AGNUS DEI: BEST LAMB IN THE WORLD AND ZURITA and A NOTE ON WHITE ASPARAGUS AT 2,39
The best lamb in the world is eaten in Spain, or in Ribera del Duero, to be more precise.
The reason is simple. The Spanish slaughter churra breed lamb (I believe it is a cousin of the Turkish breed “kivircik”) when it is about three weeks old. This is true spring lamb, and the meat is tender and juicy. The baby fat under the crunchy skin is the best part, and one gets hooked to it and feels deprived when devouring mutton which is called lamb in many countries. (In France, too, “agneau de lait” can be found and is normally about three months old. It too can be very good and perhaps more complex than Spanish “cordero lechal,” but some of the best breeds in France, such as l’agneau de Pauillac and pre-sale, are now almost extinct. I like the breed from Lozere.)
In Ribera del Duero, the so called “asadores” cook the lamb in wood fired stone ovens. You have to order it in advance as they start cooking it about two hours prior to your arrival.
MANNIX in Campaspero may be the most famous Asador in Spain. I have been there twice, and it lived up to its reputation.
This time we tried ZURITA in Tudela del Duero, 20 minutes away from Valladolid, where we stayed. My friend Rogelio Enriquez, who has a great palette (both for food and wine), recommended it as being at least as good as Mannix.
Zurita possesses a very original stone oven encrusted in the wall. Unfortunately we did not see it, as I did not know about it until after we had lunch there. If you go, make sure to see it and drop me a note.
Normally one baby lamb feeds eight people. (Lambs are served in quarters -- two fore and two back quarters -- and each quarter serves two people.) As we were two, I wanted to have the upper part, the ribs and the shoulder. There were two ladies serving us in the dining room. Assuming that they did not speak English or French, I grabbed my wife’s ribs and caressed gently the parts that corresponded to the upper part of the cordero lechal. The nice lady smiled and perfectly understood, but somehow my wife did not seem to have particularly appreciated my hard work in getting her the best part of the meat.
At any rate it turned out that one of the ladies spoke sufficient English!
One advantage of Zurita over Mannix is the existence of great jamon iberico. You may have heard about Joselito Grand Cru. It is excellent. If you find it extra aged (there is one bar-restaurant in Madrid where you can find it), it is outstanding.
Equally outstanding is the great Carrasco. You can find it at Hotel Niza’s restaurant Narru in Donostia, and one stand in the closed market in Donostia sells Carrasco.
This said, the jamon iberico we had at Zurita was on par with these superlative hams. It was from a small producer from Guijuelo. The name is Casa Bartolome.
Upon the recommendation of our waitress, we also had a fresh green salad from their garden. It tasted like a cross between baby purslane and wild arugula. Our waitress wrote the name in three different ways: maruja, pampline, coruja.
There is not much to say about the lamb: 20/20. Have it with the fresh salad to cut the fat.
Tudela del Duero is where the winemaker Mauro is located. But I chose a ‘99 Vega Sicilia. If you have had the ‘42 or ‘68 Vega Sicilia, you may know that it is capable of greatness—what I call 100 point wines or classics. The ‘99 will not reach these heights, but it is still a very good to excellent wine. It has a complex tarry, licorice, wild mushroom, earthy nose and layers and layers of flavor, where noteworthy black wild raspberries is one component among many. The considerable acidity is well buffered by the dry extract, and persistent tannins are beginning to melt and do not detract from the pleasure. I noted that the texture was suave. I ranked it 97/100.
I have one word of caution. We parked our car in the village where you can park between 13:30 and 16:00 free. The restaurant in at the middle of the village, on the main road. When we arrived we were told that they have their own parking, and we brought the car there. This was a good decision because our meal began around 14:30 and ended around 17:00.
We stayed at Valladolid at night and could not eat. It was a pity, because some tapa bars looked quite good in the old town.
The next morning, before heading to Madrid, we went back to Tudela del Duero at 14:00 to have lunch at restaurant 2,39. This was also Rogelio’s recommendation.
Again it was a great recommendation because 2,39 excels in seasonal vegetables. We had first of the season small white asparagus. They simply steam them, and you dip them in olive oil and salt and eat them whole. (The stems are soft.) The quality is outstanding, about the same level as the Bassano del Grappa white asparagus in Italy in end March/early April. We also had a vegetable paella which was quite good. (This has to be ordered a day in advance, as I did when we came to Zurita.)
Local winemakers seem to enjoy meat and fish dishes at 2,39 too. Prices are very reasonable, and I am looking forward to sample some wild mushrooms there in the Fall.
Note that 2,39 is open for dinner on Friday and Saturday only. It is open for lunch every day except Monday.