FOOD • October 2020
Welcome to the Dining Club, where we explore the world through the UK’s food scene and snag Executive Club Members exclusive benefits at some of the nation’s top restaurants and bars. In this, our first gastronomic adventure, César García, executive chef at Ibérica Restaurants, talks us through his favourite Spanish staples
“We make each croqueta by hand, shaping the rich jamón-flecked béchamel into spheres and covering these in golden breadcrumbs before deep-frying”
Croquetas de jamón
These hold such a special place in my heart. Everyone eats croquetas in Spain and everyone claims that their mother or grandmother make the best ones. Our recipe is from the grandmother of Nacho Manzano (Ibérica’s multi-Michelin-starred executive chef) and it is perhaps what he, and our restaurants, are best known for. We make each croqueta by hand, shaping the rich jamón-flecked béchamel into spheres and covering these in golden breadcrumbs before deep-frying. The ham is imported directly from Spain, which is where we find the best quality ingredients. I basically eat croquetas every day at the restaurant. I like to test each batch to make sure it’s up to standard!
This is what I call ‘pure product’, and by that I mean we don’t cook or steam it for hours in advance. It’s ibérico pork (the same that’s used for our slices of jamón) that comes from the pluma, the feather-shaped part of the loin. In Spain, we like our pork juicy and tender. By cooking it this way, you can really taste and appreciate the flavours and characteristics of the 100 per cent ibérico de bellota pork, which comes from Extremadura (Spain’s western region that borders Portugal); a different cut from what you usually see here in the UK. We pair it with a mojo rojo – our take on the spicy sauce from the Canary Islands – using smoked paprika that’s also from Extremadura.
Pitu de caleya is a sort of ‘muscular’, free-roaming chicken in my region of Asturias in the north of Spain. We cook it for 1.5 hours and make the sauce out of the vegetables we’ve cooked it with before putting it on rice. Nacho was one of the first chefs to feature this dish and bring the taste of Asturias to the minds and mouths of diners on a national and international level. It’s been on our menu from day one and is still to this day one of our most popular dishes. Don’t mistake it for paella, though, which is a different rice dish from the Valencia region.
The menu at Ibérica is a complete mix of dishes from across Spain. We have what we consider classic Spanish plates – the things you’d expect to find in any tasca – such as tortilla and patatas bravas. Then we have our signature tapas that we put our own interpretations on and are a bit more gastronomic in style. They still have a strong original Spanish connection, but always with a twist and using many ingredients from across the country. One of my favourites at the moment is our aubergine steak, which is steamed and pan-fried, then served with a rich vegetable glaze, roasted ceps, walnuts, lemon rocket and parsley oil.
“The pulled lamb and fat get beautifully caramelised and crunchy, then we serve it with confit Bierzo peppers and green pea purée”
This pays homage to our grandmothers, who used to braise lamb in the oven and stew it and is very typical of central Spain. We use the pulled lamb and set it in a mould before pan-frying it to serve. All of the meat and fat gets beautifully caramelised and crunchy, then we serve it with confit Bierzo peppers and green pea purée (pictured below). Bierzo is an area in Castilla y León near Portugal that is famous for its peppers. If you’re visiting, seek out the old Roman gold mine, whose stones take on a beautiful pinky-red hue at sundown.
Every country has some sort of meatballs done in different ways and Spain is no different. We serve ours with a cream foam using an Asturian cheese called Massimo Rey Silo, which is a classic Spanish cheese named after an Asturian king from the 7th century that’s made from raw cow’s milk. The team at Ibérica uses cheese that has been aged much in the same way they would do back in the old days, giving it a lovely buttery texture with a medium strength. And because it’s cow’s milk, it works really well when paired with the juicy, beefy meatballs.
Best of the rest
There are many other dishes and drinks on our menu from all over Spain. We get our supply of Padrón peppers from a small village in Galicia (which is also where the dish originates) that has the protected ‘Denominación de Origen’. You can taste sobrasada from Mallorca, cider from Asturias, sherry from Jerez, four types of cava from Cataluña and wines from all over the country, from Murcia to Rioja. Want dessert? It has to be arroz con leche (rice pudding), which we cook slowly for an hour, but in this case using fresh British milk as it is creamier than the long-life milk we tend to drink in Spain.
“Passing your plates around creates such a lovely dining experience, plus you get to test and taste a lot of different things”
Tapas or raciones?
In Spain, tapas means really tiny portions. What you actually tend to get served in Spanish restaurants are raciones (big tapas, if you like). Either way, these small plates are, of course, perfect for sharing and really bond people – passing plates around creates such a lovely dining experience, plus you get to try and taste a lot of different things. I remember a guest who came regularly to Ibérica for business lunches with clients as he felt the nature of tapas helped give his business meetings that comfortable informality. In this setting, people are more inclined to open up, talk and relax.
César García is executive chef at Ibérica restaurants, with locations across London and Leeds. To book your table at Ibérica, click here