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organic kefir, 3,000 goats, and letur´s dream

To get to the little town of Letur in the southeast of Spain you must travel more than an hour from Albacete, the closest big city along a winding road parallel to the Segura River, which was strangely familiar to me despite being the first time I visited.

Arriving in this town overlooking an imposing ravine, you realize the true miracle that a family business such as El Cantero de Letur has achieved. Which began as a hippie dream of its founder, Paco Cuervo today its lead by the amazing energy of his son Pablo. Today El Cantero de Letur is the first organic yogurt producer in Spain, and it is present on the shelves of the main supermarkets as well as in organic stores and on its online portal. They export their products to Portugal and some Eastern European countries too.

Last week I attended a press trip to visit his new goat farm. This project began three years ago and today occupies 300 hectares. Until now the milk was provided by farmers in the area. Its new facilities, with a capacity for 3,000 goats of the Murcia Granada race, will allow 90% of the goat’s milk used to manufacture its products to come from a radius of 35 kilometers. We could classify it as a goat paradise since, in addition to being in a beautiful pine forest at a height of more than 800 meters, it doubles the areas available for the mobility of goats that are required by ecological regulations.

A trailer leaves day the factory with products from El Cantero de Letur. But 30 years ago, when Paco began his dream, everything was very different. His son, Pablo, tells us his story: “It all started when my parents came here more than 30 years ago. My mother was a teacher, and my father did not have a job at the time. He was always very creative and after receiving a small inheritance he decided to do something productive with it. He bought 20 cows and set up a small cheese factory on an old raft”, explains Pablo.

The first years were difficult because Paco decided that his production would be ecological from day one. Something very rare at that time and he lacked business knowledge too. At first, he distributed his cheese around the nearby towns in a red van that is kept at the entrance of the factory. “When we were already thinking that we finally had to give up in 1995, yogurt came into play. Yogurt provided much more added value per liter of milk since its preparation is simpler,” says Pablo.

And from there to dairy heaven. Because for a company as cutting-edge as El Cantero de Letur, ecology and technology can and should go hand in hand. Nowadays this company has completely transformed the destiny of Letur, a small town of 400 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere and whose landscape only allowed small agriculture fields and subsistence livestock. Today more than 100 people work directly or indirectly for the company.

For a company as cutting edge as El Cantero de Letur, ecology and technology can and should go hand in hand

But its director still wants to continue creating a present and a future for this beautiful town in Albacete. For this reason, Letur Repuebla project is underway. The company has built 10 homes that will be rented at a very reasonable price to people willing to start a new life there thanks to remote working, preferably with a family.

Collaborative projects

El Cantero de Letur dedicates 10% of its income to cooperation projects. “We believe that it is fair to give back to developing countries part of what the West is taking from them,” explains its director. They always choose NGOs with less structure and very specific projects to “be able to directly see the result of our work. In fact, at the beginning of 2020, I went with a film crew to one of our projects in Ethiopia to shoot the documentary Las 75, in which 75 women from the village of Meki received two goats to produce milk and increase the family income”.

Future perspectives

The year 2020 represented a significant 20% increase in sales for El Cantero de Letur. In 2021 they have managed to stabilize and even rise this figure by 3%, but now they face the challenge of the skyrocketing price increase of energy and fuels. They are absorbing the cost for now, but this increase will possibly have an impact on the final price at the beginning of next year. Even though the consumer is more and more informed, for Pablo Cuervo, it is important not to lose credibility and make the consumer aware that it is worth paying a little more for a high-quality product, respectful with the environment and with the people. “Large corporations have seen the trend of organic food and are launching new product lines, but for us, it was never a matter of marketing but values,” concludes.

Sin categoría

Duero wines: emergence, tradition, and diversity

I came to find Duero Wine Fest, the festival of celebration of wines made by the Duero River in the NW of Spain in a bizarre way: after reading negative comments on social networks about the low presence of women in the program. I who never went on quotas commented that perhaps it was because there was little female presence in the world of wine, period, something that brought me the occasional criticism. The truth is that wondering why there is so little female presence in the world of wine is an interesting topic for another article.

