August 14, 2007

There´s more to Cuenca than Morteruelo, thank goodness!


Cuenca is nothing if not dramatic. Perched on a rocky outcropping with deep river gorges falling off on both sides and spanned by a beautiful steel and wood pedestrian bridge. Houses hanging precariously over the great expanse, the nexus of Spanish abstract art, immensly tall cyprus trees that seem to lap up the deep blue sky, massive stone sculptures, naturally sculpted to look like fists being brandished in the sky, and morteruelo, the most traditional dish in the coquense cuisine.
Oh yes, they love the drama here. As far as I´m concerned, morteruelo (see photo above) is about as dramatic a dish as you can get. Basically, you take some rabbits, partridges, chicken, ham, liver, pork etc. and cook it for a really long time with bread, broth and a whole bunch of spices such as oregano and paprika, until it has the consistency of mushy gruel. Other names for it are great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts and.....no, I´m only kidding, but as a special regional dish it´s not the easiest one to learn to love, and especially not when served hot with even more bread in the dead heat of August, in Spain. But yet, here in Cuenca you see it everywhere. Menus hanging outside of restaurants, beckoning people to come in and try their fare, seem to mock you with morteruelo, as if challenging your stomach to a digestive feat, saying "come on, let´s see how AUTHENTIC a tourist you really are".
I was that authentic of a tourist here, once, but this time around I was hoping that Cuenca could introduce me to some new gastronomic experiences, and I was not disappointed.
The name of the restaurant was Recreo Peral, its existence weasled out of our hotel manager when we insisted that we wanted to go to a non-touristy restaurant (the touristy ones all have the gorgeous views of the gorge below). What I really wanted to ask him was to recommend a restaurant that does not serve morteruelo, but I figured it would be better not to push my luck.
The restaurant can be reached by a lovely road that goes through the historic center of Cuenca, descending down off the plateau and passing by beautiful houses and a convent that have been sculpted out of the rock and bathed in ivy and flowers. At times, the urban walkway takes you under natural stone arches and outcroppings before it descends down to the level of Cuenca´s other river, the Júcar. The restaurant almost looks like one of those slatted farmhouses where you would find an old waterwheel, with two outdoor terraces on either side and a glassed in dining room, all facing the river.
After little cañas (beers) on the outdoor terrace, we moved inside for dinner which began with complementary glasses of cava rosado. A nice touch, and not at all typical in my experience in Spain. The indoor space is quite pleasant, like a glassed in porch filled with Saturday night diners. The only incongruous details were the very modern mismatched plates that the first course was served on and then the too large somewhat old-fashioned plates that came with the main course. The modern and clean lines mingled together with outdated tablecloths printed with the name of the restaurant and current bull fighting posters on the wall. In addition to good and attentive service, the setting and the tiny embellishments (like the glasses of cava) that the restaurant tacked on to the meal gave the whole experience that comfortable feel of quality without pretention - a back woods country club perhaps.
We ordered a salad with slim green asparagus, nuts, citrus fruit, endives and marinated cod. I have to admit I was expecting the oily smoked cod that you normally get on salads - straight out of the packet and onto the plate - but I was delighted to discover that it was fresh cod, and a lot of it, sliced from the loin in thick cool slabs. Next, they brought us some lemon sorbet and then for the main course solomillo or beef tenderloin, simply prepared with rock salt and as grilled to a tender and flavorful perfection. The food was as simple as it was well prepared, and even more importantly with fresh ingredients and attention to detail.
I was tempted to try a local wine from the ample selection and was thrilled when the waiter suggested a 2003 crianza called Casa de Illana (Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Cauvignon) that was half the price (only 13 euros) of the wine that I was originally going to order. Neither incredibly aromatic nor incredibly full bodied, it was nonetheless fantastic on the palate: velvety, smooth, spicey and balanced wafting notes of clove and tart cherry jam.
Had the food and wine of Recreo Peral chased the drama away? Feeling peacefully satisfied and tranquil, we made our way back through the town towards our hotel. I tripped over nothing, fell in the street and sprained my ankle, narrowly avoiding getting hit by an oncoming car. Dramatic dramatic dramatic.

Restaurante Recreo Peral
Carretera Cuenca-Tragacete, Km 1
16002 Cuenca
Tel: 969 22 46 43
Average price for a dinner for two with wine around 75 euros

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