‘And now, we are going ….wider!’ says David, our server and four-time veteran of the Pilgrim’s Way, the Camino de Santiago. That’s a journey which takes some dedication, a commitment to purpose : no wonder he feels so at home here, in this temple to slow food. Dedication, it is obvious, is at the heart of what they do here at El Capricho.
Our hotel is in a tiny village, the kind of place which you could drive through in scant seconds. From here, it’s another 15 minutes in a taxi to this tiny hamlet in northern Spain. ‘Remote’ doesn’t really cover it: the fact you’ll have to seek it out- this is not so much the arse end of nowhere, as two stops past, impossible to reach by public transport- adds to its allure.
There are so many variables in the production of the beef we eat. There’s the breed of cattle, for starters, and what they eat; the age they die, and their emotional state in their last moments; how the meat is aged after slaughter; how it is cooked. And taking all of those into account makes it a mammoth- arguably impossible- task to find ‘the best in the world’.
But that’s exactly what Franck Ribière did, dissatisfied with the French obsession with lean beef and the ‘bodybuilder’ cattle it produces. exploring so many regional and cultural preferences, although sometimes the criteria are in almost comical opposition. (The American incredulity from Peter Luger, the sheer amazement that anyone would prefer more densely-flavoured beef from older animals, rather than grain-fed feedlot meat raised primarily for tenderness in the industrial model, and the €20,000 Kobe carcass which would be snubbed as a sub-prime option in France, are highlights).
‘Steak (R)evolution’ takes in the Highland cattle of Glengorm, the French Charolais, American Black Angus, the intricately marbled of A-5 grade Kobe and Matsusaka Wagyu. We see Argentinian parrillas, visit Montreal’s Joe Beef and touch on the possibly nefarious manner in which Wagyu semen was mistakenly exported to Europe. We discuss the dilution of the Angus bloodline, the importance of ‘resting’ (at Hawksmoor it can be for up to fifteen minutes), speak to Mark Schatzker about his experience of raising his own animal for consumption, and hear of the epiphany inspired by the 18th Century recipes of Hannah Glasse (misattributed to the 1680s) which inspired Ginger Pig to investigate rare breeds and 15lb chickens.
Any beef reckoned as a contender in that discussion has to be something truly special. The eventual winner? Doubly so. Which brings us to Bodega El Capricho: miles from any town, deep in Castilla-Léon, and acclaimed by many as the greatest place to eat steak on the face of the planet.Above all, this is meat country, where the touchstones of Castilian meat cookery are the roast lamb (lechazo), which we will eat near Valladolid; and the iconic cochinillo asado, the roast suckling pig, of Segovia. Castillians know their meat: it takes pride of place at any family meal, any celebration, and they pride themselves on knowing where to find the best.
The ace in El Capricho’s hand is meat from buey: not the unweaned infants of those classic regional roasts, but beef from old oxen. Farmer-Chef José Gordón has dedicated years to the care of older animals, nurturing them until they are ready for the table.
As we settle in, we are tickled to find the tables hold little pots of- not olives but…Haribo? Although raising cattle is a serious business, this is a restaurant which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Brecon Gin is a surprise entry on an impressive list mercifully free of that ‘expertly curated’ tosspottery you’d be forced to endure through gritted molars at home. They start at €3, which seems ridiculously cheap for a restaurant of this international standing, and are served in what I must now think of as the only way: Spanish style, the huge copa balloon glass given a hefty measure, the huge hunks of ice, the oils teased out of lemon peel and other aromatics.
The chefs cross the courtyard, bulky slabs of beef hefted on to their shoulders, huge tranches which have been ageing in little caves cut into the hillside, maturing for months.
They ask us if we’d like to see around the kitchen. We say yes, yes. You would, wouldn’t you? Seen up close, the fat has a faint bloom, the livid colours of a healing bruise, eloquent evidence of the long maturation in those little caves.It’s impressive in its sparseness, the lack of ornate gadgetry. Your eye is drawn to the hulking grill, veteran of years of serious service. It is an impressive sight: the German tourist who decides our invitation also extends to him and who tags along regardless, not so much.
Established by José Gordón’s father, this is a bodega in the truest sense, a cool, meandering space to preserve wine. Their collection of 1500 wines is lovingly overseen by Head Sommelier Marcos, who invites us to take a tour of wine cellar. As we emerge into the early evening sun, the smell as the grill is lit for the evening hits us. This is going to be special.
They bring their pick of the day for us to inspect: a huge chuleton, some three and a half pounds of meat from a Portuguese Barrosã, breed similar to the Galician Blonde, an older animal whose meat has been aged for 6 months in the cool dark of the caves. The thick fat is the deep gold of grass-fed cattle, the marbling rich, a crazy paving of slowly laid-down fat: a different proposition entirely from the meat at your supermarket, where the animal has been accelerated to slaughter weight on a high-calorie diet. Long days of dry aging have driven off much of the water content, intensifying the mineral flavours, the pattern of intramuscular fat revealing the slow pace at which the animal grew.
A carpaccio of 180 day-old beef is laid on a slate, sprinkled with large crystals of sea salt and olive oil. They present the first pieces twirled delicately around the tines of a fork, and it’s soon clear why: the fat melts with your heat.