Being a novice in the most insider scene of Spanish wine and finding out late about this event made me miss the ad hoc organized press trip and run out of a place in the organized professional tastings. But it allowed me to have a great time and learn a lot with all the attendees since approaching a new world with new eyes is always a gift.

The day began with a very interesting historical and cultural introduction by Pedro Ballesteros, Master of Wine (2010) and one of the wine gurus in Spain, although he resides in Brussels. Pedro drew in our head a Castilla y León crossed by the third longest river in the Iberian Peninsula and surrounded by mountains. They have kept this region isolated for centuries allowing indigenous grape varieties to be preserved, especially in the most forgotten areas of the border with Portugal.

According to Ballesteros, although the community has a wine-making tradition that begins with the Romans, the starting point for the emergence of Duero wines began in 1986, with the entry of Spain and Portugal into the EU. “Our history changes when the “truck” Spain begins, which allowed us to export to other European countries,” he commented. “Without intelligence or market there is no great wine. The first factor is the customer”.

For Ballesteros, exporting abroad continues to be the pending issue for Castilla y León wines because domestic demand is still not sufficient. “It seems that those mountains are still in our heads,” he added. One of the problems is the lack of cooperation between companies, unlike what happens in more minority producing countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Organic wine

After this introduction it was the turn of organic wines, a form of production that is becoming more and more common. Castilla y Leon offers the ideal conditions due to its cold and sunny climate. Several brave producers talked about their story.

 Marta Ramas is the winemaker at the Fuentes del Silencio, a winery located in an out of the radar valley in the province of Leon, in the Northwest of Spain. “We are growing the highest Mencia in Spain, at an altitude between 900 and 1,000 meters and in an area with little continental rainfall and even fewer people,” she describes. “The project aims to recover and maintain abandoned vineyards, some over 100 years old, and it also has a didactic component, because to work first in organic and then in biodynamic, you have to educate the people of the area”.

Ricardo Peñalba belongs to the second generation of the Peñalba López family who bought the Torremilanos vineyards in 1975. In 2005 he began to bet on organic farming and in 2010 on biodynamic production: a concept in which the plant, the earth, the animals, and the humans interact with each other. For him “You have to let nature be alive. That´s why the soil is so important. Soil is a living being and it is where life begins. In the more than 15 years that we have been farming organic the color of the soil has changed, as the attitude of the plants and therefore the taste of the wine”, he comments.

After Ricardo, Jorge Monzón from Dominio del Águila intervened. This is a winery located next to Aranda de Duero in which 50 hectares of old vineyards are cultivated in an ecological and traditional way. The difficulties for Jorge are in finding a workforce that understands that in organic farming everything works at a different pace and routines become more complex. And finally, Didier Belondrade de Belondrade y Lurton, who arrived in Castilla y León in 1994 and fell for the charms of the Verdejo grape, very little known at that time. “The idea was to work in a different way and make a wine for aging, traditional and fresh at the same time,” he commented.

Didier has been producing organic wine since 2009 and his greatest blame is towards politicians who do not protect enough the values ​​of vine cultivation and the source of wealth they represent: “We are being invaded by macro-pig farms, wind energy and solar panels”, he explains.

Soil and wine

 Soils are key for wine production and indelibly mark the character of a wine.

Almudena Alberca, technical director of Entrecanales Domecq commented that “soil is a very complex environment, and it also depends on many circumstances such as microclimate, macro climate, rainfall… It is very difficult to isolate it as an element, but it is something we have increasingly present in communication and wine labels”. As an example, he cited the difference between sandy soils, which produce lighter and more fragrant wines and clay soils. Clay soils have more tannins that give complexity to a wine and more astringency.

This intervention was followed by that of Telmo Rodríguez, who described himself as “a strange character that comes out of its refuge as a 19th century traveler to make wines in various places in Spain: Rioja, Ribera, Rueda, Cebreros and Toro”. For him, the soil does not seem so decisive: “We are more interested in French viticulture which is reflected in the wine through its landscape and through the skin of the grapes.”

He was followed by Gonzalo Iturriaga, technical director of Vega Sicilia, who commented that for them the type of soil is a priority and has a key role in the blend of a particular wine. “Enologists are there to decipher and interpret them and get the best final result”.

