Inheriting sustainability: how Castilla-La Mancha’s chefs are reaching into the past to build a new future
Join chef Jeremy Chan on a trip around Castilla-La Mancha as he meets the community, discovers local flavours, samples traditional recipes and investigates ancient techniques kept alive by local cooks and producers to safeguard the Spanish region’s ancient culinary heritage.
Castilla-La Mancha is an area rich in natural resources, high quality ingredients and unique flavours. From the giant windmills that inspired Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote to the history preserved in the walls of its medieval towns, as well as the delicious cheese, unique honey and flavourful truffles produced here, the region has a lot to offer to the most discerning traveller.
But as Jeremy Chan – chef-director of Ikoyi in London, winner of the American Express One To Watch Award 2021 and No.35 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 – steps off the plane for the third and final trip as part of the 50 Best Explores Castilla-La Mancha travel series, the region is a question mark for him. His memories of Spain are linked to the time he spent in the country 10 years ago, when he lived in Madrid working in finance – but Spanish gastronomic culture and the enjoyment the capital’s inhabitants derived from local food and drinks inspired him to become a chef.
Despite being just two hours’ drive east of Madrid, the town of Cuenca – set in the mountains of east-central Spain – offers a very different vibe than the cosmopolitan capital where Chan lived. A magnificent settlement where urbanisation meets nature and the two become one, Cuenca features hilly roads and houses hanging on the side of the mountains, overlooking a lush valley where agriculture has long been the predominant occupation.
In the middle of this incredible landscape sits Jesús Segura’s restaurant, Casas Colgadas (hanging houses), located in the most famous building in the city, hugging the mountain with superb views of the valley below. Here, Segura serves a delicious menu based on research and interpretation of the local environment, keeping his ancestors’ knowledge alive and sourcing from local producers. “For us, the real value is no longer the product itself, but the wisdom behind the product or medicinal plant," he highlights.
Take, for instance, El Sarajo, a dish that he makes with casquerías (offal) and whose recipe has been passed down for four generations, having been served in the city for more than 400 years. A floral dessert also features a local acorn, similar to elderberry, called sauco, which has more vitamins than an orange – all served in a beautiful dining room overlooking the stunning scenery, prompting Chan to highlight to Segura: “To be able to come here every day and look out into this valley, it must be quite special.”
Elsewhere in Cuenca, in the nearby village of Huerta del Marquesado, Olga García and Alejandro Paz are offering a new perspective on sustainability at their restaurant Fuentelgato. The charming young couple offers a modern yet homey menu that has become the talk of the town among food cognoscenti. “The menu changes according to the seasons, with fish and vegetables reigning supreme during spring and summer, while in autumn and winter, we use game meat with a focus on stews,” says García.
Opened in 2015 as a bar, in 2020 García and Paz converted the space into its current format: a cosy and welcoming 16-seat restaurant run solely by the couple. In recent years, they have turned the biggest challenge posed by climate change into a major advantage. "The seasons are very blurred and often mixed, making it difficult to predict the longevity of a product," says García. This situation forces them to be more creative and adaptable, enabling them to extract maximum value from their ingredients, even if it means offering some dishes for only two weeks. “I really like their style of cooking, which is simple and very modern. It iterates the sense of place, of home and of the region,” highlights Chan.