Day three: and further into the hot, arid heart of Spain. Today’s mission: we come in search of lechazo. Those three tripping syllables have represented a kind of meaty magic for decades: something almost mythically important to my family, something enjoyed at huge meals with massed relatives, now inextricably linked with memories of generosity and welcome and warmth.
The vibrant greens, the dramatic peaks of Asturias seem far behind as we head down the N-601, still savouring memories of last night’s remarkable experience at El Capricho. We pass whole villages which seem frozen in time: shells of buildings, gutted churches with crumbling facades seemingly only just still standing. Soundtracked by The National and The Hold Steady, we pass arrays of solar panels in sun-scoured fields at a steady 120km/h on uncrowded roads and head for Campaspero for lunch.
All of these have their place in cooking; but a regional classic is just that because it has survived centuries of interference, however well-meaning. Sometimes you just want something which has changed little over generations, something honed by custom to its ultimate expression.
We park on a street with my mother’s name, in this tiny village of just over a thousand, where the sun roars up at us from empty pavements, outside buildings which seem to have stood unchanged for decades, where eerie acoustics in deserted streets give equal and briefly surreal status to birdsong and to sudden snatches of conversation from open windows. Campaspero is pretty much your mental image of a village in northern Spain: old stone-walled houses, shuttered windows, all converging on a neat little Plaza Mayor. Like the previous evening’s remote Léones bodega, this isn’t so much ‘the arse end of nowhere’ as two stops past it; Campaspero is not yet part of the typical itinerary for food tourists, and they seem unused to non-locals. We are clearly something of a rarity.
My cousin Vicente, a Chef in nearby Valladolid, offers Mannix as his tip: his exact words are ‘It will bring tears to your eyes’. And if life has taught me one thing, it is this: always listen to a man who has served both as Chef and paratrooper.
Feel free to adopt that as your personal motto: it won’t disappoint. It could almost come from The Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
You smell Mannix before you see it: you drink in the smell and follow it lured by the waft of cooking, a trail of smoky animal fat which reels you along like some hapless Looney Tunes patsy. Among sun-bleached streets we find the dark green awning and a heraldic crest in stained glass, a plaque showing membership of the local Asadores association.
But that’s enough of Mannix’ street features.
The deserted streets now make sense, because it feels as if the entire village has come here to eat. This huge, air-conditioned space is full of long, noisy tables: whole families eating together, birthday lunches with four generations, workers from the nearby town hall taking a civilised, leisurely lunch in the shade. Kids’ menus? Of course not: they will eat the same as everyone else. On the bar there’s a picture of the team with José Andres- though in the interests of full disclosure there’s also a small jar holding a preserved baby cobra and a scorpion, which is queasily incongruous.
You could come here for the ever-present veal, or for a fillet of Galician Blond. But everyone seems to be here for the same thing- lechazo asado al horno de leña: young lamb, unweaned, and roasted in the formidable heat of wood-fired ovens. It’s classically simply seasoned inside and out, basted with lard before cooking, then anointed with salt water as it roasts. After a couple of hours it is turned in that ferocious heat, rendering the skin like porcelain and the meat is falling from the bone in preposterously silken tangles. It is turned for the final stage, with the aim of rendering of the fat so it is like pork crackling, a final blast of ferocious heat which applies the finishing gloss to one of the unassailable touchstones of Castilian cooking. They’ve been cooking lamb this way for centuries around these parts.
The Indicación Geográfica Protegida (IGP) for Lechazo de Castilla y León is as strict as these things usually are. It allows only three breeds of lamb- Castellana, Churra, Ojalada.
The lamb must be no more than 35 days old and must only have tasted its mother’s milk, and must weigh between 9 and 12 kg at the time of slaughter.
We start with a salad of smoked sardine tartare and roasted sweet red peppers laced with a fruity olive oil, with plenty of that distinctively Castilian densely-crusted loaf, the pan candeal which feels oddly brittle (stale, even, to unfamiliar hands) but is all generous, pillowy crumb within.
There are few better things for the ritual mopping up of juices and sauces. A flurry of croquetas follows, the béchamel rich and buttery, studded with the intense savouriness of jamón. They are remarkably accomplished, piping hot and crisp and wobbling within, amped up with little nuggets of porky goodness.
A quarter of Churra breed lamb arrives in its round earthenware roasting dish. Our server carves, or whatever you call it when the meat is so tender you can literally portion it up with only a fork and spoon. ‘Como la mantequilla,’ he says; the first time approvingly, the second almost under his breath but again for emphasis. ‘Como la mantequilla…’
He’s not wrong: under that skin- as brittle, as fragile and friable as any pork crackling you’ve ever met, as delicate as bone china- is meat which is a masterclass in contrasts. The ridiculously soft flesh comes apart in long thick strings which ooze flavour. Today’s lamb is a mere 20 days old, the flesh salty and sweet and fatty; exceptional meat, a quarter of the young animal presented with a purity of preparation and serving.
It’s ridiculously good, the essence of regional cooking using local breeds, locally reared, cooked sympathetically in a centuries-old way to coax as much flavour as possible out of what they find around them. You can’t help feeling that the old ways are the best, that it would be impossible to improve on this, that it has stayed this way for a best of reasons.
All that surfeit of animal fats, all that heady richness, needs some sort of counterpoint and simplicity wins again. A simple (spankingly fresh, because you couldn’t get away with serving anything less) tomato and onion salad brings some welcome freshness and acidity if you feel like you’re drowning in lamb juices. Although on reflection, there are, I suppose, many worse ways to go.
You may fight over the scraps- you should feel free to square your shoulders, fence the dish off with your forearms and growl at your companion- of that sweet, young meat, the little charred remnants on the bones where it has caught in the flames.
We manage dessert- a convincing double of a lemon picked fresh from a nearby tree, but with a mango parfait in the centre by talented pastry chef Gemma Garcia.
A tart orange sorbet rubs up against a sultry chocolate crema and mousse, thick and dark. This is sexy, decadent stuff, virtually swinging its hips as it saunters past, an opulent end to an opulent meal.
By any definition this is almost wilfully anti-‘Cheffy’ cooking: not showy, or intricate, or showcasing multiple techniques, or getting to use every new piece of kit in the kitchen. This way of cooking this meat is a classic which needs no ‘reinvention’ or ‘deconstruction’: devastatingly simple, simply devastating. We emerge blinking into the pitiless heat of the mid-afternoon sun, full and happy and at one with the world, sitting in the shade and watching the world amble by.
Mannix did not disappoint. This meal oozed with that rare sense of utter contentment, that conviction of being precisely where you belong at that moment in your life. The bill comes in at a touch under €100 in total, which just adds to the sense of having experienced something special, a little touch of everyday magic. This was one of those meals you think back to fondly, a limpid pool of calm, a couple of hours where the cares of the world were suspended and all was well. You could call it ‘life affirming’. You could call it beautifully satisfying: rich, yet still grounded in simplicity- one of those ‘all’s right in the world’ meals, the sort of thing you’ll be talking about for years to come.
This was becoming a rare week indeed.
Calle Felipe II,
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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.