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Extremadura's dehesa and its famed black pigs, the ancient Roman city of Cáceres, the markest of Andalusia and his mamà’s kitchen are among the Spanish chef's most beloved places in this 'land of 17 countries'
Words by Alex Mead
Five years is a long time to study to get a job you never turn up for. And yet this is José Pizarro’s back story. Fresh out of his home village of Talaván in Spain’s centralsouth-western region of Extremadura, he was initially intent on a career repairing mouths rather than filling them.
‘I never, never, never thought about working in food,’ recalls José. ‘I went from my village to boarding school in Cáceres and I was doing well at first, but I moved in with my sister and never studied. I wasn’t a very good student, and I really loved a good party.
‘Then my dad said, “José, you do something for yourself or you’re coming back to the farm!” And then, bloody hell, I passed exams like that,’ he adds, clicking his fingers.
His chosen career was dental technician. ‘Not a dentist – I would be the one that actually made the tooth,’ he explains. ‘I studied for five years, did extremely well and at the end of it I got a good job in Seville.
To kill time before the job started, he did a course in hospitality that took him into the kitchens of Cáceres. ‘I worked as a kitchen porter and I fell in love with it – meeting the people in the kitchen, all the smells, just like those I grew up with. After that, I couldn’t see myself looking into a mouth at broken teeth for the rest of my life, so I went to Mum and Dad and said, “I’m really sorry, I want to be a chef.” Mamà mia, can you imagine the reaction? My family were, “No way can you do that!” but I said I just can’t live my life like that…’
A career in food was what he’d been brought up to do, even if his parents didn’t realise it. ‘My family were farmers,’ he says. ‘They were living in the
village but had a farm outside. We had about 50 to 70 milking cows, and maybe 100 animals for meat. It wasn’t massive, but it was busy; there was always something going on with the hens, the beef... My mum and dad never had holidays because it was difficult to take the time.
My mum is still in Talaván,’ he continues. ‘She’s going to be 90 this year and she’s still so bloody strong!’ Undoubtedly, she’s his greatest inspiration.
‘She’d make amazing stews,’ he says. ‘She’d make cabrito estofado, where you put everything in, chickpeas, carrots, onions, potato and any type of meat – chorizo, black pudding, jamón bones, chicken, beef. Something she still makes now is baby goat stew, and there was also hake a la romana – battered with flour and egg. A lot of tortillas, vegetable soups, tomato salads, everything you have from the land.’
Not that José was ever allowed to help in the kitchen. ‘When you’re milking the cows all the time, the only time you get to yourself is when you’re in the
kitchen, so that was her time to relax, when she was cooking. She’d always be telling me to go away and I’d always come back and say, ‘what are you doing now, Mamà?’, and she’d chase me out with the slipper. Lovely memories, bless her!’
As with many households in Extremadura, what was made in the kitchen had been grown, farmed or caught by the family. ‘I always remember the first tomatoes of the season; I still remember the first lamb; I remember the lentils – which I hated as a child, but now they’re my favourite thing ever; and I love the river fish: tench, carp, black bass, fried straight from the lake, with extra crispy skin. These flavours are always going to be in my memory. I’d go hunting with my dad for partridge, and my mum would make escabeche with it.
‘Every single day we’d have fresh cheese from the farm and then in summer we’d have every kind of gazpacho – it could be melon, tomato or anything. So diverse, so simple, and soooo much flavour.’
José’s career took him from his village to Michelin-starred restaurants in Madrid and, ultimately, to England, to Spanish restaurant Gaudi before joining David and Robert Eyre at Eyre Brothers, who would have a profound
impact. ‘David taught me about being down to earth, that to do good business it doesn’t need to be Michelin,’ explains José. ‘That to recognise your culture and do proper, amazing food, it doesn’t need to be Michelin,
either. That philosophy changed me from wanting to have a Michelin star to what I’m doing now. I just love what I do and that philosophy is still with me today, across my business.’
That business is one of consistency, quality and authenticity. José, the tapas bar he launched in 2011 on London’s Bermondsey Street, remains the pint-sized icon of the group – a perfect, smaller sibling to the sit-down Pizarro that followed later that year just up the road. Five restaurants have followed, including one, most recently, in Abu Dhabi.