Alberto García, from Bodegas Mauro, commented that it is essential to respect the uniqueness of each plot in which the soil is another element to consider. He gave more details about one of its star wines, Cartago from Toro: “It was a very special 50-year-old vineyard, in which a perfect balance was maintained in its acidity, something difficult to achieve in this area.”

When the morning sessions ended I decided to drop by the Wine bar where I was struck by a DO that was unknown to me, Cebreros. That’s why I introduced myself to its energetic director Marta Burgos. She gave me a taste of one of her wines made with royal albillo, a unique and unknown grape variety. This is a small project full of excitement located in 35 municipalities in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos with areas that reach 1200 meters of altitude that requires an article on its own.

Masters of wine

In the afternoon I was able to attend one of the sessions I was feeling more curious about: the perspective of the Master of Wine on the wines of the Douro. I was also particularly interested in listening Fernando Mora, from Bodegas Frontonio, as I already wrote an article about his winery last summer.

He highlighted the diversity of landscapes and climates of Castilla y León, which allows you to do very different things with also very different grapes: mencías, tempranillo, verdejo. And of course, he highlighted the value of old vineyards that if they have been there for decades, “it’s for something, the place and the way of planting are lost if they are ruined, and we can’t afford that,” he remarked.

He also advocated giving freedom to wine producers to express their own creativity, breaking with the concept of typicality, and ceasing to imitate Ribera de Duero, the DO of reference in the community. On the other hand, he commented that “Spain has the pending subject of making the best reds and whites in the world, because we have the capacity to do so, and also to open more to foreign markets as a tool to generate the recognition we deserve,”.

restaurants The yummy chronicles

Saddle restaurant: from a splendid past to a promising future

Saddle restaurant, opened in October 2019, is heir to the legendary Jockey restaurant, the first luxury restaurant in Madrid founded in 1945 by Arsenio Martínez Campos y de la Viesca, a Spanish high society politician, as related by his great-granddaughter Veronica: “After several trips to Switzerland and France, my great-grandfather realized that there was no fancy restaurant in Madrid, and decided to open Jockey. He managed to find the best linens and tableware of the time. We still keep some at home,” she says.

Veronica remembers meeting famous faces and eating cakes from the restaurant every afternoon, as well as getting some other scary experiences in the most active time of the terrorist group ETA, since the restaurant is in front of the Spanish Ministry of the Domestic Issues.

Management problems and the economic crisis of 2008 forced Jockey to close in 2012. But luckily Saddle came to take the baton in October 2019 with a nod to his aristocratic past starting with his name.

Nothing has remained of the decoration and the old Jockey cellar. The rehabilitation works took longer than expected, almost three and a half years. But the promoters of the idea did not lose their way. They kept their star staff: its director, Carlos García Mayoral, who is leaving the project shortly, the chef, Adolfo Sánchez, and the head waiter, Stefano Buscema. They spent the delayed time tracking unique products and discovering old recipes.

The same happened with Israel Ramírez, considered one of the best sommeliers in Spain.  I had the opportunity to chat with him to get to know better this top-notch and ambitious project. Israel spent this time looking for unique wines all over the world to build the best-stocked restaurant cellars in Spain: 1,500 references and 9,000 bottles. Saddle’s wine cellar is so unique that 75% of the wine list cannot be replaced when they run out of a bottle.

Israel Ramírez, Saddle sommelier

He smiles when I ask him how he organizes himself to navigate a collection of wines that would seem unmanageable to me. “The wine list is changed twice a day without exception. We operate seasonally, in coordination with our chef Adolfo. When summer arrives, we replenish more fresh white wines. For autumn Barolo del Piedmont wines, which already smell of undergrowth and truffle, are perfect for game dishes. Or more powerful wines, like Priorat. Our Rioja and Ribera de Duero selection are the most classic and the one that changes the least”, he comments. He is happy with the absolute freedom he must choose and buy the wines that he loves.

