Like Castilla-León, Castilla-La Mancha covers a large area of Spain. It is referred to as “New Castile” and was reconquered from the Muslims by the Christians in the 11th century. Located in central and south-central Spain, it is a large plain surrounded on all sides by mountains. The western edge of Castilla-La Mancha borders with Extremadura, while Castilla-León and Aragon border it on the north. To the east is Valencia and on the southern border is Andalucia. The climate is not as cold as that of Old Castilla, and the land not quite as fertile. However, this land of “Don Quijote” can suffer icy cold winds in the winter and blazing hot sun in the summer.
Although the typical dishes of this region are heavy stews and soups, like the cocido madrileno, pisto manchego is one of the most well-known regional dishes, popular all over Spain and with many variations. Of Arab origin, the traditional pisto is made simply with red and green peppers, tomatoes and squash, although it is common to add onion, ham or eggs. Sopa de Ajo or garlic soup is another Manchego dish that is now popular everywhere in Spain and is made of garlic, broth, oil, paprika and dry bread.
Other Dishes of This Area
- El Asadillo – roasted red peppers cut into pieces, dressed with garlic, tomato, and oil.
- El Salpicon – minced veal with onion, tomato, garlic, parsley and pepper
- Ajo Arriero and El Tiznao – pieces of grilled cod cooked in a clay dish with peppers, tomato, onion, and garlic.
Traditional Shepherd’s Food
In this vast plain that is Castilla-La Mancha, thousands of sheep roamed. Shepherds followed along to protect them. Because they would not return home for days at a time, shepherds carried a shallow pan called a gazpachera in their packs to prepare their dinner. So, many traditional dishes in this region originated with the shepherds and hunters, even the famous manchego cheese.
- Los Gazpachos – This is a winter stew not generally served in restaurants, perhaps because it is time-consuming to prepare. It was mentioned by Cervantes in Don Quijote as galianos. It consists of two parts – stew and a large flat piece of unleavened bread. First, a large round torta is prepared (from .5 to 1.5 meters) that is as “thin as a coin.” Then, pepper, tomato, rabbit, pigeon, dove, chicken and whatever else is available is prepared in the gazpachera. When the stew is cooked, small pieces of dough are added to the pot until the broth has been partially absorbed, or thickened. Then, the stew is placed on top of another large torta. Thankfully, today the tortas can be purchased in the grocery store.
- Migas de Pastor or Shepherd’s Migas – Migas literally means bread crumbs and that is essentially what this ancient peasant dish consists of! This clever and tasty way of using stale bread is eaten all over the peninsula and every region in Spain has a variation of migas. Shepherd-style migas are small pieces of stale white bread mixed with garlic and bacon that has been sautéed in lard or olive oil. Called migas canas when soaked in milk and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and migas mulatas if soaked milk and melted chocolate.
The dishes described above are only two of the many hearty dishes that were created out of the necessity of shepherds and hunters. Recipes also include lamb and game such as venison, rabbit, goat and especially red partridge.
Saffron, Cheese, and More
The Castilla-La Mancha region is sparsely populated, except for the area of Madrid and the economy is dedicated in large part to agriculture. Below are some of the notable food products produced in the region.
Sheep cheese has been produced in the region for thousands of years and was prized by the Greeks and Romans. Interestingly, the sheep were not raised to produce cheese, but wool – a valuable product for centuries. The shepherds made the cheese to eat while tending their flock because it would keep for extended periods of time. In the early 1800s, wool production fell off and cheese production became important to the economy of the region. In 1984, a Denomination of Origin for Manchego cheese was created.
Today almost three-quarters of the world’s production of saffron is grown in Spain, specifically in the region of Castilla-La Mancha. There is a Denomination of Origin for saffron in La Mancha, which was established in 2001.
This region produces and exports lots of garlic. In fact, most of the strings or braids of garlic sold as souvenirs in Spain come from Castilla-La Mancha. It is estimated that in 2008, about 55,000 tons of garlic will be harvested in the region. The ajo morado or purple garlic is king in Pedroneras, where an annual international garlic festival is held. In recent years, garlic production has decreased due to weather problems and competition from China, however, the focus continues to be on high-quality garlic.
The La Mancha region is one of the largest wine-producing areas in the world with about 1,540 square miles. Until recently, although the area accounted for half of all Spanish wine production, it was considered simply table wine. In the last few years, producers have invested in modernization of both vineyards and cellars, and the quality is improving. The Denominations of Origin are La Mancha, Valdepenas, Almansa, Mentrida, and Mondejar.