Talking about Spanish food is like tracing a gastronomic route around the map of Spain.
Starting from Galicia in Spain’s northwestern Atlantic coast, you can enjoy Pulpo a la Gallega or Galician style octopus, served with potatoes, olive oil and paprika. Heading to the northern region of Asturias, you can savour Fabada Asturiana, a traditional bean stew commonly eaten during the winter. Next, the eastern region of Valencia is world famous for Paella Valenciana, a traditional rice dish (widely believed to be the Spanish national dish) of mixed vegetables, seafood, rabbit, white beans and saffron. Journeying south to Andalucia, you’ll encounter Gazpacho Andalus, a cold soup made with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, bread and olive oil.
Now if I steer myself southeast to the region of Murcia, I will enjoy some…umm…er… no lo sé!
And that about sums up what I know about Murcian traditional cuisine. Even after living in Madrid for ten years, I confess that I haven’t a clue of the gastronomy of this lesser-known Spanish region.
Thankfully, that changed last Semana Santa when I was invited to try out the food of an old Murcian restaurant right at the heart of Barrio de las Letras, El Caldero. Together with the unflappable foodographer, Jane Mitchell, we graciously accepted the invite to feed our curiosity about cocina Murciana.
Founded in 1975, El Caldero specializes in Murcian cuisine, bringing to the table the season’s freshest seafood, rice and vegetables from Cabo de Palos – the southernmost cape of the Mar Menor (or “Small Sea”). In spite of the diminutive name, the Mar Menor is actually Europe’s biggest salt water lagoon that’s separated from the Mediterranean Sea only by a small strip of land called La Manga.
Quick rewind, I dug up an old photo I took of the beautiful, rocky coastline of Cabo de Palos from a visit to Murcia over 7 years ago:
Pisto, pizza and pescado
And now to try some Murcian food!
We started off with Pisto, a dish similar to ratatouille that’s made with tomatoes, onions, black olives, eggplant and olive oil. Also known as Pisto Manchego, this dish is originally from the Region of Murcia and Castilla La Mancha.
Next up was this absolutely delicious Murcian “pizza” created with a thin filo pastry crust, filled with smoked cod and fresh goat cheese, and seasoned with fresh herbs:
And now for the main event, the Arroz Caldero – which is the Jeopardy! clue to the question “What is a traditional Murcian dish?”
Translated as “Cauldron Rice”, arroz caldero refers to a traditional cooking style by the Mar Menor that traces itself to the 1800s. Rice is cooked together with different kinds of fish and seafood at a specific cooking point that leaves the rice slightly briny, which accounts for its unmistakably salty flavour.
El Caldero restaurant has 14 different kinds of rice dishes cooked in a traditional black cauldron. Once the rice is cooked, the waiter takes the cauldron to the center of the restaurant and serves the rice onto your plate. We sampled the Rice with mullet and peeled prawns from the Mar Menor, accompanied by three different kinds of alioli, the Mediterranean mayonnaise made with garlic and olive oil.
Lemon leaves in the Spring
I was also thrilled to try for the first time a typical Murcian dessert called Paparajotes, or fried lemon leaves (what!) that are typically eaten during the Spring. These lemon leaves are enveloped by a crispy batter and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We had a fiery little show right at our table, before the paparajotes was served with vanilla ice cream. ¡RIQUÍSIMO!
Lemon leaves for dessert! What a marvel! (And thanks to this little primer, Jane and I ventured down the online culinary rabbit hole and found this wonderful recipe for Oysters Wrapped in Lemon Leaves from the Amalfi Coast).
Coincidentally, the timing was right for us to sample arroz caldero and paparajotes just at the cusp of Spring . According to my friend Juan (literally the one Murcian friend I have), this time of the year (right after Semana Santa and during the fiestas de primavera – Spring festivals) is when las Barracas mushroom all over Murcia.
These tapas gardens, kinda like pop-up restaurant terraces, are only allowed to open at this time of the year and are run by cultural associations that later on use the money for funding cultural activities.
So ask me now about Murcian cuisine!
Thanks to cauldron rice, Mar Menor seafood and lemon leaves, I can now add Murcian gastronomy to my knowledge of Spanish cuisine. I’d like to offer a humble suggestion for the people of Murcia – why not brand Arroz Caldero as “Caldero Murciano” and put it on the Spanish food map?
¡Feliz Primavera a tod@s! Happy Spring everyone!
Muchísimas gracias to El Caldero Restaurant for the wonderful gastronomic experience.