The invitation says eight o’clock, so why are we alone, surrounded by empty tables set for dinner and staring at a pristine, show cooking kitchen?
As we check the invitation for the fourth time in as many minutes, the double doors to the elegant dining room swing open and in walk a trio of chefs led by the diminutive Yolanda León, her smile as welcoming as the glass of chilled Martivilli Blanco that is being poured for us. Accompanying Yolanda are fellow chef and friend Belén Rodríguez and Mencey Hotel Head Chef Juan Carlos Clemente.
Along with her husband Juanjo Pérez, Yolanda runs the Cocinandos restaurant in León, an intimate space in which Yolanda and Juanjo prepare a menu based on traditional León recipes and using local produce. Cocinandos proudly holds the title for being the least expensive Michelin starred restaurant in Spain with a menu that comes in below €40. Born in León, trained at the Santiago de Compostela Hospitality School and serving her kitchen apprenticeship in some of Spain’s most prestigious restaurants such as Arzak and Echaurren, Yolanda has held a Michelin star since 2009.
Yolanda and Belén are at the Iberostar Grand Hotel Mencey for the penultimate in the hotel’s series of Master Classes and Tasting Menus which have been shining a welcome light on Spain’s female chefs who hold Michelin stars. Part of the Hotel Mencey’s haute cuisine cooking classes, the events have comprised a Master Class demonstration in the afternoon at which diners learn how to source ingredients and prepare dishes, followed by the evening’s dinner where the dishes are enjoyed as a degustación or tasting menu.
Gradually, more diners begin to arrive and take their places at the tables while Yolanda and her team begin preparations in the kitchen, in full view of the diners and beneath the lens of a camera which is relaying the close-up action onto large screens either side of the cooking area.
Beneath the scrutiny of the camera, we watch as each dish is put together using ingredients prepared earlier in the day. As waiters make their way around the dining room, Yolanda gives a brief introduction to each course and explains some of the traditional local ingredients she is using, such as cecina, a smoked and dried beef which Yolanda describes as “the star product of León”. Salt dried, oak smoked and cured over a seven month period, Cecina de León carries its own DO accreditation.
First to reach our lips is a dish described in the Spanish menu as Croqueta liquida de botillo (literally liquid croquettes of Botillo). Botillo is a sort of León haggis, finely chopped pork from the tail, tongue and back, marinaded with salt, garlic, paprika and spices. The mixture is pushed into pig intestine and then smoked in oak and dried. The end result is an intense smoky bacon flavour with the texture of rough pâte. For her croqueta liquida, Yolanda places the Botillo at the bottom of a glass and syphons in a creamy Bechamel foam before topping it with crispy breadcrumbs. The resultant creamy, smoky, savoury and crunchy creation was one of my favourite dishes of the evening.
Maragato Stew is another León classic dish which is eaten in reverse order, beginning with the meat, followed by the broth and leaving the chickpeas and vegetables until last. Yolanda’s nuestro cocido leonés comprises a bottom layer of cabbage, then succulent cuts of chicken, pork and morcilla (black pudding) topped with crispy noodles. Arriving separately and poured hot around the stew is a chickpea broth with paprika.
As we move into the main course section of the tasting, our waiters pour us a glass of Frontos rosado, a young rosé wine from Abona and the perfect companion to our ensalada de alcachofas, boletus, cecina y queso de cabra (warm salad of artichoke, mushroom, cecina and goat’s cheese.
A bed of steamed and crispy fried artichoke forms an outer circle within which are lightly poached cep mushrooms and juliennes of cecina. On top is a warm goat’s cheese foam surrounding a cecina bolita which looks like an egg yolk but is a cecina stock to which agar is added and then solidified. The finished dish is a symphony of flavours and textures.
The fish course is a succulent piece of cod, León’s most typical fish, lightly cooked in garlic flavoured oil and placed on a thin bed of chorizo breacrumbs. A savoury chorizo pil pil sauce is poured around the fish and the dish is finished with an egg yolk which defies belief. Cooked for 70 minutes at 64°, the still-slightly-runny yolk is separated from its white, added to paprika oil and coated in paprika powder from which it bursts into creamy flavour.
For the meat course, Yolanda has prepared a shoulder of PGI accredited lamb, cooked sous-vide for 24 hours, which she places on a bed of sweetbreads with wheat and serves it with a foamy, cream of herbs sauce made from herbs freshly picked from the Mencey’s kitchen garden. A glass of Dominguez IV Generación from Tacaronte sits beautifully with the tender, flavoursome lamb and sweetbreads and the zingy fresh herbs.
The finale of our gourmet degustación is a cherry savarin in an orujo soup. The intense flavour of the cherry-soaked savarin and vanilla flavoured orujo (brandy liqueur) is topped with a dark chocolate mousse and finished with a white chocolate flurry. An audible low hum moves around the room like a Mexican wave as the rich, sultry dessert send taste buds into euphoria. Accompanied by a glass of Pedro Ximenez, it’s a fitting end to our gastronomic journey through León at the expert hands of Yolanda.
Cocinandos Restaurant, Calle Campanillas, León; (+34) 987 071 378; open Tues-Sat 1.30pm-3.15pm, 9.30pm-10.45pm, closed Sun and Mon.
The last of the Mencey’s Mujeres Con Estrellas season takes place on Saturday 7th December and features two Michelin stars holder, Fina Piugdevall from Restaurant Les Cols, Olot, Girona. The Master Class is from 11.30am to 1pm and costs €40 and the Degustación is at 9.30pm and costs €80 including wines.
Why not book a room at the Hotel Mencey (which is astonishingly good value for money given its five star facilities and uber chic décor and rooms) to enjoy the tasting without having to drive home? We did, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+