The wine list is changed twice a day without exception. We operate seasonally in coordination with our chef

Israel Ramírez, sommelier

The menu changes four times a year, with the seasons, although there are always dishes off the menu and some adjustments every three or four weeks. There is no lack of nods to its predecessor Jockey, such as beef tripe and the stew of the day. They know about the elongated shadow of the mythical restaurant, and they not only don’t shy away from it, but they enjoy taking care of old customers and their memories. “Many people have held important events here, such as weddings, and anniversaries. Now they come back, and we want to be up to the task because for us they are very special clients”, comments Israel.

In fact, for him, what makes the restaurant unique is not only the extensive wine list and an exceptional menu but also the 360-degree personalized experience that they provide to each client. They write down all their tastes and preferences for the next time they visit the restaurant. The number of loyal customers has surprised and delighted them in equal measure.

Curiously, Saddle was born with the vocation of betting 100% on an a la carte menu. That is why he offers infinite combinations of portions and half portions and 60 wines by the glass so that each of the diners builds their own experience. However, after a month and a half, they decided to include the Seasons tasting menu on the menu because customers wanted to taste the star dishes of the restaurant.

Regarding the selection of wines, key in the work of a sommelier, Israel tells me that he follows his intuition and the advice of distributors and collaborators, who advise him on a series of new wines that he and their team try in blind tastings. “I choose wines that have a soul, that represent something, that tell a story. For example, the 82 vintage of Bordeaux is very important in the history of wine, because it was when the Robert Parker phenomenon began. That is why I always try to have wines from that year on the menu, which are precisely now at their perfect point”, he comments.

Last year Israel decided to participate in the Wine Spectator Great Award Restaurants contest. “This is a magazine that I admire a lot because it gives very detailed and truthful information about the world of wine. In addition, although for the Spanish public this magazine is unknown, winemakers take it deeply into account. For us, they must know that we take great care of their product. On the other hand, it is interesting that foreign wine lovers know which restaurants in our country are up to their expectations”, he explains.

Last December 2020 Saddle received his first Michelin star, a pleasant surprise for the entire team. When I ask him what has changed in the way he works and if the pressure is greater now, he answers that for him the real motivation is to give his customers a unique experience and that they want to return.

My experience

Getting to know up close an exceptional restaurant like Saddle and not trying its exquisite food and remarkable wine cellar would have been a shame, so I decided to have lunch there too to see for myself the 360-degree experience that its sommelier had told me about.

The first impression came from the location and interior design of the restaurant, which has taken advantage of the location in an interior courtyard to turn it into a simple and bright space, with a glass ceiling and a large window that opens onto an interior garden with a fireplace. This is a restaurant that is made to remain in time, like its predecessor Jockey. And I appreciate not seeing velvets, gold, and that mix between colonial Shanghai and Miami Art Deco that already has me quite tired of …

I let Israel choose the most suitable wines for the menu we chose, closely linked to the ending summer. After some appetizers to set the tone of the meal, we moved on to the main dishes: a fine and tasty foie gras entier from France, and one of my favorites of the day: a Mediterranean red shrimp tartare with its garlic corals, fresh and delicate, but with personality. The foie came paired with a very special artisanal cider called Malus Mama, made by a young producer in Astigarraga on the North Coast of Spain. The red prawn by a German Riesling: Donhoff Trocken Tonel 2018.

The menu was followed by a red tuna marinated in pistachio soup, an exotic and on-point combination, okra included. It was accompanied by an Albariño Tricó 2016. Afterward, we had the opportunity to meet the charming head waiter, Stefano Buscema, while he prepared us customized steak tartar. In my opinion, the tartar had a slightly vinegary taste due to Tabasco, but he told me that they are working on their sauce that will surely improve the dish a lot. The pairing this time was a Nebbiolo D´Alba 2019 Bruno Glacosa.

My other favorite dish was yet to come: a fig tart with walnut cream and smoked cream. If you combine one of my favorite fruits and add an unexpected smoke point to it, you have won my heart. Several days have passed and I still remember exactly the taste. Something that only great restaurants can achieve. And Saddle is one of them. Israel told me that they have the illusion of retiring there and I would not be surprised at all. The second part of a legend is being forged day by day, plate by plate.

Price 120-150 euros

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