The gastronomic throngs and beatings of the Spanish Christmas were long gone, but my body had yet to shuffle off its mortal coil of fat. It was yearning to be lighter, breathe more easily when exercising and give my liver a few days off. However, my addiction to restrained hedonism and well-thought out scholarly gluttony meant never saying ‘no’ to more eating, more drinking, and more travelling. So, along with fellow face-stuffers Joy and Debbie, a car was hired and we headed deep into the southeastern lands of La Mancha; to the province of Albacete.
After three hours of driving through the great nothing and past nowhere places like La Hinojosa, Honrubia, Minglanilla, and Villamalea, we arrived at our home for the weekend: Alcalá del Júcar. Alcalá del Júcar is an ancient Almohad settlement, upgraded to white-town status with bonus castle, that dribbles down the steep sides of the Júcar valley to the green river slinking about at the bottom.
The natural drama of the village was arresting as we arrived from the meseta to find the world fall away into a scrubby and snaking valley. The houses were squished so tightly together, forming an almost constant blanket of ochre-tiled roofs where the only breathing space was a web of pedestrian alleys. It was some architectural ant colony; an Albaicín cast off.
The first night was spent in a cave house - for the whole cliffside, with its soft walls, is burrowed in and filled with homes and stores. We made a fire, drank copious amounts of wine and ate caprese salads with sausages and adobo-coated turkey.
The following morning, suffering through a lack of coffee in the cave, we drove up the road to Las Eras and the roadside Restaurante El Cruce. It was strangely plush inside and was full of working men, probably farmers readying to work their Saturday morning. I had long subscribed to the mantra when visiting places in the middle of nowhere in Spain, to enter with full confidence and head to the bar, give my order as if I owned the place, and not look at anyone. I will never ‘blend in’ in Spain, but this tactic seems to placate the locals in a ‘weird face, but I guess he’s one of us’ way.
We ordered coffee with toast topped with tomato and fried serrano ham. We looked around and realised we now stood out. All the men were tucking into plates of sausages and steaks, drinking bottles of rosé wine and beer and shots of liquor and gin and tonics. It was 11:40am. We ordered one glass of rosé to fit in. It cost 70 cents.
An angry wind battered us constantly throughout the weekend; indeed the forecast all pitched the concept of gusts in lieu of sunshine or clouds or rain. Driving became an act of concentration as we headed out into the depths of the Manchuela wine region to meet a lady called Rus, who was in charge of the Finca El Molar winery. The car was buffered, noise-startled sparrows shot up from the brush and were blown sideways by the winds, tumbleweed scurried across the road and the clouds drove across the sky at the rate of knots.
We met up with Rus and her quiet Italian partner Marco at the oddly colonial-looking village of Fuentealbilla and then drove down a dirt track to the bodega; an old house/farmstead coloured white and blue and covered in those light brown tiles. She was quite attractive and very knowledgable and proud of her wines and was also utterly confused as to why three expats had driven all the way out to the middle of nowhere to visit her winery. He was stoic and quiet and took to preparing the tasting room while we headed to the wind-blasted vineyards for a stroll around the sleeping, gnarled-up vines and the light-flittered estate.
Rus runs a biodynamic winery that plants Graciano, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and two local varieties: Bobal and Moravia agria. The soils are rocky and calcareous and, as we would find out in the tasting, this adds a hefty minerality to the resulting drink. I love to see where a wine comes from, how it sits in its environment, and meet the passionate people who make them.
‘We’re also planting olive trees and pistachios!’
The biodynamic environment in effect. No heavy machinery, no chemicals, just life and the earth working together to create wine. I declined to ask if she believes in the effects of the moon or if they dance naked and chanting around the vines.
We tried six wines: four reds, an unlabelled rosé, and a truly unique ice wine that was made in a year with a freak drop in temperature that froze all the grapes. Debbie had accepted the charge of driving back to Alcalá, so I indulged in the wines quite liberally and enjoyed the cured, cheese-stuffed, hammy nibbles Marco had prepared so beautifully.
The drive back was surreal. First we passed an ostrich standing in a field, apparently they used to have two, then shunted past a crowd of angry geese that wouldn’t let us past, and then dove into the lonely road that clung to the Júcar river.
First a brief stop to observe the isolated drama of Jorquera. If one could imagine Toledo, but shrunken to the size of a hamlet and robbed of its art and grandeur, one may have an idea of Jorquera. Up close it may not look like much at all, but viewed from the opposite hillside, watching it hold on perilously to its private outcrop and looking like at any moment it might topple down to the alien-coloured river, it looks quite something.
The rest of the valley was tight and chalk-coloured and busy with chipped-out tiny caves that seemed to serve no purpose but to cause the viewer to imagine who may have once inhabited them. Then curves, then outcrops, then a lonely little chapel out in the nothing, then Alcalá again; this time rising up from the crashing river, past its attractive domed church, back up to the castle.
The evening was slow to drop. We first had disgusting house wines in a cave museum/bar cut into the mountain. Cuevas de Masago, burrowing through from the village-side to the other, allowing drinks with a view while drunk locals prepared themselves for a riotous Saturday night in a town with nothing to do.
Then, for food, we headed downhill, but downhill through the cave system and its tunnels, to Casa el Moli where, for pittance, we drank red wine and ate patatas bravas, artichokes fried with ham, jamón and Manchego cheese, chunks of fried cheese with jam and a regional dish called gazpacho manchego: an odd stew of rabbit, partridge, onion, tomato and pepper stewed with crackers that go floppy in the sauce.
Sunday was time to go home, but not before taking in a few more sights. We headed east, leaving La Mancha and entered the southwestern part of Valencia. The land rose in both beauty and natural drama. Warm juniper-green hills mixed in with the spectacular vineyards of Utiel-Requena. There were always vines, but never any buildings.
Then our jaws hit the floor as the impossibly picturesque and fairytale village of Cofrentes soared into view. It had ‘Spain 101 gorgeous village’ down to a tee, from afar at least. Little box houses lined a ridge and culminated in a church spire followed by an overly-large castle. The castle stood proudly at the highest point before the land dropped off at a cliff. At the bottom pooled the Cabriel river and in the background some low mossy ridges rumbled about. But no stopping. Onward.
Lunch and more wine and more bottle-shopping was had at Requena. It was a surprisingly attractive town that felt like something Andalusian that had run away and got snagged up in the vines. Turrets and frilly gothic churches, bodegas and scruffy white walls, tiny alleys and cheap prices.
Of course we had to eat. We snuck away a quick aperitif of local wine and olives in Los Cubillos and then Mesón la Villa served us, with a smile - they were friendly out here - scrambled eggs with shrimp, jamón stuffed mushrooms, patatas bravas, and albóndigas. Somewhat tipsy, we waddled, and I belched, back to the car, clutching our coats close against the wind and returned to the capital.
The profundities of this part of Spain, though under-visited to the point of almost utter anonymity, had both natural beauty and architectural gems in spades. The food, the masses of wine and the generally warm and generous spirit of the people just made for a variety of cherries on a very tasty Spanish cake.