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La Mancha Revisited

Pepe Rodríguez Rey

Castile-La Mancha is a region in the center of the Iberian peninsula, known worldwide thanks to the universal work of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha, which relates the adventures of a 16th-century hidalgo obsessed by tales of chivalry. It is one of the Spanish regions with the best-preserved local recipes, in which garlic, bread, olive oil and wine are essential ingredients. But tradition is not all in Castile-La Mancha. There is also room for innovative, signature cuisine, and a very clear example is Pepe Rodríguez Rey at his restaurant, El Bohío.

El Bohío is located in Illescas, a town in the province of Toledo just 60 km / 37 miles from Madrid. Today it enjoys great critical prestige, though it boasts a history of several decades. In 1939, when the violent chapters of the Civil War seemed to be drawing to a close, the grandmother and great-aunt of Pepe Rodríguez opened El Bohío, the only eating house on the road between Madrid and Toledo. The name bohío was taken from the huts made of cane and wood that are typical of the West Indies, a tribute to part of the family that had emigrated to Cuba where Pepe's mother Teresa was born. Teresa inherited the business and attracted a faithful clientele who came in search of the best of La Mancha traditions. She eventually passed it on to her two sons, Pepe and Diego.

New path of signature cuisine

This takeover by the third generation brought with it a thorough change in the working philosophy at the restaurant. Pepe Rodríguez was keen to take his mother's and grandmother’s recipes along a new path, that of signature cuisine. Not only did he achieve this, but his efforts were rewarded by a star in the Michelin guide and by acclaim from his professional colleagues. Rodríguez's cuisine is very closely related to the land he grew up in. His menus always include escabeches, the typical La Mancha marinated way of cooking, but he combines local products with others from elsewhere to create his own personal style.

His endless curiosity and flair have enabled him to gradually adapt the El Bohío menu, revealing his love of the aromas and flavors of the family’s stews, game dishes and garlic soups, all cooked gently, for hours on end. But this nostalgia is applied to modern-day cooking, using new techniques that allow for experimentation, surprising combinations and avant-garde results. Yet his favorite ingredients are garlic, onions, saffron, belly pork, pimentón (a Spanish type of paprika), partridges and fish such as salt cod and sardines.

His most renowned dishes include pisto manchego (stewed summer vegetables) with onion ice cream, his version of croutons with sardines and chocolate, free-range egg with iced pimentón powder, and garlic soup broth (his personal version of the famous La Mancha garlic soups). He revived the traditions of the city of Toledo with its three cultures (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) in his "Bread dipped in stew gravy with dressed chickpeas and broth". This recipe was presented by Rodríguez himself at a master class given at The French Culinary Institute of New York, now renamed The Culinary Institute of America, in 2005 on the occasion of the fourth centennial of publication of Don Quixote of La Mancha. The other dishes offered were sea bass with an infusion of pimentón, and rice, garlic and onions.

Pepe Rodríguez does not like to be described as self-taught. He prefers to acknowledge that we all learn from someone, and that travels, reading and experiences gradually build up a meaning for our daily activity. He has developed his own philosophy at El Bohío, after spending periods with Martín Berasategui in the Basque Country and with Ferran Adrià in Catalonia. But he always knew he would return to La Mancha, to update and bring a new look to its gastronomic tradition.

El Bohío now has a place in the Spanish culinary avant-garde. His cuisine is complemented perfectly by the restaurant’s cellar, organized and run by Pepe's brother, Diego, who supervises the almost 700 references on offer. The wine list was considered the best at the Madrid International Wine Salon in 2002 and received the Award of Excellence from the US Wine Spectator.


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