VERY soon, the Lloyd family are off to sunny Spain, y viva Espana, if not to chat to a matador but we do hope to eat patatas bravas by the score. To get ourselves in the holiday spirit, we visited some cool cabana which has recently opened in Bishop Auckland Market Place.
It is so new that it doesn’t even have its name on the outside of its very anonymous building, although it is beside the Spanish Gallery, which announces its presence in very large letters.
The tapas restaurant El Castillo is, of course, part of The Auckland Project which is taking over the town, and it aims to combine a taste of Spain with locally sourced ingredients, particularly from Auckland Castle’s walled gardens.
It is in what was once the Bishop Barrington School, which has been stylishly dressed out with tasteful tiles that might have come from the palace at Alhambra in Andalusia. In my notes when we arrived, I wrote that it was “bright, clean and echoey”. Then a table of six moved in beside us. They weren’t raucous but with the place full, even hearing what the waitress was saying to us was difficult.
Many tapas restaurants have a menu as long as the queue at an airport check-in desk, but El Castillo’s is quite short. It offers four meat plates, four fish plates and six potato and vegetable dishes, which range in price from £6.50 to £9. For the four of us, we were advised to order between eight and ten plates, which meant we’d be paying about £15 each for a main course – these days, that’s about par for the main course in a good restaurant.
The beauty of tapas is that you able to sample a lot of different tastes. The drawback of tapas is that the plates arrive helter skelter from the kitchen and you are soon trying to work out ways to stack all the plates amid all the chaos of glasses, jugs and crockery.
Ordering brought back memories of our last Spanish holiday, pre-pandemic. The Spanish love their croquettes in a way that has never caught on in Britain, and the word “albondigas” is always a puzzle: how can it mean “meatball”?
We ordered all four of the meat dishes, and the first to arrive was, I thought, the best dish of the day: the cured ham croquetas (£7.25). Crispy on the outside but packed full of beautifully creamy bechamel in the middle and with just a hint of raw.
The three albondigas (£7.50) were good, sturdy affairs, and I liked the typically Spanish, gentle red pepper and Manchego cheese sauce they came in. However, Theo, our son, was far more used to meatballs in a massively rich Italian tomato and garlic sauce and couldn’t cope with the Spanish subtlety.
Genevieve, our daughter, enjoyed the chorizo a la sidra (£7.50), with great chunks of rich sausage floating in a dippable sauce, and I took a long time contemplating the crispy chicken wings (£7). The meat inside was gleaming white and moist, and the sauce on the outside was pleasantly warming, but I concluded that rather than being crispy they were a bit kizzened.
From the fish section of the menu, we ordered grilled sardines (£7.50). We got two of them, halved and swimming on a bed of lentils. They were nicely cooked and had that sudden sharpness of fishiness.
We were all looking forward to the patatas bravas (£6.50), reminiscing how on our last holiday they had been smothered in such a lurid pink sauce that they looked like a strawberry blancmange. The Bishop Auckland patatas – deep fried potatoes – were more restrained in color and taste, but still Theo ate them by the handful.
Petra, my wife, nominated the Berenjenas (£6.50) as her favorite of the evening. This was finger-sized pieces of aubergine deep fried in an incredibly light batter and served with a muscovado honey dressing. I thought it a little too sweet, and preferred the Broccoli a la Catalana (£6.75), which was griddled tenderstem sprinkled with raisins and pine nuts with just a hint of chilli heat. It was an imaginative combination that I thought worked really well.
In truth, tapas is not Theo’s ideal food. He’s more of a Sunday roast with three Yorkshires sort of a chap, happiest with a big bowl of chips accompanied by a side order of chips. For him, there was too much pfaffing about, a bit of this, a bit of that, and too many sticky fingers – we really could have done with a fingerbowl.
The rest of us loved the variety, each having a different favorite, and if one dish wasn’t quite to our liking, we could move on to the next. Eight dishes between four left us comfortably full – perhaps we could have accommodated a time-honoured tortilla as well – with enough room for a dessert.
There were five possibilities on the menu, from which Theo chose the poached peaches (£5.50). It was, for him, the best part of the meal, great juicy lumps of soft fruit with a Seville orange ice cream which I thought was exquisite – not at all citrussy so it worked well with the peach.
I had Catalan Crème (£5.50), a custard with a hard glazed top. I wondered whether it might have a waft of vanilla or cinnamon in it, but I didn’t detect any. Instead, it came with two remarkably large orange shortbreads which gave the custard all the fruity flavor it needed.
We drank only a chilled jug of tapwater, so our bill for four came to £79.25, which was very reasonable for high quality food, imaginative cooking and classy presentation. It revived memories of past Iberian holidays and raised the expectations, and excitement, for the one to come.
As we left, dusk was gathering in the wide spaces of Bishop’s pleasant Market Place, which is fringed with some fabulous buildings that are slowly coming back to life.
But from a gunmetal gray sky fell a little light drizzle – we might have had a taste of Spain but we were still experiencing an English summer.
Bishop Auckland DL14 7JF
Tel: 01388 600530
Web: aucklandproject.org. From there, we were directed to book through dishcult.com, a very easy experience
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 8 Service 7 Surroundings 7 Value 8