You shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that one of my first pieces here is a Hedonist’s Gazette article, as I cannot conceive good food without wine. To me, wine is an integral part of gastronomy, and the final objective of wine is to be drunk, more often than not, in the company of good friends and good food. I find it difficult to understand a wine lover who doesn’t like eating, and in my mind, chefs should be into wine, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Nevertheless, I had the chance to visit what many consider the meat lover’s paradise, a restaurant in the tiny village of Jiménez de Jamuz, close to La Bañeza, province of León, some 300 kilometers away from Madrid as you drive northwest on the A6 motorway towards Galicia. The chef there loves wine, and the food is fantastic, so I thought I’d let you know about it.
The name of this place is El Capricho, which translates as something like "The Whim" or "The Caprice," as it was the dream place the current owner’s grandfather built to sell the wines he was making. Increasingly he started offering a little something to eat to the people that showed up to buy his wines. Naturally, José kept the name El Capricho as an homage to his grandfather. You wouldn’t think anybody has heard about this place in the middle of nowhere, but proprietor José Gordón has already been featured in magazines and publications from all over the world, Stern in Germany, The Guardian in the U.K. or Time in the U.S., and he talks about celebrities chefs like José Andrés, who are regulars at his restaurant. Why could that be? Well, because of his passion for meat, for oxen, for paying attention to details, translates into a sublime culinary experience. But don’t bring any vegetarians into the house—they might have a heart attack!
Gordón travels throughout Spain and Portugal, mainly the north, Asturias, Galicia, Minho and Douro, but venturing into wherever he can find a good animal. Yes, he scouts both countries for working oxen, he buys the live animals, and brings them – sometimes shipping them by boat, like the two he recently acquired in the Azores islands- to his ranch, where they stay on average a couple of years before they are ready to be slaughtered and offered to his customers. On his property (which I had the luck to visit in an extended lunch that lasted from before one in the afternoon to after five o'clock) these animals feast on wild herbs, thyme, rosemary, lavender and acorns, and pace leisurely to make sure they are well relaxed.
“It all contributes to better fat, better texture and better flavor," he says. "I only want to buy happy animals, those whose owner has treated them well, that have not suffered or been beaten. Happy animals produce the best meat."
To cut the story short (I could write a lot more after spending only one day with the man; such is the passion and the amount of fascinating information he gives you non-stop), what he offers here is some of the best red meat you can find. He goes to all sorts of trouble (“the way the animal is killed is vital; they should never get stressed”), and dry-ages the humungous carcasses for as long as they need, often 70 to 100 days, as we’re talking about 1,200 or 1,300 kilo animals so he can offer different meats every day. At around 11:00 a.m., they take what they estimate they are going to sell that day out of the fridge, to bring it to the right temperature before being grilled to perfection over holm oak coals.
We sat down to eat very late; by the time we visited the animals on the ranch and the cold room where the meat is slowly dry-aged, it was past three o’clock. If you visit Spain you need to realize that lunchtime is normally two o’clock, maybe later during weekends or summer.
There are always a few starters before you can sink your teeth into that red meat you’ve seen warming up in the kitchen. Not surprisingly, most of what’s on offer are beef product. (Or should I say ox products.) We had brought three red wines to go with the food, we opened them all at once and got three different glasses to follow the evolution of the wines and how they behaved with the different dishes. The Vieux Château Certan 1988 starts a little meaty, with a bloody note, very adequate for the occasion, I should say, with just a hint of red pepper, very polished tannins (very unlike 1988, actually), more on the elegant side, sapid and sweet, perfect to drink. The wine was a little warm when opened, and it’s amazing how much more focused it became when it got a little colder. With some air and time in the glass the sweet note turns into honey and beeswax, which denotes a slight oxidation. A closer look at the cork reveals a scratch running the length of it, most probably caused during bottling, which turned into a hair of wine getting through. It’s probably more advanced than it should be, but by the time we realized it, the bottle was almost gone.
Cecina is the local name for cured beef ham. José cures the back legs of the oxen in an old wine cave at a constant temperature of around 12° C, for between two and three years. During this time the meat loses about 50% of its weight. Only two out of 10 animals qualify for the premium quality he’s looking for, and then it’s only a certain part of the leg that will make it. What arrives at your table is a plate full of paper-thin dry meat with a slightly smoky flavor, balanced with some notes of dried nuts and a mineral hint, a taste that rivals the very best ham from acorn-fed Ibérico pigs, the famous pata negra from Spain. The flavor is very concentrated, and you expect to find crystals similar to those found in Parmesan cheese or in cured ham, but the texture here is completely smooth. A slightly animal and smoky note from the cecina was a perfect match for the Chave Hermitage Rouge 1999, both the meat and the wine being full of umami. At €190/kilo it must be one of the most expensive and exclusive meats in the world. The cecina was pure elegance, it’s flavors helping even to make the wines more focused, like when you’re fiddling with an overhead projector and all of a sudden the image becomes really clear.
