The city of Léon was a last-minute addition to our roadtrip to Galicia, a stop-over on the way back to shorten the drive. As we crossed the hilly wine country of Bierzo and the flat, red dessert landscape of Castilla y Léon, we had no idea what to expect of our next destination. We certainly did not expect it to become one of the highlights of our trip. A quick check-in at our hotel and we were out and about looking for dinner, expecting scant options in a very Catholic city on a Sunday night at 9. Just a stone’s throw from our hotel was the truly magnificent Santa María de León Cathedral, whose 1,764 square meters of stained glass windows is one of the largest collections of the latter in Europe. And to our surprise, the many streets leading to this landmark were packed with bars and restaurants, all of them open and heavily populated by locals.
A quick google search led us to Meson Jabugo on Plaza de San Martin in Barrio Húmedo. This unassuming little terraza restaurant has a nice selection of tapas, along with continental Spanish specialties like sopa de ajo.
On the highway into Léon we had passed an exit to Burgos, a city whose name I remember with great fondness from restaurant menus in Barcelona. “Embutidos de Burgos,” or more specifically, “Morcilla de Burgos” is the place’s most famous export and one of my all-time favorite culinary pleasures. As it turns out, morcilla is also a big deal in Léon. In fact, there is even a kind of blood-sausage-based rivalry between these two Spanish cities and morcilla is pretty much omnipresent in the restaurants of both.
Morcilla de Léon or Morcilla de Matachana differs from Morcilla de Burgos in that the latter uses rice to soak up the pork blood and to give the sausage more structure, while the former is made with only pork blood and onion (and plenty of lard), resulting in a more amorphous, spreadable morcilla. My preferences have always lain with less-rice morcilla, the creamier and more concentrated in flavor, the better. So, Léon is the Spanish capital of morcilla as far as I’m concerned.
So impatient was I to order a big thing of the stuff, I barely noticed our waitress arriving with our drinks and a plate with two massive slices of bread drenched in Morcilla de Léon. This was a tapa that came free with our drinks, the shockingly generous portion size of which humbled us instantly. This morcilla was some of the greatest I have ever had, comparable in quality only to those of my Argentine parrilla days.
It was deep shade of purple-brown, glistening in the night and reflecting the beams of streetlight over its glossy surface. The first bite was pure pleasure. The warm, thick and unctuous blood pudding coated my palate completely, the bitty lumps offering textural intrigue against the silky smooth base. The flavors are so satisfying, though difficult to pin down. The irony, nutty and autumnal taste of the blood, reminiscent of cardamom or cinnamon, mixes with the sweaty, sweet onion and subtle hints of paprika in the mix. Spread thick over simple country bread, this warm pudding is absolute joy, warming us on a cool night and perfect with a glass of Bierzo. Also on the plate were the restaurant’s home-made potato chips, thick yet wonderfully crunchy all the way through and seasoned with the right amount of salt. And again, free.
Another specialty of the city is Cecina de Léon, a salt-cured, smoked and air-dried charcuterie made from the hind leg of the cow. Thinly sliced and served on bread with the same chips, this “cow ham” has a beautifully intense red color. Unlike the goopy morcilla, it is quite lean, yet very tender, with a very concentrated beef flavor and touches of wood smoke.
A treat so simple, yet so memorable, Jabugo’s Jamon Cocido was incredibly soft and juicy pork tenderloin “lomo,” seasoned on the exterior with bright red paprika and other spices, sliced paper-thin and grilled to perfection. A bit of local nutty Manchego cheese was melted on. My knife glided easily through the plump meat, whose surface offered a crunchy caramelized crust to contrast the gooey cheese.
And finally, the Chorizo al Vino, a locally made pork sausage cooked with white wine and herbs. The texture here was more solid, the purple-stained natural intestine casing wound tight around crumbly and tender sticks of meat. The flavors were much more delicate than what I was expecting. The chorizo had bled its spice into the white wine to form a kind of salty, herby, almost floral and bay leaf scented jus in which to stew. That same jus was great for soaking up with bread. Not a very healthy ending to not a very healthy meal but just what we wanted after a long day of driving.
I had two glasses of wine at Meson Jabugo. The first was a delicious Bierzo whose name I didn’t catch and the second a Prieto Picudo by Pardevalles, a DO Léon recommended by our waitress. I learned that this variety grows very tight clusters of teeny-tiny grapes, whose high skin-to-juice ratio results in a very deep ruby color in the glass. Its nose revealed ripe black cherry and blackcurrant aromas, mixed with spicy hints of licorice and black pepper. Beautifully structured for a wine with 0 oak, it offered a very fresh, vibrant and quite broad palate, ending with a luxuriously long and flavorful finish. I honestly could not have asked for a better pairing to our meaty meal.
Before arriving to Léon (again, on a Sunday evening) we had completely resigned ourselves to grabbing some grubby pre-packaged sandwich at a gas station or convenience store near our hotel. Meson Jabugo was definitely a welcome alternative. Two glasses of wine for me, two cañaof beer for him, two local specialties, some pork loin and some sausage came to a grand total of 19 euros, which is easily the price of just two beers in Bordeaux. A fantastic meal of simple Spanish food and stellar service to match.