Eduardo García. Journalist
As of January 1st, León is the 2018 Gastronomic Capital of Spain, taking over from the previous city to hold that title, Huelva. A city of tradition, hard work and with a spirit of achievement, León represents a collection of recipes, enriched by its regions and giving rise to exquisite, renowned dishes. León has become a place of great culinary value, thanks to its tapas, gastronomic treasures, products, wines and sweets.
If we're going to talk about León's pillars of gastronomy, the first thing that comes to mind is cocido margato, one of its best dishes whose fame knows no bounds. Known for its intense paprika flavor and spicy finish, picadillo de León, also known as chichos, chicas and jijas, make it a typical dish during the slaughter season, but luckily you can eat it almost all year round.
Simple, filling recipes such as caldereta de cordero, which requires nothing more than lamb, onion, garlic, parsley, white wine and paprika; and botillo, a hearty dish without many rules but which is generally served with nice helping of collard greens and potato. If you have the chance to visit in February, the city of Bembibre celebrates this delicious meat product the second month of the year at the national botillo festival.
Other dishes which deserve to be mentioned include trout soup which, in addition to trout, contains water, bread and paprika; garlic soup, which has ties to the days of fasting and abstinence; Bañeza frogs' legs, a delicious dish with a delicate texture and a flavor similar to chicken; and Valdevimbre omelet, a recipe that is so famous today that the original dish—Spanish omelet—is prepared beforehand with a view to making this dish.
If we're going to talk about age-old recipes, you can find bacalao al ajo arriero (cod with vegetables and garlic), a tribute to the mule drivers that transported goods (such as salted cod) in the olden days, and the olla ferroviaria, a handcrafted instrument heated by charcoal which contained a pot in which food was prepared.
Meat, fish, potatoes or beans and other ingredients that were on hand were prepared, over charcoal, somewhere on the train for four or five hours.
León and its tapas
What would gastronomy be like with its famous tapas bars? There are three areas worth visiting in the capital for tapas: El Barrio Húmedo, El Barrio Romántico and Eras de Renueva. If you're a fan of tradition, you should know that tapas are free—an obligation for anyone who runs a bar. What's more, locales are gradually specializing in different things, so that each of them serves something unique.
There are some legendary bars in these areas, with their respective specialty, such as Bar Miche (Plaza de San Martín) - fried squid; Bar El Flechazo (Platerías) – potatoes with paprika; Bar La Bicha (Plaza de San Martín) – blood sausage; Mesón La Patata (Misericordia) – potatoes; Bar La Alpargata (Carnicerías) – fried quail's egg with bread and paprika, and pig's ear; Bar El Garbanzo Negro (Cuesta de los Castañones) – deep fried mussels in the shell; and El Latino (Plaza de San Martín), squid. In El Chorco (Reyes Leoneses), you must try the Valdeón cheese; potatoes at El Museum; and visit La Competencia for its pizza
If you're a wine lover, in the Barrio Romántico you'll find Taberna de Flandes, where you can try Prieto Picudo rose, made with a DO Tierras de León grape, accompanied by its tapa: pork shoulder.
Cured, smoked beef—in a word: incredible
Cecina (cured, smoked beef) is an exquisite, unique product. It is a symbol of León, where the beef is salted, smoked and dried naturally to produce regular and reserva versions. If you like this type of thing, don't leave León without trying the cecina de chivo de Vegacervera.
Made from goats, it is one of the great unknowns of León's gastronomy. The meat is salted and marinated, and undergoes a curing period of six months so that it can be eaten raw, or one month to be eaten cooked.
The cheeses of León
There are always products that become famous beyond the province, and one example is the cheese from León. Valdeón cheese (PGI), which is blue, has a strong aroma and an intense flavor with salty and spicy notes, is made with goat or cow's milk and undergoes maturation in natural caves.
Beyos cheese is also blue, fatty, and made with cow's milk or cow, ewe and goat's milk but without mixing the sources, and is raw or pasteurized from lactic coagulation With a strong aftertaste, a thin, rough rind and a color which varies between creamy yellow or light yellow and light green, it is semi-hard to hard, closed, has no eyes caused by fermentation and a few mechanical holes.
Other well-known cheeses include those from Babia-Laciana; Coladilla cheese; La Tercia-Villamanín cheese, originally from the southern part of the Puerto de Pajares; and pata de mulo cheese.
A product with a Quality Guarantee, such as the Sahagún leek has a fruity and onion aroma and is juicy, tender, crunchy and easy to chew. This wonderful product can be eaten fresh, canned, as a cream-based soup and used in each case for different gastronomic approaches.
