In the north of Spain lies historic Burgos, a city with its culinary roots in the past and its nose scenting out the future. Alex Robinson explores the rich tapestry of the old Castilian capital
Burgos is in northern Spain where the currency is the euro and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. The average high temperatures in Burgos in October are 17C, lows are 5C.
British Airways flies from major UK airports to Madrid (two hours’ drive from Burgos. Trains renfe.com take four hours). ba.com Iberia also offers several daily flights to Madrid. http://iberia.com
Visit Spain has comprehensive information about Burgos. spain.info Camino Adventures provides extensive information on walking the pilgrimage trail with maps, background information and links to operators that can organise trips. http://caminoadventures.com
The Emerald of Burgos by Gordon Thomas (Olympia, £9.99) is a work of historial fiction set in the city, it charts the exploits of two women born in Burgos but soon have to flea its charms.
It’s 10pm. The sky is peacock blue. Inside the bodega Vermuteria Victoria, tucked away in a cobbled alley off Burgos’s stately Renaissance city plaza, the barman dims the lights and switches off the TV. Candlelight glints in the faux baroque mirrors on the walls and off the white veneer of the modish tables. Huddles of people chatting outside drift in, mingling with the regulars. For a few short minutes they stand expectant. Then there’s a clarion of bells, a blast of regal trumpets from the speakers and the bar lifts its glasses and sings in full chorus:
‘Burgos, blessed treasure that all Spain venerates with deep emotion!
Robust poem in granite, gloriously emblazoned with our coat of arms,
Let us learn to sing together of our home,
To study our past. To cultivate our future…’
Square jaws and smart Massimo Dutti suits, ruby red lips and preened Prada, grey moustaches and well-worn cardigans are united by the anthem. Then just as suddenly as they started, the bells stop, the TV and lights come back on and the bodega returns to serving up its delicious tapas and microbrewed vermouth.
‘They sing our anthem every night in Burgos,’ explains city historian Raquel Puente, as she tucks into a cojonudo, a Burgos tapa of chorizo and quail egg served over tart red pepper on crusty bread. ‘We are a city proud of our traditions – Spain was born here. Even more than Madrid or Toledo, this is the country’s heartland.’
She’s right. Burgos was once the capital of Castile. And its streets ooze history. Outside Vermuteria Victoria, the dreamy spires of the towering Mudéjar cathedral are caught in nooses of light by the sinking sun. Processions of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s most famous pilgrimage route, are silhouetted against its filigree-carved facade. Others crowd oak-beamed eating houses, chatting over suppers of hearty soup, hunks of sheep’s milk cheese and goblets of earthy Ribera del Duero wine – food that has fuelled their pilgrimages for centuries.
A craggy Crusader castle crowns the hill above the cathedral. The city was born here as a lonely bastion against Arab Al-Andalus in the late 9th century. As William conquered England, El Cid left Burgos’s bulwarks to reconquer Spain from the Moors.
By the Golden Age, Burgos was rich in wool, meat and milk. Columbus arrived here from the Americas to present gifts to Ferdinand and Isabella in a palace that can still be found today. Renaissance artists from Flanders adorned the royal monasteries and churches with carvings dripping in gold and precious stones. But then the sun set on Burgos. Power shifted to Madrid and the city began to sleep. Even after Franco, when change came rapidly to Spain, Burgos stayed much as it was – a pilgrims’ way station, an old town. Now in a country freshly in love with itself, Burgos’s treasures and traditions have been rediscovered. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the food.
‘Too much modern cooking has no sense of where it belongs and where it comes from,’ says José Luis López, chef and owner of Mesón del Cid. ‘But even with your eyes closed, from the first taste you know you are in Burgos. There is nothing like our traditional dishes: the unique herb-scented, juicy freshness of our suckling lambs pastured on the grassy hills around Covarrubias village; the nutty seta mushrooms and sweet, tangy cherries whose blossoms turn the valleys around Caderechas snow-white in spring; the light, creamy cheeses made to the same recipe since pilgrims first started walking from here to Santiago.’
Flavours aside, it’s better to open your eyes when eating at Mesón del Cid. These are tables with a view – the cathedral framed by the heavy oak casements of the medieval windows, honey-coloured spires set against a brilliant sky, the light shafting through the steam rising off the roast lamb and glinting off the wine glasses. There it seems nowhere more Spanish than Burgos.
At Embutidos de Cardeña, an artisan factory on the edge of the city, Roberto da Silva cuts a slice of morcilla (blood sausage). The flesh is fragrant and fullsome, gentle on the tongue and stomach compared to British black pudding. The fats are offset by bright red, marshmallow-soft tomatoes that melt together in a wash of Ribera del Duero. This is surely the blood sausage of kings.
‘Not kings,’ Roberto corrects. ‘Morcilla was the food of the hidalgo Reconquista knights. They would carry the sausages in their knapsacks on their raids into Al-Andalus. It was political. In the later years of the Reconquest, it was then used to test allegiance to the Catholic kings. Knights of the Inquisition would offer a slice but only Christians would accept it and eat it.’
