Cooking with Esme Tours.
I'm not even sure where to start with this post...my experience doing the three night/four-day village cooking retreat with Esme Tours was hands-down one of the best things I've ever done. I loved it so much and didn't want to leave when it was time to head back to Madrid! I could go on and on about how amazing it was. So, if you don't like tons of pictures of food and adorable Spanish villages, you might want to stop reading because this post will be unapologetically full of them!
After taking the train from Madrid to Leon, I met up with Laura and her daughter and was whisked away to the tiny village of Pozos in northern Spain. Laura is one of the nicest people I've met and I felt like a part of the family within minutes. The lodge itself is gorgeous and the renovations were beautiful and true to the character of the village. Friends and family that know me know that Maui is my favorite place on Earth and the one place that gives me a sense of peace and calm...until I arrived at the lodge in Pozos. I felt so relaxed and at peace during my entire stay, which is a testament to both Laura and Chef Esmeraldo's hospitality, and the lodge and the quaint, quiet village itself. It was nice to leave behind the city life of Madrid for a few days and enjoy the silence.
After getting settled into my room, it was time for lunch, which was a major feast. Everything was so good, I wanted to cry tears of joy! Chef E is a magician in the kitchen and the way he puts together flavors is kind of mind-boggling. The food I had on day one was incredible and some of the best food I've eaten anywhere. It was so good, I felt like I couldn't eat everything fast enough!
I had mentioned in emails to Laura before I arrived how much I love Cabrales cheese (my new obsession since moving to Spain), and it was incorporated into several dishes throughout my stay. I'm very much a detail-oriented person myself, but Laura takes it to a whole other level with her attention to detail. I casually mentioned how much I liked lavender when spotting it on one of our walks through the village, and it magically appeared in an arrangement on the table the next day.
After lunch, Chef Esmeraldo and I went for a much-needed walk around the village where I learned about Pozos, saw his childhood home where he was born, and met some of the locals. The village itself is tiny, which is part of the charm after being in busy Madrid. It was like stepping back in time in the best way.
The local church.
Then, it was back to the lodge for a "happy hour" of tapas and cocktails. Laura puts together such interesting cocktail combinations. She includes foraged herbs from around the village, along with local berries, to put together cocktails using sherry, brandy, and vermouth to name a few. There was also homemade liquor made from local ingredients that I was able to try too. She also churns out some pretty amazing desserts.
The upstairs terrace was my favorite spot during my stay and where I spent the majority of my time eating (a lot!), reading or just enjoying the amazing views.
My happy place during my stay.
After happy hour, I had a chance to wander around the lodge. Laura and Chef E have created an incredibly special place...its gorgeous and peaceful and I was ready to move in and never leave after the first day. Between the Spanish guitar music playing downstairs and the smell of garlic coming from the kitchen, I felt like I was in a state of drunken happiness and contentment the whole time I was there.
Dinner on the first night was another feast, but I didn't manage to capture any pictures of it or most of the dinners that followed. Same with breakfast each morning. I took so many pictures throughout the day that by dinnertime, I just wanted to put the phone down and enjoy the food, the company and the moment. At breakfast, I pretty much wanted to veg out and admire the views. But, trust me, all of the breakfasts and dinners were equally delicious. On night one, I had dinner downstairs with Chef E and Laura and was treated to bacalao two ways, milk-fed baby lamb, and another amazing dessert from Laura. After dinner, several of the neighbors from the village came over to enjoy Laura's dessert by the fireplace upstairs, which was one of my favorite moments during my stay. Granted, the conversation was mostly in Spanish (with some translation from Laura), and I only picked up every tenth word or so, but it was great practice for my quest to learn to speak Spanish!
The lower dining area.
I woke up on day two well-rested and excited to try whatever Chef E decided to whip up in the kitchen. Once again, I wasn't disappointed. I had never tried fabada, a dish typically found in the Asturias region of Spain, and was able to taste it during lunch. Another standout were the mussels in saffron sauce...so good!
After lunch, Laura took me on a drive around the neighboring villages where I snapped a pic of this gorgeous church. We also stopped in a local bar for a drink, which was another highlight for me. I tend to shy away from really touristy things and stopping in the bar where the locals were watching a Spanish soap opera and playing cards was a nice peek into village life.
Saturday was my final full day in Pozos and Laura, Chef E and I set off to visit a local market in the nearby village of La Baneza. After winding our way through the maze of people and stalls, we stopped for churros and chocolate, popular in Spain and something I had yet to try. I'm happy I can now check that off my to-do list...it was yummy, but I'm still not sure how anyone can drink the entire cup of thick hot chocolate used for dunking the churros in.
After leaving La Baneza, we stopped off at a local pottery shop, took a detour to look at the many wine bodegas lining the hills in the area, and stopped for a drink at El Capricho where the size of the steaks were gigantic!
Laura can put together as much or as little as far as activities go of things you can do in the area. Some people want to go hiking or visit the local markets, and others want to spend every minute in the kitchen. I did most of my cooking on the final day and was otherwise happy to sit on the terrace and read, wander around the village or take a siesta. Whatever your interests, Laura can create a custom itinerary that won't disappoint.
In La Baneza.
After another lunch where I left full and happy, I took a quick siesta before getting ready to start cooking dinner with Chef Esmeraldo.
On the menu for my final dinner was paella, which required lighting the gorgeous wood stove as the first step in the process. After that, Laura and I worked on putting together a mix of tapas, while Chef Esmeraldo got to work on the paella and its many ingredients.
Once everything was ready, it was time to sit down and share the tapas and paella with more of the neighbors from the village, followed again by dessert on the terrace upstairs. Everyone was so lovely and I felt like a part of the village myself. I started to get that sinking feeling knowing that my time at the lodge was coming to an end the next day.
Lighting the wood burning stove...thankfully, I didn't burn down Chef E's kitchen in the process!
So, that's it...I think I am officially out of adjectives to describe the experience I had in Pozos. It took me way too long to write this post because I wanted to somehow convey to anyone reading this just how amazing it was. Over the course of the four days, I kept waiting to get a bad dish or for there to be something I didn't particularly like, but that never happened. Chef Esmeraldo is so talented and you can feel his passion for cooking come through in every dish. He and Laura pride themselves on using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, including products from local bakeries and butchers, which I totally support. And, Laura's eye for design and attention to detail are evident everywhere you look throughout the lodge.
If you're in the area, I would highly recommend signing up for one of the village retreat options. I will definitely be going back...although Chef Esmeraldo and Laura may not actually get me to leave the second time around.
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I'm Becki...a part-time traveler and recovering expat back in the U.S. after two amazing years spent living in Spain.