Black and white portrait overlooking room

Peak harmony: La Vaqueria Montañesa in Madrid

‘Sustainable’ is not a word liked much by storytellers. There is an empty, scientific ring to its sound. I prefer the idea of being in ‘harmony’ – with people, nature and the cosmos. I would bring ‘fortune’ and ‘wisdom’ into the mix as well, to create the holy trinity of how to live well, and sustainably.

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

My dictionary tells me that La Vaqueria Montañesa translates as the ‘mountain shed where the cows are milked’. Deluz y Cía know all about mountains, which rise up behind their home city of Santander. They work with the small farmers in the mountains of Cantabria, which stretch along the Cantabrian coast, and rise up to over 2,500m.

My time in Argentina with the gauchos gives me a different feel for the name. I see it as the ‘art of the mountain cowboy‘, which sits especially well with the backdrop of large black-and-white portraits, with striking poises and strong gazes, pinned to the restaurant walls. 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 in the Chamberí neighbourhood. We had been at the Foundation as part of the 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 and toasted sourdough bread – just the right thickness

Origins in Santander, on the Coast

Deliz y Cía have four restaurants In Santander, a four-hour train journey north of Madrid: the original Deliz (in their grandmother’s 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 east from Santander is Bilbao and the Basque Country, where Carlos Zamora is on the jury for the Basque Culinary World Prize.

This year’s winner of the prize was restaurateur Anthony Myint, who works out of San Francisco, and is the name behind the ZeroFoodprint initiative and The Perennial Farming Initiative. The sustainable story is not just happening in Spain.

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

alchemising hard times

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 one of the top league football clubs had no money to pay the wages of 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 was the step that took them from being a ‘social’ restaurant group to a ‘sustainable’ one, to work directly with local producers across Cantabria and even to set up an organic meat cooperative.

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

veg & fish APLENTY + 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 seafood. 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 is also about social inclusion and local communities. In Santander, Deluz y Cia train 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. 

About a third of the group’s staff 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 Menu at la Vaqueria

  • The Octopus a la Plancha with Kerala curry powder, purple potatoes and tart green apple. This made for a colourful Instagram picture.
  • The desserts included homemade ice creams, chocolate tart and tiramisu. Pure comfort food.

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 was it worth it! Firstly, we were welcomed as family members.

The café was previously the home of the first herbalist in Madrid – hence the name, angelica, as in 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. The gold-and-black machine was so beautiful that we all cooed over it. We accompanied the organic Guatemalan roasted to perfection 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, back to London.

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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