Visiting Two Spanish Farms in Castilla y Léon, Spain
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Castilla y Léon, Spain — There was a time in my international travels when a return to the US required a signed declaration that included questions about any visit to a farm or touching of farm animals. Thankfully, that form is no longer necessary for reentry. Sensible precautions such as washing of hands and brushing of clothes and shoes have done much to eliminate the need for the form, so please be sure to follow them. I know I did, and now I’m grateful to be able to visit the farms and ranches of the bounteous Castilla y Léon region to see and taste the rich diversity of all Spain brings to the table. Here are two very different farms I visited on my last trip to Spain.
How can I describe Hacienda Zorita when its sum is so much greater than its parts? It is a restaurant (or two, or three), an organic farm (perhaps the largest in Spain), a preserver of ancient plant and animal breeds, a maker of award-winning cheese, a vintner of the finest wines, a distiller of fine rums, producer of aged balsamic vinegar, maker of award-winning olive oil, a five-star hotel & spa, and so much more – all on a historic estate whose motto is: ”we’re farmers since 1366.” You see my dilemma. This is my second visit to Zorita and I still cannot believe how all the disparate pieces come together to form perfection.
On my first visit, I was escorted around the grounds by the most capable Jaime Boville García de Vinuesa, so I should not have been surprised four years later when José Manuel Castillo Fernández, the Haciendas Experiences Manager and all-around nice guy, raised the hospitality bar several notches with his tour. We spent an afternoon together exploring the amazing property. We saw three-foot carp in the canal, Iberico and heritage breed pigs in their fields, which are the northern reaches of the dehesa, a free-range environment whose wild acorns produce Spain’s fabled Jamon Iberico Bellotta Pata Negra.
There too, is the rare Churra breed of sheep, normally grown for its meat, used here to produce milk whose delicate flavor and fat content make their excellent, award-winning cheeses. Zorita’s also nurtures the endangered Verata goat for its herb-crusted goat cheese and is experimenting with imported Italian water buffaloes whose milk is used to make fresh mozzarella and burrata. We saw so many animals you could almost call Zorita a petting zoo, too!
Hotel & Spa
Besides the animals, we visited some rooms, villas, and the spa, to see the down-to-earth luxurious pampering hotel guests can expect. Then there was the ancient chapel where countless wedding celebrations have taken place. Yes, Hacienda Zorita is a wedding venue too! It is set at a dam on the River Tormes with a watermill-spa at water’s edge channeling the spillway canal along the front of and then beneath the winery and restaurant. The setting is spectacular, with dramatic stonework and lush landscaping framing the ancient buildings.
Food & Wine
And while all this sounds amazing, I was most struck by the beverages and foods Zorita produces. José Manuel guided me through a balsamic vinegar tasting, then a cheese and wine tasting where he paired their different cheeses with their wines. He concluded the day with a delicious dinner showcasing their beef, pork, and organic vegetables.
Whenever you are in the Salamanca region of Spain’s Castilla y Léon, you must visit Zorita.
Worst Drought in 20 Years
Another farm I visited is transitioning from a ranch into a farm-to-table restaurant, agro-tourist, wedding venue on a bluff overlooking 100s of acres of dusty range. Faenas Camperas is a scant 20 kilometers away from Zorita, but in a far different environment. Where Zorita is an international corporate farm lush with a bounty of acorns, its ponds brimming with water, Faenas Camperas is a small family operation, normally alive and green, but barren and dry this season. Their ponds are dust bowls, meaning all the animal feed must be imported during this worse drought in 20 years. Almost everything is brown except the black fighting bulls they raise.
On a drive through the property, we saw cattle, some with new baby calves, and sheep with their ewes. One field held horses for guest rides. Another was home to Iberico pigs, but with so few acorns their feed must be supplemented; meaning the high-quality Bellota jamons will be in short supply next year.
The beautiful, lithe, and very muscular bulls were the most impressive animals we saw. They moved freely within their vast range, gracefully flowing in an inky black commute between their water at one end and their feed on the other. This migration, facilitated by a lone caballero, is meant to keep them at their peak fitness and flexibility. They are bred for the ring, a bullfight their destiny, and the better they move the more money they command on the market. They are bred for greatness – and death.
Watching them I was reminded of these stanzas in Longfellow’s poem “What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist”:
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Say what you will about the supposed barbarity of Spain’s bullfighting custom, it is in their nature, ingrained in their national culture, and it is slowly passing as the old way of life cedes to modern sensibilities. Meanwhile, the bulls of Faenas Camperas are bred to be perhaps the last heroic fighters on their glorious “marches to the grave.”
Hotel & Wedding Venue
Back at the compound, the guest rooms were large and bright, the beamed ceilings and adobe walls a masculine counterpoint to the linens and decorative country touches. A lush courtyard invited wedding ceremonies on the neatly trimmed lawn, while the beamed-ceiling great room beckoned guests to the revelry to follow. It is a very comfortable, relaxed place, with a good kitchen and the products of the farm to create a bounteous table. One could do well to marry here.
Day visits and overnight stays in either the motel units or villas provide the perfect glimpse of life on a typical Spanish cattle ranch.
There you have it, two different farms, with little in common but proximity, and that both are excellent examples of the two sides of the coin that is the bounty of Castilla y Léon.