21 Jan, 2010 @ 17:03
4 mins read

Highway to heaven

IN the heart of the old Jewish quarter, within shouting distance of the Mesquita, it was hard to believe that we had made a gastronomic discovery.

With not a tourist in sight, and the only voices those of excitable young Cordobesans, La Fragua was truly something of a find.

Up a tiny alley, next to the stunning new five star hotel Las Casas de la Juderia, it would be easy to miss. But the low key fascade and entrance are a sop for this charming restaurant run by a trio of 30-something friends, each with a passion for food and good wine.

It is a testament to the enthusiasm of owner Pepe Navarro and his head waiter Javi and chef Miguel Eguidazu, fittingly a Basque, that this is one of Cordoba’s best places to eat.

Seductively-lit with wall lighting and candles at every table, we were warmly welcomed on one stinking hell-fire of a night (rain, rain and yet more rain) by a fine gin and tonic mixed with great panache by Javi.

We were soon tucking into a series of fresh tapas, more or less chosen by Javi, who has “six or seven menus” in his head depending on his guests.

It started with fresh season’s artichokes in a spicy potato mash with jamon iberico, before moving onto a delicious fillet of turbot with pigs trotters, a surprisingly good mix.

We had opted to head for Cordoba for a festive two-day break without the kids, now that it was nearer than ever.

It has taken nearly ten years to finish, but finally the city is linked to Malaga and the coast via its very own motorway.

Skirting round the lovely Subbettica region of southern Cordoba, before heading off north west past Lucena, the A-45, which only finally opened in its entirety in December, takes less than an hour from Antequera.

Classic olive territory producing some of the best oil in the world, we found a great place to stop in Montilla, which is rather better known for its grapes.

While these have a price tag of around 200 euros a bottle (there are, after all, only 1000 bottles of each), you can also pick up great bottles of fino, amontillado and oloroso for around five euros each.

Every year a bigger rival to the sherries produced in Jerez, the fortified wines from the Denominacion de Origin (DO) of Montilla Moriles are a joy to sample.

By far the best producer Perez Barquero is easy to find on the main road into town. A huge operation with over a dozen different wines, the best dating back to 1905 have just been awarded 99 points by American wine critic Robert Parker, who described them as “perhaps the best fortified wines in the world.”

While these have a price tag of around 200 euros a bottle (there are, after all, only 1000 bottles of each), you can also pick up great bottles of fino, amontillado and oloroso for around five euros each.

Once in Cordoba we checked into the amazing new Las Casas de la Juderia hotel, which has just been converted at a cost of 13 million euros.

Just opened, the palace built for the catholic kings on conquering the city in the 13th century, sits opposite the Alcazar and one block from the celebrated Cordoba mosque.

Part of the same chain that owns the Las Casas de la Juderia in Sevilla, it sits on a series of evocative patios, with a number of fountains, oozing peace and tranquility.

Even better, it has an amazing winter opening offer of just 108 euros a night in the week, with a third night thrown in for free for all Olive Press readers who stay for two nights or more.

Once through its imposing four-metre high grand gates, we could have spent the whole weekend relaxing in its historic courtyards and hallways, not to mention comfortable bedrooms. It was certainly tempting, the rain failing to stop for hardly an hour for our entire 48-hour sejourn.

But, we had eating to do, in particular, to check and revisit two restaurants from my guidebook Dining Secrets of Andalucia.

The first had involved something of a food pilgrimage when I started the book two years ago to meet Kisko Garcia, 31, one of a trio of Andalucian wunderkinds (the others being Dani Garcia and Angel Leon), who have revolutionised the region’s culinary offerings over recent years.

The amiable chap, who learnt his trade at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia and La Broche, in Madrid, both with two Michelin stars, opened his restaurant in the bar his father owned in the city.

He has an obvious passion for food and has built up a strong local reputation, much enhanced with his regular trips abroad, to China, the US and France to learn about cooking.

Not content to simply churn out steaks and the Cordoban favourite of rabo de toro (oxtail), the dishes don’t just taste good, they look good.

Go for the tasting menu at 40 euros, it is excellent value, and if you are lucky it will start with a “pincho de tortilla”, a Spanish classic, but in a glass and as a froth! Delicious.

A completely different style, but also well worth a visit is Bodegas Campos, a historic wine cellar, where kings, celebrities and, er, Tony Blair have dined.

Grand and elegant – and formal dining at its best – the menu is anything but boring, having recently been joined by Michelin-starred chef Celia Jimenez, from Calahonda’s El Lago.

We had a superfresh partridge pate, followed by fittingly, yes, rabo de toro, the city’s signature dish, but at least with a twist, served as a kind of paella with rice.

Drinking wines by the glass, including a bone dry fino produced by the restaurant from Montilla, we were ready – and much in need – of an afternoon’s activity looking around the city, the Palacio de Viana with its 13 patios, perhaps the most appropriate having dined like, quite literally, kings.

Jon Clarke (Publisher & Editor)

Jon Clarke is a Londoner who worked at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday as an investigative journalist before moving permanently to Spain in 2003 where he helped set up the Olive Press. He is the author of three books; Costa Killer, Dining Secrets of Andalucia and My Search for Madeleine.

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