Stephen Oryszczuk checks into the five-star Hacienda Zorita in the beautiful setting of Salamanca, for a delightful culinary short break…
Where does the rain stay in Spain? Yes, I can vouch that it definitely does stay mainly in the plain.
Those famous words, from Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, kept ringing in my ears during our short winter break at a food and wine hotel near the gorgeous, altitudinous city of Salamanca, where the heavens opened.
When it’s not pouring down, the region of Castilla y León, which covers much of the mainland’s north-west, is thoroughly impressive, as evidenced by the two-and-a-half hour drive west from Madrid.
We were heading to Salamanca, the region’s cultural capital, and Hacienda Zorita, an estate nestling in the foothills just beyond the city and dating back to the 14th century, but which now specialises in gastronomy and oenology (study of wine for the lay person!)
The idea of a five-star hotel producing its own food and offering some of the world’s best wines on menus inspired by a Michelin-starred chef was one we thought might interest a Jewish audience.
Off we went, armed with shorts and T-shirts and hopes of sun, into the drenched world of Dominican monks, Knights Templar, pilgrim routes, saints’ tombs and isolated hillside chapels. The whole place fizzes with history. Christopher Columbus even stayed here, according to the marketing material.
We landed in the heart of the Duero Valley, home to Spain’s best wine, Ribera del Duero, and were told to take it easy.
A prominent Mae West quote greeted us, intoning that “anything worth doing is worth doing slowly”. It was immediately obvious that this was going to be a kind of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ experience.
Álvaro, who impressed throughout, showed us to our room in the main building. A balcony overlooked a lake stuffed with huge fish, over which bats would later hunt at dusk, while kingfishers took the morning shift. Standing with our complimentary fizz, we sipped some of the freshest air I’ve known, which is saying something when you live in Dartmoor.
Mrs O, a stressed-out City lawyer, was soon scanning the list of treatments in the Wine and Olive Spa, cooing over such delights as the Wine and Roses Ritual, during which one is massaged with grape pip oil and given the “full wine therapy treatment”. Yes. One of those, please.
Evening came and we wandered down to look around. For sheer spectacles, the cavernous 14th century ageing cellar takes some beating, with its high walkway where you can stare down at more than 1,000 oak barrels.
At the far end there was wine tasting, where we learned why the microclimate here makes for perfect conditions (very little frost plus the influence of the Atlantic, 100km away).
We started with a 2014 Ruedo Verdejo called Vega de la Reina, recently voted the best white wine in the world by those who’d know. Mrs O agreed.
We moved on to reds, Syrah and Tempranillo grapes, checking the colour of the rim for maturity, and the legs (streaks) for alcohol and sugar.
We learned about the difference between French and American oak barrels, about density and intensity, and about how to use all your senses.
“It’s all in the nose,” said the teacher, before asking us what we could smell. Caramel? Toast? Chocolate? Leather? Tobacco? Vanilla? Herbs? We looked blank, to her disappointment. Finally we’re told: it smells of cigar packs. Ah, yes, now that you mention it… We finished with a Hibiscus Mojito, another nod to Columbus. Then it’s off to the restaurant, where we started with some bread and olive oil that smelled like tomatoes (intentionally).
There’s a “slow food” philosophy, as ordered by Michelin-starred chef Victor Gutierrez, so nothing is rushed, meaning you can eat more.
First up from the wine-pairing menu is dried beef, olives and anchovies with Padua oil, followed by foie mi-cuit, sweet rolls and pistachio with 10-year-old balsamic acceto, washed down with Hacienda Zorita’s own 2011 Syrah.
Pumpkin soup then gets a 2010 Brut Cava, while grilled turbot, stir-fried vegetable hash and garlic and soya dressing come with the afore-mentioned white wine superstar Vega de la Reina.
Thereafter, suckling lamb rack with spinach, pine nuts and raisins heralds the arrival of Magister, a premium red, which lingers over the final course of goat cheesecake with walnuts, honey and passion fruit.
If you can still move after that, spend some time in Salamanca. A World Heritage Site, it hosts one of the West’s oldest universities, and was once an important city along the Via de la Plata, a famous trade route for the transport of silver, stretching from the Andalusian city of Seville in the south-east to the Portuguese border in the north-west, along which Jewish merchants made their money.
The central square, Plaza Mayor, is the social epicentre, flags and banners suggesting a wealth of cultural activities. From here you’re within striking distance of several stunning cathedrals, convents, colleges and palaces.
Don’t miss the 12th century Torre del Gallo, and remember to hunt the frog, a hidden statue in the university. In between that and the Roman bridges, head for the tapas and wash them down with a great Spanish red.
If you go, let the Drink, Eat, Wander way of life guide you. But pack an umbrella.
• Details: http://the-haciendas.com