But wherever he goes, he always returns to his mamà in Extremadura. ‘I still love it,’ he says. ‘My roots are still there, my family are still there, my friends are still there. It’s where I go to relax. I’ll go for a caña after lunch, then go to see friends and spend time with my mum and family.’
‘Eyre Brothers changed me from wanting a Michelin star. I just love what I do and that philosophy is with me today’
It makes José an ideal guide to the region. ‘We have the dehesa, where the black pig roam,’ he begins. ‘We have Monfragüe, the national park, which is absolutely amazing.
‘Guadalupe has a monastery, where Columbus came to present to the Catholic king and queen all the things they brought from America. And all around there, it’s very simple food, but pimentón de la Vera [smoked paprika] is produced near here. Then you have Trujillo, a beautiful old town with a castle. Then you go to Cáceres with its amazing hotels and museums, and then in Mérida you have the Roman remains, the theatre, all gorgeous. Extremadura is big and ancient – we have history, palaces, food...’
We happen to be talking to José while he’s in Spain, although from his second home-from-home, Andalusia, on the southern coast – he’s had a place since 2021 (head to josepizarro.com for info on renting it). ‘I always went on holiday with my aunty and uncle to Cádiz, because my parents were too busy to take a holiday, so that’s why it’s close to my heart,’ he explains. ‘My uncle was an unbelievable cook, so we’d go to the market and then have a beer afterwards and maybe a little tapas. The bar we’d go to is still there. It’s what I do when I’m here now – wake up, have a coffee, go to the market, have a beer, and then go the house and cook.
‘I like to go to the beach with my dogs around 8.30am when there’s no one there – we’re not talking about a 100m stretch, this is 1.5km of empty beach. At a certain point when the sun comes up the moon is still there. And as for the sunset, that is something unique.
‘And you know what I really love? It’s that my mum is now coming to my house, having the holiday she couldn’t have when I was a kid, with me in my house, and that is beautiful. Three weeks ago it was my mum, brother and sister, all four of us together; it’s emotional to know we can enjoy the house when we couldn’t before because she working.’
And yet, for all his passion for Spain – his new book is a tribute to Andalusia – it’s not his home today. ‘I love London,’ he says. ‘I have a house in Spain, but it’s not home, it’s not my house. You know, I have an amazing time, I do have a wonderful time with my friends, Peter [his partner] and my dogs, but home is London. I came to London for two days, and I’m still there 25 years later. I just love it.’
JOSÉ’S VILLA. IRIS ZAHARA, ZAHARA DE LOS ATUNES
Set on the cliff side – accessed by funicular – with stunning coastal views, José’s modern, light-filled villa sleeps ten. The team can help organise a tailor-made itinerary before you go. josepizarro.com
HABITAT CIGÜEÑA NEGRA, CÁCERES
A rural boutique hotel where you can disconnect, in the middle of Extremadura’s dehesa. They also have their own asador, which gets the ingredients from its own cattle. habitatcn.com
This Michelin-starred restaurant in Cáceres has a choice of tasting menus and an extensive wine list. The food is based on the best produce of Extremadura. versatilrural.com
The most traditional restaurant in Badajoz, open since 1998, using only quality produce. marchivirito.com
PLAZA RESTAURANT AND BAR, TORREQUEMADA
Around 20 minutes from Cáceres, this proper, traditional bar in the main square is well-known for suckling pig. 00 34 927 205004
BODEGA MORALES, SEVILLE
Near the cathedral, founded in 1850 when they sold wines from Valdepeñas – they still have the big barrels. Incredible tapas-style Andalusian recipes like Ibérico pork cheeks and meatball stew. 00 34 954 221242
In Zahara de los Atunes – peaceful, with stunning views of the sea – serving almadraba tuna, white prawns and local fish. antoniozahara.com
CASA DE INDIAS, CÁDIZ
A lovely boutique hotel in El Puerto de Santa María that was once an 18th-century palace. They’re art lovers like me and have a gallery. casedeindias.art
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