Be patient. Just slip it into your mouth. Despacito. Despacito. Slowly. Don’t rush this, because you may not get another chance. Never mind that hackneyed, ‘melt in the mouth’ beloved of every : just brush it against your lips and feel the fat which dissolve instantly, before it even reaches the warmth of your tongue. Let the rich beef fat coat your lips- it happens in a moment, a light slick of silk preparing you for what is to come, before the delicate depth of the stuff hits you and lingers even as you lick it away. It’s a sensualist’s dream: something you recognise from the finest jamón ibérico de bellota; but from beef…? You don’t expect ‘delicate’ from The very name connotes heft, muscularity, solidity. Beefed-up security. Beefy shoulders. So: sit back: drink it all in. Resistance is useless: submission the only option. You may find yourself grinning at the sheer good fortune which brings you to this place. This table. This moment.
The cecina (air-dried beef) is truly something to savour. It’s presented like the ruby petals of some exotic bloom, sliced so thinly the striations of fat make it translucent, delicate yet profoundly rich.
And here is where we came in. David’s hands mimic the opening of theatre curtains; a broadening vista of flavours, as he sets down the tartare. This is as basic as it gets, this majestic meat in its purest form. Simple, yet rich: layered, luscious, a beefy satin spread, served with minced chillies, both local and Peruvian, on the side. A heavy rustic sourdough- no flouncy nonsense here- in trencherman slices provides the bite for meat which is as tender as that first kiss under a canopy of stars as the mists roll in.
With no natural light- you are underground, after all- sconces provide the only relief. The tiny alcoves seem their own little islands in the gloom, which creates a sense of separation, of concentration on your place alone.On the side, a salad of the huge locally-grown tomatoes- firm, bulky, almost meaty- thickly sliced, dressed simply with virgin olive oil, a scattering of sea salt, and perfumed with the local oregano. It’s as uncomplicated as it gets, but carefully assembled: almost a meal in itself. A thing of simple beauty.
Roasted bone marrow is heavily seasoned and dressed with pink grapefruit, the pungent pepper and bright burst of citrus acidity cutting through that intense, buttery richness. It makes me wonder why I haven’t had it like this before. It’s seductive stuff, another step on a journey which is nearing its climax.Then? The beef. The beef ‘proper’. All of this, of course has just an expertly prolonged tease, foreplay designed to deliver you panting to the act itself. The consummation. The wooden trolley arrives. The meat looks beautiful. Typically, I’d be yearning for some glossy béarnaise, but this stuff is too good to add to. It needs to be experienced for what it is, with no distractions.
The chuleton has been maturing for 140 days in those cold rooms which dot the area. We are presented with different muscles on plate, each one sliced differently from the last; and the recommendation-instruction that we eat each with the fat. Those prissy souls- you know the type, that judgemental excision, those lips pursed like a cat’s anus as they trim every last seam of visible fat from their meat- would be well advised to avoid El Capricho, where they rub that rich yellow fat over your plate before serving the meat.
The taste is remarkable for its deep mineral ‘length’, which stays with you between bites; roll the flavours around your mouth like a bold red. This is flavour with a duration and depth which demands to be savoured. There’s something of blue cheese funk in meat that has been carefully cared for, so that it arrives at this point in the optimum condition with deep reserves of umami. Yes, there are more tender cuts: but if that was the sole criterion you’d always order fillet instead of ribeye, and no one needs that. This is beef with legs.It partners beautifully with a 2005 Vina Rioja- nothing adventurous, just the classic companion to this supreme beef, and recommended with fatty (for which read: flavour-packed) meat.
A green apple sorbet is tartly refreshing after that huge meaty payload, the candied hazelnuts and diced apple lightening the load, so to speak. Not that this course is a radical break with precedent: that’s ox fat in the biscuit dough.
A torte of dark chocolate shavings with little coffee hints- we are advised dig deep, to mix it all up- is lovely. You help yourself to licores or chupito- coffee, a hierbas digestif, crema, blanco (the kind of stuff NASA bung in their propulsion systems) and slump back, wistful and sated. But the story of the night, the quest which has has brought us to this remote spot, is the beef.
A meal at El Capricho is part education, part revelation, part quiet drama.
It’s the opposite of indiscriminately shoveling bland indeterminate lumps of animal protein into your face. This stuff forces you to acknowledge what you are doing, where your food comes from, how it has been reared and cared for. As we become more and more alienated from the production process, this is real food.
In a tsunami of daily hyperbole, of gross over-exaggeration- when we type seven ‘crying’ emojis and I’M WEAK and OMG I CAN’T EVEN in response to something we found momentarily amusing, something which briefly turned up the corner of our lips; where everything is super this and uber that or ‘banging‘ in the witless world of social media badinage, it’s hard to describe the impact of a genuinely remarkable evening. I’ll have to settle for words like sublime and phenomenal, all the while railing against the fact that, even as I write, I am failing to do the experience justice.Eating at Bodega El Capricho was everything I wanted it to be, and even better than I had hoped. It has spoiled all subsequent steak for me, which was always going to be a risk. That’s what the beef here does to you. It’s hypnotic stuff, the kind of experience which demands your undivided attention. The respect is only what’s due, what’s fitting for meat tasted like this.
This is what farming should be, what meat was supposed to taste like, before we became seduced by the imperatives of profit, of moving meat from farm to fork as quickly as possible.
This Spanish trip was simply about making memories. I can’t see our evening at El Capricho fading to grey any time soon: an evening like this paints itself in the most vivid shades. A couple of months on, it still resonates. Nothing I have written can do it justice, I fear. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.