La Mancha will surprise you. Inland and south of Madrid, La Mancha is home to fields of bright saffron crocuses (and their gorgeous stamens, aka saffron), windmills atop hills surfing waves of wild rocket, each tender stem reaching for the stars and proud with rocket flowers. There are beautiful rural towns with ancient buildings and theatres. Country squares full of locals dancing, painting, enjoying local festivals. Don Quixote was set here and you can see it everywhere.
I visited at the start of May and it was already getting quite hot. La Mancha is inland and is hot in the summer, climbing down to a cool minus five celsius in the winter. It is red wine country, and they produce some terrific Manchego wines. Manchego? Isn’t that a cheese? Why, yes, but it means of La Mancha, and there is plenty of local produce here to discover. Cheese, saffron and a lot of lovely wine. Just to start!
There are poppies everywhere. Tall and waving and surrounding the ever present huge old wine vessels which used to contain fermenting wine and in some places still do. La Mancha wine has a DO (denomination of origin, protected due to how and where it is made), and the climate and conditions are perfect for wine. Wines there are terrific value too.
We started our trip in Almagro in Ciudad Real, a couple of hours drive from Madrid airport. The main square is lined with gorgeous green and white wooden buildings. The evening I was there it was packed with ladies crocheting lace, old and young. Almagro lace is an artisan product of the region and is crocheted with bobbins. Lots of bobbins, it is mesmerising to watch. There were tables of people playing cards, people gathered around propped easels either painting or observing painters. There were people dancing energetically, on closer investigation it turned out to be zumba. High energy and fun, and I loved the sense of community.
We proceeded to the local Parador de Almagro, a 4 star hotel set in a 16th century monastery. Large corridors, thick stone walls, and curtains billowing in the breeze greeted us. Walls bright with flowers. This is where I had my first taste of Gachas Manchegas, a porridge (although much smoother than any porridge we have) made from grass peas (almorta), smooth and gorgeous, tasting almost of chickpea. It is often made with streaky pork, but not this time. It opened my eyes to more possibilities, I spent the next few days chasing it at every meal. I would love a bowl of it now, and most days.
The next morning, we went to Tablas de Daimiel National Park. An utterly surprising large national park packed with wild herbs (fennel, rocket), and glorious rare birds. For the first time I listened to a (wild) nightingale sing. A treat for birdwatchers, and a joy for everyone. We wandered among the long grass, observing the poppies, and the ducks, and the enormous fish gliding through the waters.
Lunch was at Daimiel nearby, a lovely small town and home to family run restaurant Mesón el Bodegón. Rubén Sanchez-Camacho is chef, along with his mother, Maria Infante, in the kitchen. Ramón Sanchez-Camacho is the award winning sommelier leading a long family tradition. The restaurant was their family winery from 1795 to 1975, before becoming the restaurant it is now. They have converted some of the old large wine containers into small houses for tables for two. We started with some appetisers and sparkling wine in the old cellar beneath the restaurant.
Rubén is known for his modern twists on manchego classics. Ramón matched some terrific La Mancha wines to each course. A lovely lunch and incredible value at €43 for 8 courses including wines.
Smooth rich foie olives with with sweet sharp skins made from apple and sweet wine were served with punchy crumbly chorizo migas. Lovely!
A very elegant take on sopa castellana (a Castillian soup made with ham, paprika and garlic) was a gorgeous introduction to the local cuisine. With quail egg yolk, jamon, chorizo, bread, saffron and paprika here. This is one soup that I love to order when in Madrid (usually before some roast suckling pig) and this was a fabulous version. I wanted more, but there was lots more to come.
The octopus was the star dish. Boiled in the traditional way it was super tender and in a crisp intense coat (which unfortunately is a chefs secret). Underneath a red wine mayonnaise.
One month old suckling lamb was cooked in a modern manchego style, for 18 hours at 40 degrees and served with mushroom perrichicos from Navarra.
We finished with the psychedelic and fruity Tabla de Damien.
How do you follow that? It is possible. We headed to Consuegra, famous for windmills, those very windmills that Don Quixote mistook for giants and tried to fight, and bright saffron fields. At Cafe La Antigua, Jesus (hay-zus, of course!) prepared saffron his famous saffron G&T for me. Using 1085 gin from nearby Toledo and saffron from the local fields, suspended in ice cubes before being added to the G&T. It was beautiful.
Not a bad 24 hours. Wouldn’t you agree?!
El Bodegón, Calle de Luchana, 20, 13250 Daimiel, Cdad. Real, Spain
Café La Antigua, Plaza España, 5, 45700 Consuegra, Toledo, Spain
Parador de Almagro, Ronda de San Francisco, 31, 13270 Almagro, Cdad. Real, Spain
Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Carr. a las Tablas de Daimiel, 13250 Daimiel, Cdad. Real, Spain