Black and white portrait overlooking room

Peak harmony: La Vaqueria Montañesa in Madrid

For me, the word ‘sustainable’ is an empty, scientific word. I prefer the idea of ‘being in harmony’, with people, nature and the cosmos. Searching for a holy trinity, I would add fortune and wisdom to harmony. This is the secret to living well.

The Madrid restaurant La Vaqueria Montañesa is in harmony, as part of ‘sustainable restaurant group’ Deluz y Cía. The group is run by Carlos Zamora, his sister Lucia (a lawyer), his brother Pablo (a photographer) and his mother María Gorbeña (also a photographer).

La Vaqueria Montañesa can be translated as the ‘mountain shed where the cows are milked’. My time in Argentina with the gauchos gives me a different feeling for the name. I see it as the ‘art of the mountain cowboy‘. This is especially given the backdrop of large black-and-white portraits pinned to the restaurant walls of people with a striking poise and a strong gaze. Photos taken by Pablo.

Near the Norman Foster Foundation

My lunch at La Vaqueria Montañesa was on the way back from a tour of the Norman Foster Foundation, a short walk away. We had been at the Foundation as part of this year’s Monocle Quality of Life Conference, where Carlos had been on the panel, Why Eating Together Matters.

Finding cool in La Vaqueria

Despite the 4o°C/104°F outside, La Vaqueria Montañesa was refreshingly cool and light, with the doors open to the quiet street of Blanca de Navarra. We rolled along at 2pm. The wooden tables only started to get busy at 3.30pm, a typical time for lunch in Madrid, especially on a Saturday.

We started with an appetiser of vegetable paté with toasted sourdough bread – just the right thickness

Origins in Santander, on the Coast

The Deliz y Cia family come from Santander, a four-hour train journey north of Madrid, on the Cantabrian coast. They have four restaurants in the city: Deliz (in their grandmother’s old house), El Machi, El Italiano and La Caseta de Bombas. And another two in Madrid: La Carmencita and Celso Y Manolo, together with Café Angèlica.

Santander is famous for its sandy beaches and the Renzo Piano-designed Centro Botín arts centre. It is also home to La Magdalena Palace, the summer residence of King Alfonso XIII and the British-born Queen Victoria Eugenia until they were kicked out by republicans in 1931.

An aside on the Basque Culinary Awards

An hour’s drive away east from Santander is Bilbao and the Basque Country, where Carlos Zamora is on the jury for the Basque Culinary World Prize.

The Basque Culinary World Prize 2019, announced this summer, went to restaurateur Anthony Myint, who works out of San Francisco. Myint is the name behind the ZeroFoodprint initiative and The Perennial Farming Initiative. Other finalists included Douglas McMaster and Virgilio Martinez.

5 tomato salad with fresh cheese from La Jarradilla and pesto of pine nuts from Pedrajas de San Estaban

alchemising hard times into good things

At the start of the great Spanish recession, in 2008, Deliz y Cia had two restaurants, a third under way, millions of euros of debt and a staff of 60. This was a time when even a top league football club had no money to pay its players.

When things start to get gloomy, it is good to reconsider – and to knock on doors. So Carlos and his family headed up to the mountains and down to the local fish market, to talk directly with the producers.

This took them from being a ‘social’ to a ‘sustainable’ restaurant group, working directly with local producers across Cantabria. Since then, they have also set up an organic meat cooperative.

Croquetas de Nécoras (crab) with a bechamel sauce made with fresh milk from ‘David’s’

Seasonal vegetables + fresh fish + whole-carcass meat

At La Vaqueria Montañesa, the menu is bursting with seasonal vegetables. The fish is also plentiful – the Cantabrian coast is famous for its fish. And when comes to meat, they buy the whole carcass. Nothing is wasted.

Rabas de Santander – a local dish to Santander made of squid

Social inclusion – Depersonas

Being sustainable – or in harmony, as I would call it – is also about social inclusion and local communities. In Santander, Deluz y Cia trains people with mental disabilities to be part of its DePersonas programme. The programme prepares 1,200 meals a day of organic food for the city’s schoolchildren. 

Among the group’s 180 or so staff, around 60 are from ‘social exclusion’ projects. “If you give people an opportunity, then 90 per cent, if not more of the time, they take it. Sometimes you have to give them a second or third opportunity,” said Carlos. “It’s about giving them a lot of training, support, confidence. Then they can go from washing the dishes to managing a restaurant.”

Summer panaché of La Vaqueria

Also on the Menua at la Vaqueria

  • I tried the Octopus a la Plancha with curry powder from Kerala, purple potatoes and tart green apple. It made a beautiful Instagram picture.
  • The desserts included homemade ice creams, chocolate tart and tiramisu. All desserts that link me back to warm, comforting feelings from finding emotional refuge in creamy, sweet food. Even better when flavoured with fresh fruit or chocolate.

Coffee at Angèlica

With our lunch over, we headed across town to the trendy district of Malasaña. Time for an after-lunch coffee at Café Angèlica. I like to drink coffee in a café, where the machines whirl all day. Now, I am sure La Vaqueria Montañesa does a good coffee, but we wanted the full Deliz y Cia experience. And boy was it worth it!

Firstly, we were welcomed as family members – me and my two new friends from the Monocle Conference. The café was previously the home of the first herbalist in Madrid – hence the name, angelica, like the herb. Herbs and spices, as well as tea, are still sold, and the original wooden shelves and counter remain.

The coffee is roasted on site, out the back. The gold-and-black machine was so beautiful that we all cooed over it. The coffee – an organic Guatemalan – was roasted to perfection. We accompanied it with a slice of special Cantabrian sponge cake – oh the comfort of creamy milk and sugar.

Outside it was still 40°C, but we were in harmony in our café. Then it was time to pick up my things from the hotel, and off to the airport.

My double espresso that made me feel energised, but not a bundle of nerves

For more on Madrid, you might like my post, Real Madrid: A City of Districts.

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