The Edible Garden
In 1851 Spain’s second railway line was completed, linking Madrid and Aranjuez by a mere one and a half hour train ride, a vast improvement over the previous six or seven hour journey by horse. Inaugurated with much fanfare by Queen Isabel II, this train linked Spain’s capital city with the beautiful palace, monuments and gardens of the 'Real Sitio' (Royal Site) of Aranjuez. It was also intended to ship high quality fruits and vegetables cultivated in this agricultural oasis directly to the capital. Today the original railway line remains intact, and visitors can make the journey to Aranjuez in the 1920’s wooden cars of the “Strawberry Train”. This vintage train not only pays homage to the town’s past, but more importantly, to one of the many excellent products that have made it famous
The Real Sitio de Aranjuez is located at the confluence of Spain’s largest river, the Tagus, with its tributary, the Jarama. These wooded lands, fertile soils and abundant waters caught the eyes of first the Romans and then the Moors long before it became a favorite spot of Queen Isabel I in the 15th century. It was then referred to as the “Queen’s Island”. This royal interest in Aranjuez was to become the impetus for the area’s development. The next few hundred years were spent perfecting the monuments, waterways and ornamental gardens of Aranjuez. This legacy is easily visible in the monumental Baroque palace that dominates the town. However, the Spanish royalty left an even more dynamic legacy in the vegetable gardens, orchards and farms that have brought renown to the agricultural products of Aranjuez.
It was during the reign of the Hapsburg Kings Charles V and Philip II in the 16th century that Aranjuez was declared an official royal residence. The first royal gardener came from Flanders in 1562, and the gardens were planted with a huge variety of different ornamental and edible trees and plants. The Bourbon kings in the 17th and 18th centuries introduced many more varieties of fruits and vegetables that Aranjuez is known for today, most notably asparagus and strawberries, but also beets, beans, peas, potatoes, melons, lettuces, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as the acclaimed artichoke. In fact, the only significant crops of today that were absent on the royal farms are the cruciferous autumn-winter crops of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Apparently, these vegetables were unacceptable to the royal palate, and their cultivation was prohibited in Aranjuez in the 18th century because they were considered too “common”.
Asparagus and Strawberries
In his treatise entitled Historic description of the Royal Forest and House of Aranjuez, published in 1804, Juan Antonio Álvarez de Quindós writes, “In the gardens is every species of fruits and vegetables, bearing exquisite fruits, and in particular, strawberries and asparagus, which are eaten in the Palace through the first days of the new year”. Although wild asparagus grows plentifully along the Tagus, the traditional asparagus from Aranjuez was originally a Dutch variety that was introduced in the mid-18th century at the behest of Ferdinand VI. Since the purpose of the Aranjuez vegetable gardens then was to feed the royalty and its court, the French gardeners Esteban and Claudio Boutelou developed techniques to grow green asparagus year-round using beds of hot manure.
Throughout the years, asparagus has remained one of the most important crops in Aranjuez for its traditional and gastronomic value. Typical asparagus from Aranjuez can be green or white. The white “etiolated” version is grown entirely underground, where the absence of light inhibits the development of chlorophyll. Green asparagus, known locally as pericos, is in season from the end of March through May. On weekends in early spring, it’s not unusual for people to make the drive south from Madrid to stock up on this delicacy or eat at one of the many restaurants that typically serve the asparagus grilled with sea salt, in soups, with scrambled eggs, or in tortillas.
The equally famous strawberries of Aranjuez are of two kinds: fresas or fresones. While both were introduced to the area from France, the tiny fresas (Fragaria vesca L.) had been cultivated there since the 14th century, while the larger fresones (Fragaria virginiana Duch and Fragaria chiloensis Ehrh) arrived from the Americas in 1624 and 1712 respectively, and were brought to Aranjuez shortly thereafter. Curiously, the high level of calcium found in the Tagus River soils is unsuited to these plants, since it partially blocks the absorption of iron by their roots.
However, according to Fernando Alcázar, an agricultural engineer and strawberry farmer in the area of Aranjuez known as El Cortijo de San Isidro, these conditions help give Aranjuez strawberries their unique characteristics. The fresones are unbelievably sweet and soft, and the tiny fresas are so perfumed, juicy and floral that they melt in your mouth, resulting in what Fernando refers to as “an orgy on your palate”. A native of Aranjuez, Fernando also attributes these characteristics to the traditional cultivation methods. On his farm, both varieties are hand-harvested in April and May and only when completely ripe. Unfortunately these strawberries last only one day, making it difficult to export them from Aranjuez.
