My friend Iñigo has no sense of direction. I realized that after he got lost even though he had a windshield-mounted GPS that uttered clear directions in a soothing female voice. Janet or Sara or Melinda, whatever her name was, knew where she was going. Iñigo, however, had no idea. On our first wrong turn, Iñigo turned to me and said with a smile, “I’m the worst with directions.”
I thought the fact he admitted that, and still had the confidence to ignore the GPS woman’s instructions, was really quite admirable.
I wasn’t any help either because I didn’t even know what we were looking for. I thought we were going to visit a chicken farm west of Madrid near El Escorial. I got up early on a Saturday and took the Metro over the Iñigo’s place, wondering whether I had made a wise choice of footwear. (I was thinking, rubber boots would have been ideal.) Turns out we were going to a tomato farm on the road to Valencia. Okay then.
I must have thought chickens because I knew Iñigo’s friend Higinio was coming. Higinio runs a small but legendary poultry stall in a humble market in Madrid. A quick look at the stall and you’d think it was nothing special, but Higinio offers all kinds of specially raised birds and sells them to the most selective restaurants in Madrid. I was looking forward to meeting him, but also, Juan Echanove was going to be there.
Juan Echanove is a well-known Spanish actor and an equally well-known lover of good food. The food and travel show he co-stars in, Un País para Comérselo, is the most popular food-related TV show in Spain and my favorite show of any kind. I have seen every single episode, and some more than once.
After two phone calls and a quick chat with an abuelo who was walking down a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, we finally found the place.
This was not your average tomato farm. Ten-foot walls of stone surrounded the property and when someone opened the giant wooden gate for us to drive in, the grounds looked more like a mega-winery in the Napa Valley.
In the parking lot, we all assembled and sure enough, there was Juan Echanove. I managed to shake his hand and say buenos días without making a fool of myself, so I was quite pleased.
José Cabrera, the owner of Vega Carabaña, gave us a tour of the grounds then we all went inside to get a lesson on high-end olive oil production. Aside from tomatoes, José makes wine and olive oil and even grows a few strawberries. Some of the olive trees on the property are nearly a thousand years old and as wide as a tractor tire. Despite their size, the yield is extremely low, roughly a liter per tree.
“Oxygen is the enemy,” José told us with a touch of drama that only an olive farmer could fully appreciate. “The oil we produce is in sealed containers less than an hour after the olives are picked.” He gave us a tour of the various machines they used to get the job done and went on at length about technical matters that I got a little lost in. Whatever he’s doing, however, seems to be working quite well. His olive oil was presented by Emilio Botín to the Pope as a special gift, and is also the olive oil used by the White House. Yes, that White House.
Next on the list was a tour of the tomato orchard. José grows two varieties of tomato, rosa de la Vega, similar to the rosa de Huesca, and morado de Aragón. We picked a few ripe ones and ate them like apples, backing away from the dripping tomato juice that fell to the ground with every bite. There were superb. But under a blazing hot sun and with the promise of lunch in the cool cellar of the bodega awaiting, we didn’t spend long in the orchard.
But there was one more stop to make. It was nearing the end of strawberry season, but there were still a few late arrivals to be picked. José quickly picked enough to offer us a taste, and it was something I will not forget. The fruit was soft and burst with such an intensity of flavor that it was truly surprising. My friend Enrique turned to me and said, “These are the best strawberries I have ever had.” I thought that was an understatement. I thought they had to be the best strawberries that have ever existed. I honestly can’t imagine them getting any better that this. While the rest of the group slowly made their way to the bodega, I hung back under the pretense of taking pictures of the strawberries but the truth is I just had to eat a few more.
There’s good and bad of everything, but the gulf between good and bad when it comes to tomatoes and strawberries is wider than normal. A banana is a banana. Some avocados are better than others, but basically, if it’s ripe enough, it tastes good, like every other ripe avocado you’ve had. But your average supermarket tomatoes and strawberries are abysmal. Almost not worth eating and sometimes, definitely not worth eating. But when you have a good one, my oh my. It’s something else altogether.
For lunch we had tomatoes drizzled in extra virgin olive oil and flaky salt. And bread. And wine. That’s about it, and nobody wanted for anything more. There were a few platters of potato salad here and there, but hardly anyone touched them.
After a couple of hours of eating and talking and laughing, the lunch table cleared and we made our way back to the cars. On our way, I couldn’t resist telling Juan how much I liked his show, and that I had seen every episode. We had a nice chat, the kind that comes easily on a full belly and after a few glasses of wine.
On the way out, I examined the stone walls and the security cameras, wondering whether I could break in under the cover of darkness and steal a few more strawberries. I probably could have convinced Iñigo to take part in the raid, but let’s face it, we’d never find our way back in the dark. We’d probably wind up at a chicken farm.