Another culinary treasure from León can be found in La Vega Media del Esla: the Mansilla de las Mulas tomato. This is an exquisite product with an irregular shape and soft, thin skin that's barely even noticeable, which make it a very tasty treat.
Roasted, fried, green or red, peppers deserve their own special section. Examples include peppers from Fresno de la Vega, an extraordinary product from farmland that is very well-cared for by people in the area; they are large, rectangular, wide, very fleshy and they have touches of spice and acidity. Roasted pepper from Bierzo is prepared using traditional methods, on the grill and roasted over wood from oak, holm oak, black poplar and chestnut trees, and is triangular, meaty and sweet with slightly spicy notes.
Legumes and fruit
The province has some of the best legumes around, including La Bañeza beans and Pardina lentils from Tierra de Campos. They have a tradition that dates back to 1570, from which time transaction documents from Medina del Campo are available, when La Bañeza beans had undeniable prestige in the area.
The region of El Bierzo is home to four fruits that are standouts on León's culinary scene. The Reineta apple, which has Designation of Origin status; the juicy and smooth pear, low in graininess and acidity; the small and delicious cherry; and the chestnut, a star in the nut segment given its surprising gustatory qualities which are enhanced further when they are preserved in syrup.
León and its aromas
León also has a wide variety of aromas, of fruit, licorice, and hardwood. Penetrating and unforgettable aromas of young wines, liquor and beers. Bierzo Designations of Origin have their own distinct personality. Grape varieties such as Mencía, Garnacha Tintonera, Doña Blanca, and Palomino, with varying nuances and compositions: whites, young reds, old unaged wines, rosés, aged wines and reserva wines.
The DO Tierra de León extends to the southeast of León province, between the banks of the Esla and Cea Rivers, and also includes some municipalities in bordering provinces like Zamora and Valladolid. It's a young DO, with a native grape known as Prieto Picudo.
If you were to visit the province in summer, and specifically in August, you would be able to take part in the Cacabelos and Valdevimbre harvest festivities, with activities that raise awareness about traditions related to the harvest and winemaking, when baskets, grape juice, music and dance fill the streets. Moreover, at the end of August, Spain's most prestigious oenologists come together at the Villa de Gordoncillo for the Wine Fair. This town, though later in the year (October 12th), holds a wine harvest festival where locals and visitors enjoy an intense grape crushing session in the Plaza Mayor.
If you plan on visiting another time of the year, it's worth noting that during Holy Week, León-style lemonade is very popular. It's one of the city's most representative drinks, with a centuries-old recipe made with wine, sugar, lemon or orange rind, cinnamon and raisins.
There are also liqueurs and aguardientes , made from the natural process of distillation, which are always present as part of a good meal. From the authentic orujo blanco, direct from the distillery, to aromatic liqueurs made with grass, chocolate, mandarin, coffee, hazelnut and green apple—perfect as an after-dinner drink.
And no, we haven't forgotten beer lovers. The province also offers excellent options: Ribera del Órbigo has very close ties with beer as it's home to 95% of Spain's hops production, a fundamental ingredient in beer.
Everyone likes sweets, and you can't leave León without trying some of its famous pastries. This includes fresh and sponge-like buttercakes from Astorga; nicanores de Boñar, a pastry shaped like a daisy; and lazos de San Guillermo, from the León mountains, a cream-colored pastry covered with icing sugar and ground almonds.
Another outstanding option is imperiales de La Bañeza, which are rectangular, soft and delicious and are made with almond, sugar and egg. It's a long and tasty list. Orejuelas during Carnival, the famous rosquillas in San Froilán, San Marcos cake, cream pastries from Boca Huérgano, canelas from León, amarguillos from Sahagún, yemas from La Bañeza, marzipan from Babia...
And we must mention rosquillas from San Froilán, typical during the San Froilán festivities. They weigh about 20 grams and are made with milk, salt, butter, eggs, flour and a splash of rum; and also its famed honeys, including honey from Brezo, miel de bosque, and miel de mil flores; and monastic pastries such as canutillos and amarguillos, circular sweets with toasted almond on top.
But indubitably we cannot leave León without trying the chocolate from Astorga, where a museum pays homage to it and visitors can see utensils and objects that represents the history of chocolate production: roasters, refiners, rollers, troughs, mortars, molds and machinery from the beginning of the 19th century. On its own or with a surprising ingredient: sprinkles made from cecina. On its own or in hot chocolate. Made using traditional methods and with the same flavor as always. Or as part of a unique pairing.
If you're interested in trying new flavors, León is the perfect place to satisfy your hunger. With a wide variety of gastronomic temptations, it's not a bad idea to wear loose-fitting clothing and tuck into all of the exquisite culinary treasures the province has to offer.