The Tagus River in Toledo, Spain
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Castilla-La Mancha, sometimes called Castilla la Nueva, is the heartland of Spain, a vast, high plateau that, to the first-time visitor, can appear bleak, harsh, even hostile. This is big-sky country, rolling plains and low hills with temperatures that can be extreme, ranging from well below freezing in winter to a searing 43 degrees centigrade in summer, sometimes veering over 50 Fahrenheit degrees in a single day. It’s a great terrain for cereal crops and sheep, not so great for high-quality olive oil or wine, but the real secret of Castilla-La Mancha is the growth of these two products in the last dozen or so years. After a long period of neglect, manchego has in recent years been brought back to its authentic original character.
Five provinces—Cuenca, Ciudad Real, Albacete, Guadalajara, and Toledo (the capital)—make up this large region, best known as home of the Castilian “knight” Don Quixote de la Mancha and the windmills at which he so memorably tilted. Golden manchego saffron also brings renown to the region, as does DO Manchego, a cheese that Don Quixote enjoyed and that defines Spain today in the way parmigiano defines Italy. After a long period of neglect, manchego has in recent years been brought back to its authentic original character.
Consuegra, Castilla La Mancha, Spain
The history of Castilla-La Mancha is a history of sheep-herding, and the history of sheep-herding is the history of Spain. Archeological remains confirm that Bronze Age Spaniards lived on this Meseta nearly 4,000 years ago, raised sheep, spun wool, and used sheep’s milk to make a cheese not very different from today’s manchego. By the time of Don Quixote, in the late 16th century, sheep breeding and grazing were entirely controlled by the state-run Honrado Concejo de la Mesta which also managed the drove roads, called cañadas, that crisscrossed Spain from north to south as vast flocks passed from winter to summer pastures and back again.
Sheep are still important in Castilla-La Mancha, although the Mesta was disbanded in 1836. Transhumance is still practiced, on a very limited scale, but cheese-making has become an industry, with some of the largest cheese factories in Spain located in the region. Artisanal manchego, however, is still made in regional farmhouse dairies and eagerly sought by cheese connoisseurs.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Castilla La Mancha is also home to important vineyards. In fact, DO La Mancha is the largest wine region in Spain. Traditionally seen only as a high-volume producer of wines, Castilla La Mancha has adapted modern vinification techniques to produce clean, stable wines, especially in the much sought-after international-style. Fresh, crisp, delicately fruity whites and more complex, mature reds are well worth seeking out, as wine lovers increasingly discover. All told, there are nine controlled denominations, the most familiar to Americans being Valdepeñas.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Castilla La Mancha
Albacete knives: Not exactly an ingredient, but there’s no finer way to carve a jamón serrano or a chuleta de cordero (lamb chop) than with a beautifully crafted knife from this town southeast of Madrid that has been in the knife-making business for centuries.
Azafrán (saffron): Mauve saffron flowers blossom in La Mancha late in October and the harvest of their bright red-gold stigmas begins immediately thereafter. This is DO azafrán de la Mancha, said to be the finest in the world.
Extra-virgin olive oil, primarily from the cornicabra olive: Castilla-La Mancha produces nearly 15% of Spain’s olive oil, much of it high-quality extra-virgin. The province of Toledo is particularly noted for its oil.
Queso manchego (manchego cheese): Whether tierno (soft, creamy, young), semi-cured (cured three to six months), or cured (cured more than six months), queso manchego is delightfully tangy, growing sharper as it ages. Made exclusively from the milk of manchega ewes, it is aged at least 60 days, often much longer, resulting in a richly aromatic cheese with a close-grained, compact texture. Cured Manchego is often marinated in extra-virgin olive oil to make an even more sumptuous cheese.
Sopa de ajo (garlic soup): a traditional peasant soup and a favorite in country restaurants. Made simply of garlic (lots of it), bread, and water, this is often colored with saffron and enriched with eggs poached in the broth.
Pisto manchego: vegetable stew, like ratatouille but green peppers predominate, along with onions and sometimes tomatoes; often served accompanied by hard-cooked eggs or fried potatoes.
Gazpachos de Pastor: Forget Andalusian cold tomato soup, this is an entirely different experience, a one-pot meal of chicken and rabbit, sometimes game, cooked with garlic, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and greens, flavored with thyme and rosemary, sweet pimentón and peppercorns, served hot with thin unleavened flatbreads to thicken.
Cordero or cabrito asado (roast young lamb or goat): Given the importance of sheep-farming (wise farmers include a goat for every ten sheep in their flocks), it’s not surprising that the tender young are prime candidates for roasting in wood-fired ovens or grilling over wood embers. This is the regional dish par excellence.
Tojunto: A specialty of Ciudad Real, the name means todo junto (“all together”) and refers to the way game, especially wild rabbit, is cooked all together with garlic, onion, green peppers, spices, and a shot of vinegar.
Gachas and migas: Two sturdy peasant preparations: gachas are like polenta, made from cornmeal, wheat, ground lentils, or chickling vetch (rare but fancy chefs like to use this), flavored with ham, garlic, and pimentón (paprika); migas are made from stale bread, coarsely ground or chopped, dampened and then fried, also with the addition of ham, garlic, and sometimes a little fresh chile.
Mazapán (marzipan from Toledo): Arab farmers gave both almonds and sugar cultivation to Spain and possibly Arab cooks combined ground almonds with sugar to make delectable marzipan, but in Toledo it’s the convents where the tradition is kept alive today.