This might help to explain why the traditional cultivation of these crops has dropped dramatically over the years. The decline is also part of a general downturn in horticultural production in this area in recent years. According to a 2010 study carried out by the Agricultural Engineering School of the Universidad Politécnica of Madrid, there were 567 hectares of fruit and vegetable cultivation in Aranjuez in 2003. Since then, the total cultivation area for fruits and vegetables in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, including Aranjuez, has dropped 75%. According to Aranjuez Deputy Mayor, José Luis Moreno Tristán, today there are only approximately 10-15 small fruit and vegetable farmers left in Aranjuez. David Alonso, Adjunct Director of the Association for the Rural Development of Aranjuez and the Comarca de las Vegas (ARACOVE), attributes this to the fact that “there are fewer and fewer farmers who are dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables, and there is no younger generation willing to take over the farms”. Much of the limited crop production of Aranjuez is either sold locally, to restaurants, or occasionally in MercaMadrid.
Fortunately, a renewed gastronomic interest in the excellent produce of Aranjuez has resulted in small increases of crops like asparagus and strawberries. According to David Alonso, the fresa is now making a comeback, after almost disappearing, and the fresón is once again being cultivated on a larger scale. The same is true for asparagus, now that “farmers recognize that there is a growing local market that fetches good prices.” In any case, the bounty of Aranjuez is not limited to these traditional products. The chefs of world-class restaurants in Aranjuez such as Casa José and Restaurante de la Calle are now focusing their attention on the local autumn crops, including the once-prohibited cruciferous vegetables that are not typically used in local cuisine.
I visited Aranjuez at the height of the crucifer season in early November, and accompanied chef Rodrigo de la Calle on a visit to the farm of Ángel Gomez Villamor. We walked among rows of leafy cabbages and broccoli bouquets, surrounded by the bright red and orange leaves of a deciduous forest. Rodrigo, who is widely considered a maestro of gastrobotanical cuisine due to his knowledge and preparation of vegetables, explained that “crucifers must be collected in the early morning before the sun comes up, when they are still hardened from the cold, and retain their minerals from the previous day.” He believes that some people’s aversion to these vegetables is due to unfamiliarity with these crops, and the strong smell that they may produce when cooked incorrectly.
In Rodrigo’s dishes crucifers are often served raw or barely cooked, so that their flavor and texture reign supreme. One such creation that I was lucky enough to try was his 'Couscous of crucifers, sprouts and tender shoots' (Cous-cous de crucíferas, germinados y brotes tiernos), that tasted fresh and crisp, but still captured the essence of autumn flavors. Other cruciferous dishes include the earthy and multi-textured 'Cabbage filaments with truffle, celery-parsnip cream and Abelia flowers' (Filamentos de coles con trufa y untuoso de apionabo), the rich and fragrant 'Rice with broccoli flowers and free-range chicken' (Arroz de pollo de corral con broccoli), and the magical and flavorful 'Autumnal vegetable mosaic' (A modo de menestra: mosaico estacional de verduras y hortalizas de Otoño), which was a miniature forest of cozy artichoke, cauliflower and Romanesco broccoli. Rodrigo is the son of a local farmer, and his innovative recipes and support of local produce have helped rejuvenate some of the area’s diminishing crops, and have turned the capital city’s attention back to the gardens of Aranjuez.
Another inspired chef is Fernando del Cerro of the family-owned restaurant Casa José. Awarded a Michelin star in 1991, Fernando also believes in the importance of regional and seasonal produce, a philosophy that is emphasized by the list of farmer-purveyors included on his menu. In addition to more traditional offerings, the restaurant currently has a twelve-dish tasting menu called “Progression of the elaboration of vegetables”, in which seasonal vegetables progress from raw to more cooked with every dish.
The 'Cabbages over ceviche gel and iodine essences' (Coles sobre gel de ceviche y sabores a yodo) is followed by 'Raw Lombard with wild mushroom slivers and pine nut cream' (Lombarda en crudo con escamas de hongos y crema de piñones), and then 'Scallop with fried cabbage, grape foam and a bouquet of celeriac' (Repollo frito sobre mosto y bouquet fresco de celeries y viera), all in an increasingly intense parade of Aranjuez’s seasonal vegetables. Fernando agrees with the idea that “crucifers are badly interpreted and badly prepared in Spain”, and that these and other tasty but unusual vegetables from Aranjuez are often eclipsed by the famous strawberries and asparagus.
Whether referring to cruciferous vegetables basking in newfound fame, or traditional and well-known crops such as strawberries and asparagus, once on the decline and now making a comeback, farmers, chefs and politicians alike seem to agree that the agricultural bounty of Aranjuez needs to be promoted. The fruits and vegetables of Aranjuez are as thoroughly woven into the town’s past and present, as its monuments, and ornamental gardens.
For this reason, ARACOVE and the Aranjuez Economic Development Office are working to safeguard these agricultural traditions through programs that focus on expanding cultivation areas and crop diversity, developing new commercial outlets, and encouraging young farmers to carry on this tradition. Additionally, the need for preserving Aranjuez is universally recognized. In 2001 the “cultural landscape of Aranjuez” was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Real Sitio de Aranjuez is located at the confluence of Spain’s largest river, the Tagus, with its tributary, the Jarama