The basilica of "El Pilar" in Zaragoza, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Aragon begins high in the snow-capped Pyrenees along Spain’s mountainous border with France. From steep heights Aragon descends through foothills to broad plains along the banks of the Ebro River, including near desert regions like Monegros, then rises again to the much lower Iberian chain in the south. There are just three provinces in the region, Huesca in the north where Somontano wines are gaining international recognition, Teruel, home of one of Spain’s most renowned hams, in the south, and in the middle Zaragoza (sometimes written Saragossa in English) with its capital of the same name, sited on an ancient crossing of the Ebro River. It’s a landscape of stunning vistas that include medieval hilltop villages and ancient ruined fortifications, magnificent hiking trails (often following the old drove roads where shepherds moved their flocks from winter to summer pastures) and challenging ski resorts, but for all that, there is very little tourism, and none of the cheap, mass holiday traffic that mars so much of coastal Spain. In the southeast, the Maestrazgo, a mountainous district that straddles Aragon and Valencia, is noted as a cultural park where many traditional foods and foodways are preserved.
A landlocked and strongly agricultural region, Aragon is famous for one of the most straight-forward cuisines in all of Spain, one that relies on meat, especially lamb and pork in all its manifestations, from fresh meat to long-cured hams and chorizo sausages. Green mountain pastures mean lamb and sheep’s milk cheeses, abundant in the pantries of Aragon, while the broad plains of the Ebro, are home to fields of wheat and barley. Fine extra-virgin olive oils are produced in the lower part of Aragon, primarily from the empeltre variety, but also some arbequina olives, while full-bodied red wines are made throughout the region, with three controlled denominations in Zaragoza (Campo de Borja, Calatayud, and Cariñena), and a fourth, the relatively new but nonetheless impressive Somontana from northern Huesca.
Aragon is also home to a number of fine cheeses, including the most notable, Tronchón, cited in Don Quixote not once, but twice, for its quality. The best Tronchón is made in the Maestrazgo from sheep or goat’s milk cheese, unpasteurized, lightly aged from three to four months, and shaped in a characteristic dome with a saucer-like depression in the top. Cheese guru Steve Jenkins calls it “a delicious oddball,” hard to find outside of Spain but worth seeking out while there.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Aragon
Black truffles and wild mushrooms: from the Maestrazgo region of Teruel.
Perdiz al chocolate: Partridge with a sauce thickened with bitter chocolate, most likely related to Mexican moles and the chocolate the conquistadores sent back from the New World
Pollo or cordero al chilindrón: chicken or lamb braised in a rich sauce of sweet red peppers, tomatoes, and fine jamón serrano from Teruel.
Spit-roasted lamb or goat
Menestra a la pastora: Thick, country-style lamb stew rich with vegetables such as artichokes, peas, fava beans, potatoes, onions.
Cecina: cured salt beef (sometimes made with goat), like a really tasty beef jerky.
Magras con tomate: a farmhouse dish of slices of Teruel ham, lightly fried and dressed with tomato sauce
Migas: fried breadcrumbs, like similar dishes from Castilla and Andalucia; here in Aragon migas are served with diced ham, chorizo, bacon, or morcilla (blood sausage), often with chocolate to thicken the sauce.
Melocotones de Calanda (Calanda Peaches): superb fresh peaches, available from late September to late October. While Aragon is famous for the quality of its peaches, these Calanda peaches, with their own controlled denomination, are the acme of peachiness.
Truchas: trout from the swift high mountain streams, a delight for anglers as much as for diners.
Recao: a dish of the countryside made with white beans, rice, and potatoes, liberally flavored with garlic, hot pimentón (paprika), and chorizo.
Esparragos Montañeses: This has nothing to do with asparagus, despite the name; rather it is lambs’ or ewes’ tails, trimmed and braised with peppers, tomatoes, and onions.