The Chave started off showing plenty of smoky tapenade. With time it developed a very strong balsamic note, which reminded me a little of a Sine Qua Non Impostor McCoy 1997 that I had had the chance to drink a couple of weeks before. It’s still a baby, it will probably last for 30 years (or more), and it will always be a wine of power. Fine-grained tannins, very intense, both in the nose and the palate, with plenty of blueberry and mineral overtones. 1999 was a bit of a freak vintage in northern Rhône, and it produced some very ripe and concentrated wines, but the Chave was in no way heady or lacking freshness. Exuberant, a little minty, ripe and ultra-balsamic, but fresh.
Next was a plate of cured ox tongue. It takes a couple of months to prepare the tongue before it can be served. It’s pickled and spiced, then drained, slightly smoked, and only at the end of the process, boiled. It is served cold, thinly sliced, but not as thin as the cecina as it is boiled meat, and as such very gelatinous, and it’s impossible to make it paper-thin. Sprinkled with some olive oil and some coarse Maldon sea salt crystal, it just melts in your mouth in an explosion of flavors. We felt like we needed to have at least one portion of vegetables, so we went for some boletus mushrooms, just tossed in a pan with olive oil and a pinch of salt and garlic. They were full of flavor and texture, a little earthy and crunchy, the kind of vegetables that can match mature red wine. To garnish the meat they always suggest some roasted red peppers, one of the many specialities of northern Spain.
The Montrose 1995 was a completely different animal, a bit dusty, text-book Saint Estèphe, from a powerful vintage; it revealed a thick texture with plenty of tannins that needed a Flintstone-sized steak to go with it. Thankfully we had one at hand. Straight and austere in comparison with the roundness of the Pomerol. Drinking well now, but there’s no rush as the wine has the stuffing to last for many years.
The star here is the rib eye steak, from animals averaging 5 to 6 years of age, but sometimes they are exceptionally old, like El Rubio, recently slaughtered at the ripe old age of 14, which produced a carcass of 955 kilos of meat. Think of an elephant. They show you the actual steak (or steaks) you’re going to eat before grilling them, and then when it’s ready, José personally slices each and every one of them in front of you. There’s only one steak going at a time, and that, for a restaurant that seats over 100 people, means they really take their time to do things properly. Usually tables are for big parties that share most of the food tapas-style, even the over 2 kilogram steaks.
“Slicing is very important for the texture. You should always slice perpendicular to the nerve."
José talks about the different breeds of the animals as we talk about Tempranillo, Pinot Noir or Riesling; you’ll get used to hearing Mirandesa, Rubia Gallega, Parda Leonesa, Zamorana de Sayago, Maronesa… Today we had two different Portuguese meats, the first one a rib eye of Mirandés breed that weighed 2.2 kilos. When I entered the cold room where the meat is aged there was a very strong smell of hazelnuts, and this smell was present in the meat when you ate it. The fat is unbelievable. They take away the external one inch that has been exposed to the oxidative effect of the air, and they only serve the very centre of it, something you can eat. It’s very much like bone marrow, savory and tasty. The meat is sweet, with a subtle, elegant taste. And a distinct mineral note.
By the time the second steak appeared (Barroso, a steak that weighed 2.1 kilos) we were almost out of wine, so José ran to his private cellar and produced a couple of bottles of old Rioja. I wanted to open just one, but they all (including José) insisted on opening both. They were CVNE Imperial 1973 and Excelso 1964 from Bodegas Franco Españolas. 1973 was one of the last truly classical vintages of Rioja, before plantings and yields exploded and quality became a lot less even. It was not a great vintage overall, even though it was more successful for certain producers than for others (it was particularly good for La Rioja Alta). CVNE did not have any special esteem for the year, other than the official qualification, but I found this bottle superb. Imperial is the archetype of the Alta sub-zone of Rioja, the most representative of the Haro wines, straight and full, powerful, with a portion of Graciano (and surely the white Viura), presented in a Bordeaux bottle. The nose showed the typical notes from the American oak—it often brings the aroma of dill to my memory- sweet, with some toffee, and with a mouth feel of polished tannins that stands and actually complements the texture and savoriness of the meat with a particular iodine touch.
This second steak was firmer, José was of the opinion that it needed more aging, as it had only been aged for about 35 days, “but it’s always interesting to try it”. Over all, I’d say the Barroso was more intense, with more of that nutty flavor. The Excelso 1964 immediately revealed that it was past its best. The nose of decayed leaves, with some hints of compost was indicating a dead wine. However the mouth was still there, just hanging on to the last moments of life. It also suffered greatly with the comparison with the other bottles. That’s what happens with old bottles, there are no great vintages anymore, just great (or not so great) bottles.
We did have a couple of desserts to share, a tasty and elegant saffron ice cream, and a kind of freaky tiramisu with a base of ox-lard cookie, coffee and a hazelnut quenelle sprinkled with dark chocolate. We were hoping for something lighter, but they were very tasty and disappeared in a couple of minutes.
I’ve seen very categorical headlines and opinions elsewhere talking about ‘the best steak in the world’ and the like. I’ll just say this is the best steak I’ve ever eaten. And I tell you, I hope to come back again for more!