New columnist PETER BARRON is a former Newsnight editor turned tech executive, who has been renovating a barn near Fuentes de León in remote southern Extremadura. From there, he will be writing a regular diary on Spanish life, cuisine and culture
A couple of years ago, we turned up for Corpus Christi wearing shorts. It was a big mistake. Our friend Ángel – electric blue suit, dazzling white shirt, neatly trimmed beard – took us aside, and in a supportive yet direct way, said: “If you want to fit in in this town, you’re going to have to dress up better for Corpu,” (the s is silent round here).
While Semana Santa is the year’s biggest occasion in many Spanish cities and towns, in Fuentes de León it’s Corpus Christi, 60 days later. Over six days in June, the townsfolk follow religious processions, parade their village queen and her ladies, admire the town’s celebrated male dancers (danzantes), and rent local premises (casetas) where they meet friends and consume large quantities food and drink.
The next day, for a rice dish gathering, we made a big effort. “Muy guapa, although I’m not sure about the shoes,” said Ángel when he saw Julia. Me? He said he couldn’t pass judgment, but I knew from his eyes that my linen shirt, starting to crumple in the June heat, had been the wrong choice.
This year, no thanks to Covid, there was no six day fiesta, no processions, no village queen, no casetas, no danzantes. But on June 3, the date of this year’s moveable feast, people were nonetheless keen to socialize after months of lockdown, so plans were made to meet for lunch.
What time? “Medio día,” said Fernando. I’m thinking noon, but that’s mediodía, which sounds exactly the same. In the next sentence he clarified that things would kick off in Bar Acuario around 3pm and we’d take it from there.
A wander from bar to bar in Fuentes de León is a glorious thing. We often start at the top of the town next to the bullring and work our way down the hill with a caña and a tapa in four or five.
This year, among our Spanish friends, there was a difference of opinion. Some favoured the bar hop, others thought it was going to be impossible to get a table given that everyone would be on the town for the first time in months. Better to have a sit-down at the cafeteria at the petrol station on the edge of the village – más tranquilo.
We are fans of the gasolinera. We’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve there (it kicks off around 4am), attended a wedding reception in its sala de celebraciones, and even hired them to do catering at the barn, but on this occasion we sided with the bar-hoppers.
So, what to wear? Definitely not shorts, but surely nothing too formal either, given the lack of festivities. Julia went for a dress, I chose the Spanish male’s uniform of navy polo shirt and chinos. As we turned the corner towards Acuario, a young father darted out, chasing his ringleted daughter. Electric blue suit, dazzling white shirt, tie recently removed. Not again.
Fortunately, people had other matters of taste on their minds. The previous evening a new piece of public art had been inaugurated. At the bottom of the main street, where five roads meet, is one of the Fuentes’ many fountains. It’s a favourite spot, especially in summer when a cool wind blows down the hill. You can admire it from the outdoor tables at Piter Pab, the almost anglicised name of a bar run by a chap called Pedro.
The modest fountain had been transformed with the addition of a large granite plinth, on top of which now stands a bronze statue depicting one of the town’s danzantes, who look uncannily like Morris dancers as they step and sway through the streets every Corpus Christi, with bells on their ankles and carnations in their mouths.
Everyone we met seemed to like the statue – up to a point. “I like it, but the plinth is terrible,” said one, who worried that teenagers will gather on it with botellones (the Spanish practice of carry-out socialising) and mess it up with chewing gum. “I like it, but it’s in the wrong place,” said another, who argued that Calle Danzantes, the mosaic cobbled street celebrating the village’s dancers would have been a more appropriate spot. “I like it, but would have preferred a lion,” said a third, showing us an old photo of a statue that once accompanied the fountain. And, this being Fuentes de León, he had a point.
The food in the bars of Fuentes is good – plenty of ibérico pork, fried fish, and chips – but it’s not exactly sophisticated. With one exception. Our next stop was La Taberna de Noa, where the go-ahead couple Luismi Gomez and Rocío Maya are building an unlikely empire of alta cocina. The one-room bar with a few tables outside looks much like the others in town, except there’s a trophy cabinet for the regional and national gastronomy prizes chef Rocio keeps winning.
Above the bar are plaques announcing that Bar Noa holds a virtual monopoly on the village’s annual Ruta de Tapas competition, and barely a week goes by without another TV appearance or newspaper article discussing Rocío’s sensational fusion cooking.
We pulled up the menu by means of a QR code and ordered a salad of pickled pork cheeks (carrilleras escabechadas) in which, in the manner of Heston Blumenthal, the tomato is a visual trick containing the tender, slow-cooked meat. Unreal. We continued with a trio of ibérico pork tacos, including black garlic emulsion and sriracha and lime mayonnaise, and creamy tuna croquetas with coconut and kimchi. It all looked amazing, but it was the intense combination of flavours that suggests it may not be long before Fuentes de León adds a Michelin star to its growing list of attractions.
Peter Barron is an author for Frommer’s Spain. Follow his blog at adventuresinextremadura.com
La Taberna de Noa gastrobar, Calle Juan Carlos I, Fuentes de León: facebook.com/latabernadenoa/
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