Why Murcia’s rice fields and vineyards make it a little-known Spanish jewel by gourmets
Although it is bordered by over 150 miles of sparkling Mediterranean coastline and has one of the warmest climates in Spain (hence the epithet of Costa Calida, or “warm coast” – and its status as “European orchard”), the region of Murcia is eclipsed by tourism terms by its neighbors Andalucia and Valencia.
But that could be about to change. Last year, the relay of the Spanish capital of gastronomy was passed on to Murcia, a distinction that was extended by almost two years.
While it’s reasonable to be somewhat cynical about the self-awarded rewards, after five days of exploring the region’s culinary offerings, I (and my enlarged waistline) can attest that it more than deserves this. title.
Here’s how to enjoy a Murcia foodie odyssey.
Alma Mater restaurant, city of Murcia
My trip started with a cooking class with the chef at Alma Mater, an award-winning restaurant in the provincial capital, the city of Murcia.
Here I was introduced to some of the typical dishes of the region via a cooking class guided by the expert hand of Chef Juan Guillamón.
Murcia’s mojete salad is a simple but delicious combination of tuna, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and cuquillo olives.
The marinera is considered tapas royalty around these parts, a dollop of Russian salad precariously balanced on a stick of looped bread (rosquilla) and topped with a long fatty anchovy.
Caldero Murciano sits somewhere between paella and risotto, in which a rich fish broth combines with earthy ñora pepper for a lingering, velvety flavor.
The most fun to try was paparajotes – a word that is best pronounced with a face mask during a pandemic.
These are battered lemon leaves, fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
Please note: the leaf cannot be eaten but impregnates its crispy and sweet shell with an aromatic hint of citrus.
Restaurant Cabaña Buenavista, Finca Buenavista
If it was a gentle stroll through the essentials of Murcian cuisine, our next experience was a food roller coaster ride at Cabaña Buenavista – the only restaurant in the area to be awarded two Michelin stars.
It is part of the pretty Finca Buenavista in the foothills of the Sierra de Carrascoy south of the capital.
At the helm, the Michelin-starred chef of Murcian origin Pablo González, whose “gastronomic laboratory” has evoked high-level cuisine since 2004.
While Pablo shared his lockdown frustrations, he admitted that it also gave him more creative space to explore new ideas and expand his menu.
Our meal began in the laboratory, where we took a culinary journey to the four corners of the province, from the aromatic pines of Sierra Espuña to the sweet and salty langoustines of the Mar Menor lagoon.
The dinner continued in a cavernous and conical hut, with a succession of dishes expertly presented: red mullet and venison steak, tuna breast and Iberian stew, artisan cheeses and edible flowers, red shrimps and grilled avocado… There is also had a lot of theater, with puffy dry ice and desserts presented in a colorful carousel.
It was made all the more intoxicating by the generous association of wines from the trio of appellations of origin of Murcia: Yecla, Jumilla and Bullas.
Cave Bodegas Lavia, Sierra de la Lavia
The next morning I was in a vineyard, surrounded by the lush valleys of Bullas, swirling and squinting in the deep brown of a leggy red.
It was the Bodegas Lavia winery in the Sierra de la Lavia, where General Manager Juan Manrique García shared his optimism about the predominant grape, Monastrell.
These hardy vines, he explained, are particularly drought tolerant and well equipped to cope with climate change.
I reflected on this sobering thought as we tasted more impactful Lavia wines and great local cheese.
While rice figures prominently in Spanish cuisine, paddy fields are not something most of us associate with the country.
The grain was introduced by the Moors and as a result Murcia has a long history of rice cultivation concentrated around the region of Calasparra.
The channeled water of the Segura River created the floodplains necessary for the cultivation of rice, and from there comes the now protected grain commonly known as “Bomba”.
Ripened longer than other varieties, it is particularly absorbent and perfect for capturing the complex flavor of the caldero.
Cartagena Tuna Festival, Cartagena
Another surprising industry in Murcia is tuna farming, based around the ancient port city of Cartagena.
Unlike fish farming, this aquaculture consists of capturing fish in their Mediterranean spawning grounds and bringing them back alive to the shore.
Here they are transferred to pens and a few months of feeding results in top quality and super fresh tuna.
Although today about 70 percent of that goes to the Japanese market, you’ll still find some of the world’s best atún rojo (or bluefin tuna) on local menus.
My visit coincided with the first Cartagenasia, a tuna fair celebrating the links between the city and Japan forged through the giant fish.
Having been introduced to Murcia’s culinary scene, I can’t wait to return – and although I inevitably am drawn to its beaches and mild climate, I know some of the best food and drink in Spain will be waiting for me as well. .
Ryanair and easyJet serve Murcia from several airports. Trains run through Paris and Barcelona.
Arrivals to the UK must show full proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. All travel bookings in the region of Murcia include free Covid medical assistance insurance until June 30, 2022. murciaturistica.com