Back in the 1950s, Jose and Maria del Cerro, who lived across the street from the local farmers’ market in Aranjuez, decided to open up a simple little restaurant in their home where they prepared lunches for the farmers, herders, and traders who worked at the market. Now, since Aranjuez was known for its produce—artichokes, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, cabbages, celery, strawberries—their menu focused on what was local and what was fresh.
The couple had five kids, all of whom helped out at mom and dad’s restaurant. One of the kids, Fernando del Cerro, took a particular interest in cooking. And so in 1991, he reimagined his parent’s modest farmhouse restaurant and opened Casa Jose which, within a year, had earned a Michelin star.
This is where Alicia was taking me to lunch. We had a reservation for two but when we arrived at about 1:45, Fernando’s brother, Armando—the restaurant’s sommelier—told us Fernando wasn’t quite ready yet to open the dining room upstairs (you know how the Spanish like to eat late). So he poured us both a glass of cava and we sat around the bar with the locals who were drinking a glass of wine and munching on tapas, particularly the restaurant’s pincho de tortilla. (When I pointed out to Armando that just about everybody in the bar seemed to be eating tortilla de patatas, he smiled and, not without pride, said, “En cuanto a la tortilla, es verdad que es maravilloso,” or “As for the tortilla, it is true that it is wonderful.”)
Before we could finish our cava, the hostess came over and led us up the wooden steps to the upstairs dining room with its high pine ceiling. Fernando, like his parents, is a big booster of the local produce. His menu changes along with the seasons which, he admitted to me after our lunch when he stopped by our table to see how we’d enjoyed things, can be frustrating. “It is a bit annoying when people come here in November or December and want the local asparagus or the strawberries,” he said. “There is no respect for the seasons. Everyone thinks things should be available every month of the year, but that’s not the way I cook.”
Fortunately for us, much of the wonderful local produce was in season. So we had Fernando’s glazed artichoke hearts with sea urchins; baby Brussel sprouts and prune bread wrapped around foie gras and an oyster; paletilla (lower leg) of baby lamb baked with green garlic; and, of course, the local strawberries with a Chantilly cream of roses.
I asked Fernando about the local strawberries. He told me there are two kinds: fresas and fresones. The tiny fresas, he said, are like the French fraises de bois, while the slightly larger fresones were brought to Aranjuez around 1700 from the Americas (which is probably why they reminded me of the east coast Gariguette strawberries). “Both varieties are hand-harvested in Aranjuez in April and May, and only when completely ripe,” said Fernando. “You are very fortunate to be enjoying them today.”
And he was right. The tiny berries were so perfumed, so juicy, and so floral that I would hold each on my tongue and let it just melt in my mouth. An incredible spring treat.