Aranjuez

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Chef Fernando del Cerro at Casa Jose in Aranjuez.

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.

Local Aranjuez strawberries with 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.

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Strawberry Gazpacho

In addition to its artichokes, Aranjuez is also known for their tender asparagus and sweet strawberries—all of which are just now coming into season. I was particularly interested in the strawberries here which are smaller and more flavorful than what we get in California. They actually look more like wild strawberries or what the French call fraises du bois. Actually, I think they are closer to Gariguette strawberries which are similar to wild strawberries but slightly bigger (and, I think, more flavorful).

Anyway, the strawberries from Aranjuez are delicious—and expensive (about 4 or 6 euros for a large basket). Tasting them reminded me of a strawberry gazpacho I had at a friend’s house in Barcelona years ago. It makes for a very refreshing lunch on a warm spring day. Here is my friend’s very simple recipe:

Strawberry Gazpacho

–2 kilos strawberries

–6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

–2 tablespoons vinegar

–1 small onion

–1 garlic clove

–salt to taste

Wash and hull the strawberries. Chop all the ingredients finely and press through a chinois or fine mesh sieve. Chill for at least an hour and decorate with chunks of strawberry wedges or pearls of watermelon.

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Yesterday Alicia, from Vinos de Madrid, and I drove out to Aranjuez, about 30 miles south of Madrid, to do a little wine tasting and to eat at the Michelin-starred restaurant Casa José. The plan was to stop in at Bodega del Real Cortijo and then have lunch at Casa José, but since we arrived in Aranjuez a little early, Alicia suggested we go somewhere for almuerzo. Almuerzo can be translated as “lunch,” but in Spain, particularly around Madrid, it’s that time of day, usually between ten and eleven, when everyone scuttles off to a little bar or café for a coffee or, more likely, a small glass of wine along with just a little something to eat—say a slice of tortilla de patata.

So we went to a little corner bar called Casa Delapio (House of Celery) and though it was just a little after ten, almost everyone had a little café glass of red wine in front of them and was sharing a plate of tapas called picoteo.

“You want coffee or wine?” Alicia asked me.

Well, when in Rome (or Aranjuez)…. I had a glass of wine.

If we were having lunch here, Alicia told me, we’d have to order the crab-stuffed artichokes. “They are a specialty of Aranjuez and of Casa Delapio in particular.” I told her I was very sorry I was going to miss out on the crab-stuffed artichokes. She described them to me and I have to say I was starting to think maybe we should just blow off the lunch at the Michelin-starred place and eat here. Instead, Alicia went and talked to the owner and a few minutes later, a waitress brought over a plate of the famed stuffed artichokes. Just for us.

They were every bit as good as Alicia said they would be. I didn’t get the specific recipe for them from Casa Delapio, but here’s something similar from The Food Channel if you want to give them a try. Which I highly recommend. Along with a nice glass of red. No matter what time of day.

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