El Bohio: Illescas, Toledo, Spain | José Rodríguez Rey

from Gastronomica 3:2

My grandmother Valentina and her sister Romana emigrated from Spain to Cuba at the beginning of the last century, impelled by economic difficulties and a feel for adventure that was uncommon for women of the time. My mother, Teresa Rey, was born in Havana. When she and those two brave sisters returned to Spain, they used their savings to open a restaurant. Three generations of my family have now managed this restaurant, which was founded in 1930, before the Spanish Civil War. My Aunt Romana and Uncle Vicente, who ran the restaurant first, decided to honor their Cuban past by naming it El Bohio after the wooden houses of rural Cuba with roofs made of palm leaves. According to the Catalan etymologist Joan Corominas, bohío derives from the Araucan dialect of the West Indies. The Real Academia Española defines bohío as a thatched hut made of canes or branches, with no ventilation save for the door. The word evokes a humble dwelling, simple and welcoming.

The early 1940s, following the Spanish Civil War, was not a good time for business ventures, as there was great social and economic hardship. El Bohio was lucky: it was the only restaurant on the road from Madrid to Toledo. The restaurant became famous for its Perdiz en escabeche, a dish of marinated red-legged partridge, which was considered the best in the province.

My parents eventually came to manage El Bohio. Only after my father had pursued his dream of being a bullfighter (he actually performed in Las Ventas, Madrid’s popular bullring), and only after he had become a photographer of famous bullfighters, did he plant himself behind the bar of the new El Bohio, surrounded by photographs of bulls and of the famous people who ate at the restaurant. By then the lean years after the war were over. Legs of cured ham hung from the ceilings, and the freshest fish from Madrid’s central fish market, the largest in the country, were displayed in abundance. Simple home cooking highlighted the prime ingredients; my mother’s dishes, learned at my grandmother Valentina’s side, included Mushrooms with Prawns, Rabbit with Angel-hair Pasta, Castilian Soup, and, of course, the partridge that the local hunters brought us during small-game season.

When someone asks me to name the profession closest to that of a bullfighter, I always respond that it is an innkeeper, in memory of my father, who owned a restaurant but who lived and died under the sign of Cúchares, one of the greatest bullfighters in history, and who, as I recall, died of yellow fever in Havana. Another Cuban echo.

My brother Diego took over the business and gradually introduced changes, first the bathrooms and the expansion of the main dining room, then the furniture and the kitchen. Ultimately, the bar so closely linked to my father was removed to create an exclusive dining establishment, a decision that caused me great pain. However, many of the black-and-white bullfighting photographs that my father took with his Leica still hang on the walls, making the restaurant seem like a photography museum. My father particularly liked two of them. One is of Domingo Ortega, a great bullfighter from a town near ours, implementing a veronica, one of the most elegant bullfighting passes. That photo was published in the New York Times. The other is of Ernest Hemingway, journalist and man of action, correspondent during World War ii and the Spanish Civil War, a hunter in Africa and a fisherman in the Caribbean. Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting, which was the subject of his book Death in the Afternoon. My father used to say that Hemingway didn’t have a clue about bullfighting, but he didn’t doubt that Hemingway was a good writer. Hemingway never ate in our restaurant, but his spirit was always present. It is a coincidence that my father was able to take a picture of this great writer, who was so closely tied to the worlds of bullfighting and to Cuba, just as my family had been.

When asked if any of his children, Diego, Pepe, or Teresa, had inherited his enthusiasm for bullfighting, my father always responded with a sly smile, “My children like their bulls on the plate.” Indeed, one of our signature dishes is oxtail, which is stewed traditionally but then boned for a more refined presentation. Our menu includes other dishes from our Spanish culinary heritage, such as Callos a la madrileña (Madrid-Style Tripe), Creamed Codfish with Squash, Glazed Iberian Pig’s Ears, and Ajoarriero de bacalao y trufas (Scrambled Eggs with Salt Cod and Truffles).

Hemingway with the author’s father, Diego. Photograph by Cuevas

Perhaps some readers are curious to know if there is any Cuban influence on my cooking. The truth is, there is practically none, except for three fabulous dishes that my mother prepared in the 1960s and 1970s: Cuban-style Rice; Beans and Rice (known as congri in Cuba); and Carcamusas toledanas, which vaguely evokes the Cuban dish Ropa vieja (“old clothes”) in its ingredients and preparation.

What really drives my cooking today are well-chosen ingredients that represent the best of our region, Castilla la Mancha. In addition to such basic fish as salmon, hake, turbot, and sole, we prepare sea bass, gilthead bream, grouper, lobster, and cod, as well as some inferior but equally succulent fish, such as porgy. As for meat, I prefer game. Pheasant, squab, quail, and venison (both stag and deer) have always had a place on my menu, as has, of course, the famous red-legged partridge. Our restaurant has plucked thousands of partridges.

All of these dishes are dressed with a heaping dose of intuition, talent, risk, boldness, imagination, luck, and—why not—madness. I strive to keep up with trends in the world of gastronomy, to travel in search of novelties, to talk and exchange impressions with colleagues, to read the latest in culinary literature. The end result is, in effect, a compendium large enough to reach the sky, or at least to feel closer to the stars of the culinary heavens.

Speaking of stars, I would like to conclude with another metaphor, one that pays homage to my father and his passion for bullfighting. Any bullfighter hopes more than anything to exit out of the bullring through the Puerta Grande (the Main Gate) as the reward for a fine bullfight. In Seville or Madrid, where the fans are the most demanding, this grand leave-taking is even more thrilling. In the culinary arena, the greatest reward for a professional restaurateur is to have his establishment appear in the famous Michelin Guide. This guide does not grant ears or tails as in bullfighting, but stars—one, two, or three. A reputable French chef was in such despair when one of the coveted stars was taken away that he took the same route as Hemingway—he committed suicide.

Though we’ve received a mark of astral recognition, my brother Diego and I nevertheless try to get on with our work without any grandiose notions. We know that running the restaurant is no more than a way to earn a living and to enjoy a profession, which we try to do with dignity. Our response to the challenge of our work is that of the wise old bullfighter: When asked whether he wasn’t afraid to fail or to be gored by a bull, he answered, “Mas cornadas da el hambre”—“Hunger gores more than bulls.”

One thought on “El Bohio: Illescas, Toledo, Spain | José Rodríguez Rey

  • i am coming to Toledo April 1 and 2nd 2013 ( too short) and would love to come to your
    restaurant. I am a Cuban dancer from Miami Florida, have been to Cuba, love the music and wonder in there is Cuban music and dance club in Toledo? Thank you for a
    Eva Axel

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