Our friend Julio Carlos has a favourite restaurant in a small town about 20km from Salamanca. The town is called Vega de Tirados and the restaurant, Las Rivas, is run by one family, having grown from humble beginnings as a small but notable café into one of the most acclaimed establishments in the province of Salamanca.
People come from far and wide to the tucked away town and its renowned restaurant to enjoy a menu inspired by the classical cuisine of Castilla y Leon, but characterised by innovative, decidedly modern approaches.
This definitely is a family affair as Juan Manuel Rivas is the sommelier while also handling front of house, ably assisted by his sister Manoli in this role. Juanma´s mother, Transito Marcos, and wife, Ana Rosa Cuadrado Vicente, do just about all the cooking.
The family´s approach to cooking and specifically their reliance on all things ¨campo¨, or sourced either from the surrounding countryside or their own ¨huerto¨ or kitchen garden, reminded me quite a bit of one of our own favourite places in South Africa – and one we get to far too seldom. Gordon´s Restaurant at the Andries Stockenstrom Guesthouse in Graaff-Reinet, where chef-owner Gordon Wright sources all the fresh ingredients from within a 40-odd kilometre radius and often even hunts much of the game himself, is another country restaurant that is achieving a reputation for gastronomic excellence.
Like Gordon´s, Restaurante Rivas also makes a point of sourcing interesting wines of excellence, particularly from Ribera del Duero or Spain´s Duero Valley, the largest part of which lies in the region of Castilla y Leon.
Las Rivas is a not-to-be-missed destination whenever we are in Spain as it has become customary for Julio to invite us to a splendid meal here. And as usual our newest visit there a few days ago will surely become one of the highlights of our 2012 trip to Iberia.
We were joined for lunch by Julio´s cousin Felipe, a graphic artist from the city of Salamanca, and our Capetonian friend Surita who spent two weeks with us in and around the province of Salamanca.
Our meal started on a celebratory note as Surita and I cracked open some cava, Spain´s version of champagne, while Salvelio and the boys started with some Spanish beers before we later moved on to a bottle of Termes, 2008 vintage, from the house of Numanthia which has been bought over by the Louis Vuitton group which now also owns the likes of Moet.
The Rivas cellar is large and impressive, representing all of the major wine-producing regions in the country. Our Termes was vibrant, sophisticated, heavy with fruit and an excellent reprentation of its terroir, the Toro region of Spain which lies in the province of Zamora which, like Salamanca, is in Castilla y Leon.
As for the food, where to start? Our party of five shared a plate of green salad from the Rivas´s huerto topped with goat´s cheese, gloriously rich and creamy and with just a little bit of burnt sugar on top, all a delight to the palate. Also in the salad was “cock´s breast” in escabeche, or a vinaigrette dressing, and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts to finish it off.
We then each enjoyed two starters that were offered as specials of the day – the first chipirones a la plancha which is baby squid cooked for a very short amount of time and still retaining a beautiful and delicate hint of pink, served with a garlic alioli to which had been added some finely chopped, fresh ¨hierba buena¨. This herb is related to our garden mint back home but not quite the same; it grows wild in abundance wherever you cast your eye and yet it´s near impossible to find seeds for the stuff – I´m still looking! The leaf is also bit darker than the mint we are familiar with and slightly less minty, but more herby, if that makes sense!
The second starter was a silvery sardine, filleted with precision and marinated, not cooked, served on a concentrated tomato sauce and topped with finely grated, aged sheep´s milk cheese.
Mains, as expected, were a feast – for Salvelio toston cochifrito or piglet (below) grilled in the very traditional style of the olden days, just with salt and a bit of herbs, while Surita had melt-in-the-mouth carilleras de vaca, or cow´s cheeks (above), having heard us raving the day before about pig´s cheeks which are a firm favourite across Spain!
Julio had an excellent solomillo or sirloin of beef, which necessitated him wearing the special Rivas bib as the meat (which is always cooked “en su punto¨, or rare) is presented on a screaming hot terracotta platter on which you can cook it a little further should you prefer to.
Felipe´s choice was a giant brocheta or skewer of lechazo or suckling lamb, with a hint of soya and interspersed with crunchy vegetables.
I, on the other hand, opted for another of my long-time favourites – also the suckling lamb, but in a very different form to Felipe´s. Instead of it being roasted on the leg as I had it the last time we were in Spain, my ¨jarrete de lechazo confitado¨ (above) was sectioned and slow-roasted in a complex, almost marmity jus of wine, stock and hierba buena, with classic potato chips on the side.
Because lechazo is lamb that is still suckling, the meat is extremely soft and flavourful, and far finer and paler in colour than regular lamb or mutton. It is not something I have ever seen served in South Africa, but in Spain it is a beloved delicacy.
There is no meal without ¨postre¨or dessert, even if just a serving of fresh seasonal fruits. Our desserts were the perfect finish to a blissful afternoon of fine dining, superlative service and memorable times with old friends we long to spend more time with. Surita had traditional rice pudding made from short-grained rice as is customary here and flavoured with a hint of citrus and Salvelio and Julio tucked into hojaldre or pastry filled with custard in a Spanish version of the French millefeulle.
I believe my dessert was the triumph of the day – creamy home-made ¨helado de galleta¨ or cookie ice-cream which had a wonderful, fine consistency, served next to a perfect counterpart – a not-too-sweet and subtly flavoured almond souffle which had golden, warm liquid pouring seductively from its centre. We ended our meal with some espressos and licor de miel, or honey liqueur – a bottle of which will surely have to be tracked down before we return to South Africa.
Spanish restaurants at the high end of the spectrum are undeniably suffering as a result of the country´s economic crisis and, at 300 Euro excluding tipping for the five of us, this meal was far from inexpensive. But I have no doubt that the Rivas family, with their passion, solidarity and creative vision in the kitchen, will continue to deliver unforgettable experiences for many more years to come.
Visit the restaurant´s website at www.restauranterivas.com