The country feels as old as the hills in the craggy mountains and crumbling vulture-soared canyons north of Burgos. This is where prehistoric Europeans etched some of the first carvings on cave walls, where the tribes of Castile first gathered to fight back against the Moors. Villages such as Puentedey have changed little since those medieval times – crooked houses perch on a rock arch above a rushing river. For a few euros you can lunch on crusty bread, slivers of sun-dried Burgos ham and hunks of nutty cheese, all made down the farm track just like they have been for generations.
Shepherds with crooks still herd sheep in the poppy-filled meadows around Covarrubias, further to the south. Fifty years ago, Clint Eastwood squinted at Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach across the bone white Sad Hill Cemetery as they filmed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was restored by volunteers earlier this year to mark the film’s anniversary. Locals remember the trio shooting pool with director Sergio Leone in bar and restaurant De Galo and eating gamey partridge served with seta at one of the heavy oak tables.
The upper courses of the Duero, one of Iberia’s great wine rivers, wind through the plains near Covarrubias. According to Manuel del Rincón, manager of Bodegas Marta Maté vineyard, the wines are as unique as the lamb, morcilla and cheese. ‘Our grapes are organic and biodynamically grown,’ he says. ‘We let wild herbs flourish between our tempranillo vines. We plant with the cycles of the moon and don’t sterilise the earth with pesticides and fungicides.’
The quality shines through like the sun penetrating the deep red of the wine, evaporating the aromas of blackcurrant and chocolate and opening the velvety, complex mouth. Marta Maté’s most coveted bottle, Primordium, scores a spectacular 95/100 on critic Robert Parker’s list. Only 3,000 bottles are produced annually.
Tradition underpins the cooking of even the most modern of Burgos’s chefs. Covered in monochrome tattoos, La Tabula Gastrobar’s Patxi Alvarez looks as formidable as his cooking. The chef, whose tapas is some of the best in Spain, honed his skill at elBulli. But that, he says, is not his secret. It’s the quality of the produce. And the philosophy of rugby, a game he plays at club level.
For centuries, local foodstuffs from the hills and meadows surrounding the town have been brought down to the market. Here they sat on stalls alongside fish from neighbouring Bilbao, goods transported on the great trade routes from Seville and spices arriving from the Muslim Indies through the old Roman road that cuts through the heart of Al-Andalus to Valencia.
‘At La Tabula we make an effort to take everything we can from in or around the region and use it to produce modern Spanish cooking,’ says Patxi. ‘My restaurant is a meeting place for the regional and the traditional, the international and modern.’
Bilbao mussels are served with unsalted potato slivers and filaments of sweet chilli. Marinated sardines come with home-made tartar sauce that is peppered with a hint of mustard and presented on papery bread that is as crisp as a crouton.
And as for the preparation? ‘Well, good cooking is like rugby,’ grins Patxi. ‘Ingredients can be strong in themselves but they are even more powerful when placed alongside each other. The potato draws out the flavour of the sea from the mussels. Eat them with vermouth and the taste lingers long on the back of the tongue like the legato note of a cello. The effect is to open the palate – the true purpose of an aperitif. And the best tapas is always an aperitif.’
Vermouth, the drink of choice for cool, contemporary Spain, is central to La Tabula’s tapas menu. There are 25 to chose from, all carefully matched by sommelier Elena Arcos. At weekends, the tapas experience comes with a live band that mingles traditional Burgos music with flamenco, folk and the best of Spain.
‘La Tabula is a meeting place for ingredients, flavours, tastes, music and people from Burgos, Spain and the world,’ adds Patxi.
Saúl Gómez of Blue Gallery goes a step further. ‘I take our common ingredients and use them to bring the world to Burgos,’ he says. ‘My kitchen is filled with what are said to be poor ingredients here in Spain – the kind that my family used to buy in the Burgos markets. However, I make them noble by selecting only the very freshest and best raw materials and fuse them with international elements using techniques from modern Asian cooking.’
Saúl uses equipment you would expect to find in a chemistry lab, tweaking the PH levels of his sauces to remove all the acidity in order to refine and expand flavours. Sweet and savoury mingle in glorious playfulness and every taste is as sharp and discrete as the strings in a Viennese chamber music quartet.
Jack mackerel – long regarded as a crude market-stall fish in Spain – is turned sweet, subtle and delicate, and served with hand-crafted Japanese ponzu vinegar in a tiny circle of crisp bean sprouts and rose petals. White and impossibly tender slow-cooked asparagus comes with bacon ice cream. Bilbao hake is offset by coriander, tangy yellow and red aji (pepper) sauce and leeks.
Spain began in Burgos and the city remains home to a string of restaurants trading on age-old Castilian culinary traditions, with food and wine following recipes that have changed little in centuries.
