The region on your plate
“The pigs in this region have a nose for acorns. Just like us humans, they prefer the sweet ones to their bitter sisters”, said Adela Ortiz when she served our poleá, one of the desserts we had at restaurant Arrieros in the village of Linares in the Aracena mountains of southwestern Spain. To work off an excess of alcohol and food during Christmas, we recently visited the Sierra de Aracena for a weeklong hiking vacation. As this post will testify, this is not to say we abstained from good meals.
Hidden in the fold of a mountain, less than 100 kilometers northwest of Seville (Spain), lies the small village of Linares. Lined with whitewash houses, narrow streets extend from the little picturesque central square that once doubled as an arena for bullfights. Restaurant Arrieros occupies one of these houses and we paid two visits, once lunch and once dinner. It was the region on your plate.
The Sierra de Aracena is part of a cultural landscape called the Dehesa. It stretches out for roughly 20.000 square kilometers (half the size of The Netherlands or Switzerland) from Salamanca in the northeast to the Algarve in the southwest and is characterized by open forests of different sorts of oaks, among which lives the cork oak. Plots of land are fenced off by age-old stonewalls and simple wire fences through which scenic paths wind their way up and down the hills. Under the trees, the famous black Iberian pig roams around and feeds itself on acorns. Air-dried ham, jamón iberico, is one of the main drivers of the economy, but agriculture is varied. Besides pigs, farmers keep goats, chickens and an odd cow. The forest is also a source of mushrooms and honey. All products find their way to chef Luismi López’s cuisine.
Impression of the Dehesa
From the street, one enters straight into the dining room where the tables are grouped around a large open fireplace that is not merely decorative. In the winter months it is the sole source of heating. But the winters are seldomly rough and the burning fire easily warms the cosy modern rustic space. White walls, paneling of exposed rough natural stone, wooden chairs and tables, sharp taupe-colored tablecloths and sparse decoration reveal a skillful hand in interior design. With basic English, but a clear Spanish diction, expressive hazel-colour eyes and plenty of charming hospitality Adela Ortiz – slim figure, modest but self-assured appearance, plain white blouse, black apron – runs the front of the house. Intently observing the dining room, she checked upon us regularly providing information when needed with a warm smile.
Appetizer of pork liver
Our two meals left us with several impressions of López’s cuisine. Firstly, he must have a great sympathy for the nose-to-tail movement. It wasn’t only the main cuts of pork ending up on our plates. As an appetizer for lunch we got a plate of small pieces of pork liver with onion and coriander, while for dinner our starter was an incredibly tasty black pudding (morcilla in Spanish). Prepared with prawns from the seaside town of Huelva, bell pepper, onion, yerba buena (mint), cumin, rice, pimiento and a drop of vanilla oil, López’s version was relatively light, and smooth rather than solid in texture. Overall, it was a beautiful expression of the province – Linares lies in the province of Huelva – and thus it was a successful combination of land and sea.
Morcilla or Black Pudding
Our main courses for dinner consisted of pork tongue and pork cheeks. The first one, perfectly tender, came with a spicy sauce of, among others, cinnamon and anise, or, as Adela correctly said, Dutch speculaas spices. They contrasted nicely with the mild flavor of the tongue, without overpowering it. The cheeks, served in a sauce of apple, pear and red wine, were stringy and soft, and melted in the mouth.
King bolete soup with pancetta
López also has a good hand in making soups. For dinner we enjoyed a velvety mushroom soup that had the deep foresty flavors of fresh king boletes (boletus edulis in Spanish) and was garnished with flash-fried pieces of pancetta and good olive oil. A slightly off-season, but nevertheless delectable tomato soup of homegrown tomatoes was part of the lunch menu. Cardamom and a dollop of fig compote complemented subtle amounts of yerba buena, cumin and wild oregano, and gave the potentially rather common tomato soup a new culinary meaning.
Tomato soup with fig compôte
Our more elaborate lunch menu also included a cheese course: a slice of bread with fresh local goat cheese, melted and sprinkled with honey and wild herbs (thyme and lavender). Perhaps not overly exciting, but still good. I would have liked it even better if the bread would have been crispy.
Furthermore, there was pork shoulder carpaccio with slivers of foie gras, a reduction of vinegar and sweet local wine (from the Huelva province) and cinnamon infused salt flakes. This was, rightly so, a dish I heard several other guests rave about.
Carpaccio, foie gras and wine reduction
This brings me to another characteristic of López’s cooking that struck me: spices. Picking the right spice, using the right amount and adding it at the right moment are important. López seemed to be mastering it. Cardamom, cumin, vanilla, cinnamon and ginger were all used in a more than satisfying way.
Goat cheese, honey, wild herbs
Arrieros is awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin and according to people who live in the area it is the best restaurant in the Aracena Mountains. I can only confirm that we had two great meals. Lopez’s cuisine is decisively based on the Dehesa but his dishes have outgrown the level of simple rural fare. Without overdoing it, López seems to be open for experiment. While some of the dishes are heartwarming, well-executed classics (pork cheeks), others either have a creative twist (tomato soup) or indicate awareness of what’s going on in the culinary world outside the region (nose-to-tail, use of spices). Excellent service and perfect pacing rounded off two meals at a restaurant that I recommend to anyone who wants to understand the Dehesa. Or just for when you are done walking off the Christmas dinners.
On that note: dessert. We tasted three of them. We had the aforementioned poleá, a dish that comes in a good times and a bad times version. The former is a porridge of milk, the latter of water. We got the milky one, created from sweet acorn flour (bellota de encina dulce). Served with burned brown sugar it has the looks of a crème brûlée, but the taste was nuttier and the consistency runnier.
Goat-cheesecake and peach
We also had a goat-cheesecake with a cooked but firm, homegrown peach and some sweet cooking liquid. Finally there was a mousse of lemon and ginger, decorated with cinnamon and black sesame. Both simple but effective desserts were beyond reproach. What is true for the savory courses holds for the sweet ones too: terroir on your plate, fresh ingredients and with a balanced use of spice.
Michelin may say you need two stars to justify a detour, but even if you are remotely nearby, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the extra mile to eat a dish of the Dehesa at Arrieros.
Calle de los Arrieros, 2 – Linares de la Sierra (Huelva, Spain)
T: +34 959 46 37 17
Michelin: Bib Gourmand
Three-course menu for two, incl. water and three glasses of wine: € 86,-