Leon - The Gastronomic Jewel in the Castillian Crown
by The Tapas Lunch Company
From the TLC Blog
Leon, a compact city home to around 140,000 and located about four hours drive north west of Madrid, is not a destination often found on the 'Must Visit' lists of Spanish hot-spots. High up on the Castilian 'meseta' and surrounded by interminable agricultural plains, the city feels isolated and somewhat trapped in time, a sensation amplified by its long, cold winters and gothic city centre. The few tourists who do visit here are almost exclusively pilgrims on the 'Camino de Santiago' who stop to admire the imposing cathedral that dominates the 'Casco Antiguo'. But deep within its centuries old heart and crumbling city walls, Leon hides a culinary surprise of inestimable value, both cultural and gastronomic. Tapas. Not petrol station-style snacks, not British-style tapas-as-a-meal, not 3 Euro San Sebastian-style pinchos, but authentic Spanish tapas.
Not only is Leon one of the only Spanish cities left where tapas are still served as they have been for centuries - as a small, free accompaniment to a drink, but the tapas are generous (sometimes amazingly so) and a 'corto' (a small glass of beer) still only costs 1 Euro (Jan 2009) and will earn you the right to your tapa. To this add the incredible variety of tapas served by the hundreds of bars dotted around the city, most of which have a distinct house speciality, and the laid-back, bar-hopping style of the locals and the result is a 'tapas culture' which is rivalled perhaps only by Granada on a world scale.
So what is an evening out on the tapas trail in Leon like? To begin with, like many aspects of Spanish life, the start of the evening tapas session is timed like a military operation. Arrive in the 'Barrio Humedo' (wet district!), centred around the Plaza de san Martin, at 7pm and it will be deserted; arrive at 8pm and you'll be lucky to squeeze in anywhere. So, we like to start a little earlier than most at one of the first places to open, like El Gaucho, which specialises in a dish which is Leon through and through: Jijas con Patatas (loose chorizo sausage meat, lightly fried in olive oil and served with cubed and fried potatoes). There's only two of us, so they throw the meat and potatoes together in a single dish and present it to us with a little fork. It disappears in an instant along with the tiny beer it came with. Two Euros down and we're off next door where the selection is 'chunks of tortilla' (spanish potato omelette), 'bollo preñado' (a little roll stuffed with a little chorizo) and 'tigres' (mussels in their shell with a bechamel sauce and breadcrumb crust).
By now its starting to get busy, so we'll head off round the corner to 'Flechazo' - tiny and incredibly popular for its hand-fried crisps topped with spicy pimenton (also superbly done by Bar Madrid in the 'Romantic District'). There's nothing else on offer here so the waiter just calls the orders to the kitchen by numbers: for 2, for 6, for 3 etc. Locals wash the crisps down with 'tinto con butano' (red wine with fizzy orange) or Mahou on tap.
After squeezing out of Flechazo, perhaps we'll head back to Plaza de San Martin for 'croquetas de jamon/atun' (ham or tuna potato croquetes) at Rebote or slices of delicious pizza at La Competencia. Just across from there, we pop into a dark, atmospheric bar for a real taste of old Leon - 'sopas de trucha' (garlic soup with trout). Can't say this one's really to my taste, but I'm assured by more reliable sources that it is exquisite. I'll opt for a little toast topped with goats cheese instead.
Now it's decision time. Do we continue doing the rounds of the bars, nibbling and getting progressively drunker? If so, maybe be we'll head off to the centre of town and the Calle Ancha for some of the best Jamon Serrano I've ever tasted. Or do we sit down for a proper dinner? Perhaps back at the Plaza where a tiny restaurant, the name of which escapes me, serves an incredibly simple but delicious 'Ensalada Jabugo' (sliced tomatos topped with finely sliced, top-quality Jabugo ham and garlic and dressed with a mouth watering olive oil and sherry vinegar combo). Of course, this being Spain, you don't have to go and dance with teenagers if you fancy continuing after dinner. Many, many 'bares de copes' (bars that open late into the night) will be happy to have you sipping whisky or rum and coke until the first morning light.