds, sugar and honey that passes through a mill to make the marzipan. The sticky paste is used as the main ingredient in all kinds of delicious baked goods.
“It reminded me of when I was a kid, and I would eat marzipan like crazy because my mother would use marzipan to stuff dates and peaches and things like that, and she would hand them out on the weekends or during the holidays,” he recalls. Repert. “It is very rare to find marzipan quality in Santo Tomé. They use the best ingredients.”
Roots – Carlos Maldonado
A blank facade next to a graffiti wall is the entrance to this quaint Michelin-starred restaurant in the village of Talavera de la Reina.
“This restaurant looks like nothing from the outside, no name, nothing. “Then you walk in, and you’re in this kind of artistic secret hideaway,” Ripert describes, referring to a large mural in the entrance and details like the white ceramic roosters’ heads that stand out. From the dining room walls.
Here, chef Carlos Maldonado runs the show from a small kitchen, offering an elaborate tasting menu that’s fun despite the use of complex techniques. Maldonado’s influences range from Castilla-La Mancha itself to his first cooking job at a food truck, as well as his family and travel to places like Puebla, Mexico.
Ripert ate dishes like tacos with mole and what are essentially Jell-O shots of tequila and lime served in the mouth of a ceramic snake. Each dish was displayed on unique ceramic pieces featuring everything from a giant red Michelin star to Maldonado’s son’s handprints. All pottery is designed by staff and made by local ceramicist Fran Agudo.
“Maldonado is the wildest,” Ripert says. “He’s not afraid, he just enjoys using traditional ingredients.” “(Raíces) is a combination of formal and fun, and you would never expect that in the countryside.”
Ivan Serdino Restaurant
Just outside Toledo’s walls lies the dramatic stone entrance to the Cigarral del Ángel, which belonged to poet Fina de Calderón until her death in 2010. The grounds are stunning, with lush gardens and panoramic views of the Tagus River and Teledo. Today, it is the location of the famous two-Michelin-starred chef Ivan Cerdinho’s restaurant.
Cerdinho draws inspiration from a 16th-century cookbook by Roberto de Nola called Soup book(Cookbook) printed in Toledo. He sources ingredients from surrounding farms and the Tagus River, including extremely rare baby eels.
“Baby eels are hard to find and they are expensive,” Ripert explains. “Today, it’s very regulated around the world because in Spain there are quotas and it’s protected – after you catch a certain amount of baby snakes, you have to stop. So, it’s sustainable, but it’s very expensive, and it’s rare to find people who know how to cook it well.” .
You’re sure to enjoy the wine mix here, which includes local and rare bottles like aged sherry, Spanish ciders and vintage wines.
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For modern live-fire cooking, head to a plain building in the industrial town of Illescas. Ancestors is the brainchild of young chef Victor Gonzalo Infantes, who grew up nearby and returned after a stint in some of Madrid’s best restaurants.
“I was fascinated by the little kitchen here, because (the kids) cook with wood-burning ovens and smoke big cuts of meat,” Reppert says.
Both the food and decor at this Michelin-starred restaurant have a rustic feel, with dishes such as traditional stew made with pig’s ears and Castilian chickpeas, wild cherry tomatoes in an Iberian pork broth and local trout in a pil pil sauce made with bacon. Smoked fish bones and roe. There are two tasting menus to choose from (Origen and Esencia), with rotating dishes depending on the season.
Published: November 10, 2023