In the past, crusaders, pilgrims, knights and kings supped here and now fashionable, modern Spain does too. Post-financial crisis, nothing is more contemporary and Spanish than the rediscovery and reinvention of roots culture, cooking ingredients and cuisine. Burgos’s more fashionable kitchens maybe rooted in the past but they sit right at the cutting edge of the culinary knife. The city’s best chefs fuse age-old ingredients with the new, bringing them together with blinding modern technique.
Where to Stay
Landa Palace Rooms and suites are filled with period furniture and housed in a beautiful 14th-century fortified mansion. Dishes in the traditional restaurant include wood oven-roasted pigling and quail pasties with wild mushrooms. Doubles from £110. Madrid-Irún Road, km 235, 09001, 00 34 947 257 777, http://landa.as
NH Palacio de Burgos The small Renaissance-style rooms in this 16th-century building come with four-poster beds and modest marble bathrooms. Doubles from £100. Calle de la Merced 13, 09002, 00 34 947 479 900, http://nh-hotels.com
Palácio de los Blasones The best thing about this hotel, with its duplex rooms and slightly frayed public areas, is its location right in the city centre less than a minute’s stroll from the cathedral. Doubles from £65. Calle Fernán González 6-10, 09003, 00 34 947 271 000, http://hotelricepalaciodelosblasones.com
Where to Eat
Blue Gallery Self-taught he may be but Saúl Gómez is one of northern Spain’s most exciting young chefs, fusing traditional ingredients with modern recipes utilising dazzling techniques. From £15. Comuneros de Castilla 19, 09006, 00 34 947 057 451
El Lagar de Isilla The Pinto family has been serving suckling lamb, morcilla, tapas and excellent wine in this cosy restaurant in the heart of the Ribera del Duero region for 25 years. Be sure to take a tour of the labyrinthine medieval wine cellars. From £12. Calle Isilla 18, 09400, 00 34 947 510 683, http://lagarisilla.es
La Jamada This restaurant offers playful international fusion and comfort food made with Burgos ingredients. Try the burger with morcilla, or the mochi, sweet pasta made with Burgos curd cheese and white chocolate, served with strawberry and matcha cream. From £12. Plaza Mío Cid 4, 09004, 00 34 947 108 046, http://lajamada.es
La Tabula Gastrobar ElBulli alum Patxi Alvarez serves more than gourmet tapas, vermouth and live music. Try his Secreto Iberico, a prime pork cut from between the ribs in an escabeche (oil and vinegar marinade) with wild mushrooms. From £14. Calle Conde de Castilfalé 7, 09001, 00 34 947 461 922, http://tabulagastrobar.es
Mesón del Cid José Luis López offers some of the best Burgos fare in the city, from roast lechazo (suckling lamb) and morcilla to a traditional Santiago de Compostela pilgrim’s menu. Ask for a table on the second floor for a cathedral view. From £23. Plaza Santa María 8, 09003, 00 34 947 208 715, http://mesondelcid.es
Restaurante el 24 de la Paloma Traditional cooking with a modern touch. Dishes include haddock served with foie gras, black garlic and
pil pil (garlic and chilli sauce). From £14. Calle La Paloma 24, 09003, 00 34 947 208 608, http://restauranteel24delapaloma.com
Restaurant Casa Ojeda Spanish gignitaries from members of the royal family to fashion designer Paco Rabanne have dined under the grand oak beams of this high-end restaurant. The menu rincludes suckling lamb and morcilla and sopa Castellana, a soup of egg, vegetables, Serrano ham, garlic served in a cylinder of crisp bread. From £26. Calle Condestable 2, 09004, 00 34 947 209 052, http://restauranteojeda.com
Vermuteria Victoria The most atmospheric of Burgos’s numerous tapas-bodega bars sits in the shadow of the cathedral. Dishes include cojonudos and favourites such as patatas bravas and tortilla. Come at 10pm for the town anthem. Plaza del Rey San Fernando 4, 09003
Don't missThe Atapuerca Mountains and the Museum of Human Evolution Some of the earliest human remains in Europe were discovered in these hills. The museum tells the story of the evolution of the province from the earliest humans through the Spanish Golden Age. Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca 09002, 00 34 902 024 246, http://museoevolucionhumana.com Burgos Cathedral The city’s history is set in stone through this magnificent World Heritage-listed building, from the Romanesque vault through to the towering gothic spires, baroque altar pieces and the stunning rococo of the ante chapels. Plaza de Santa María 09003, 00 34 947 204 712, http://catedraldeburgos.es Covarrubias A perfectly preserved medieval village in the heart of Burgos wine country. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was filmed here. Huelgas Abbey A medieval monastery crammed with the sepulchres of Castilian kings, queens and counts, and covered in elaborate gothic and Mudéjar decorations. Plaza Compás 09001, 00 34 947 201 630, http://monasteriodelashuelgas.org Ojos de Guareña Rolling mountain country cut with canyons, pocked with caves and dotted with dozens of pretty villages such as Puentedey.
This article was published on 11th October 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.