Rioja, Spain

Review date: February 2007
By Rachel Seed

Riscal

A Fruity Little Number
Rachel Seed discovers that Rioja’s food more than lives up to its excellent wines, thanks to a culinary tour – from petrol station caff, to Michelin-starred finery – of this beautiful region of northern Spain

I’ve always enjoyed eating in Spain. Actually, if I’m honest, I’ve always enjoyed eating full stop. My childhood memories of driving leisurely through France and Spain, stopping to eat – at rustic roadside ventas, magnificent Michelin star restaurants and picnics on the edge of a stream with fabulously fresh produce from the local market – instilled in me a deep desire to explore and experiment when it came to food. And, in particular, a passion for the food of Spain; there is something wonderful in the simplicity of Spanish cooking – fresh ingredients, not overly-seasoned or swimming in sauces. Roast suckling pig, rich stews – cocida and fabada – wafer-thin slices of Pata Negra jámon that melt in the mouth, puplo a la Gallega, paella, and even the humble tortilla and a refreshing gazpacho, are just a few of my favourite dishes.

My few days in La Rioja, one of the richest gastronomic regions of Spain, was a feast of the senses and has deepened my love of all things Spanish, and I have chosen a handful of the most memorable eating experiences over my five-day trip to share with you. My first taste of Riojan food was an unexpected treat. On the way to the hotel, myself and the Editorial Director got lost. I don’t mind getting lost when I’m on holiday – it’s an opportunity to explore and discover, rather than to stress and worry; two things I do my best to avoid when I’m away. We’d been up since 3am and now, 12 hours later, we were really feeling it, and utterly famished. We vowed to stop at the next place we saw, however ropey it looked. And we stuck to our guns: a roadside caff, adjoining a petrol station that had certainly seen better days. But the car park was full and our stomachs were empty, so in we went.

Rioja cocido

We were the only women in the cavernous restaurant, and silence fell as we walked in. I was unfased however, as in my experience, any restaurant in Spain that is packed with workmen feasting on a ‘menu del dia’ and knocking back glasses of local wine is always a good bet. We feasted on unctuous, warming black bean cocido, tasty roast chicken in its juices, rich lamb stew, crispy, fluffy chips cooked in olive oil and the best ever homemade flan, washed down with a bottle of local Rioja (we splashed out on the two euros to upgrade to the Crianza). And the price? 19.90 euros for the lot. Three courses each, plus wine (a great, grunty bottle) and water. Under 20 euros.

From roadside petrol station to Michelin-star cuisine the next day, in the picture-perfect Riojan village of Ezcaray. At the bottom of the steep and precarious drive up to the tiny ski resort of Ezacaray is Hotel Echaurren, a charming family-run hotel (passed down through five generations) which is home to two internationally acclaimed restaurants and two of Spain’s most important chefs – one serves traditional Riojan home-cooked food and is run by Marisa Sanchez, while El Portal is headed by her son Francis Paniego, a protégé of Ferran Adrià. After a hard morning skiing in blizzard conditions, we feasted on cocido of chickpeas, monkfish and clams, and homemade meatballs with truffles and tomato sauce in Marisa’s restaurant – exactly the type of tasty, warming comfort food I was craving.

The very same Francis Paniego has been recruited by the Marqués Riscal Hotel to oversee its main restaurant (top picture), with José Piñeiro as head chef. Paniego favours cooking at very low temperatures, believing this method preserves the texture of the food better. His experimentation with techniques and presentation is as modern as it gets, but all of his dishes are inspired by traditional Basque cuisine and ingredients – as well as his mother’s homecooking. The tasting menu is quite a marathon – 13 courses – so if you’re going to brave it (and that amount of courses is a labour of food love), I suggest you begin early and avoid the temptation of a hearty lunch. Everything (apart from the vegetables Macedoine which, I’m afraid, tasted too much like over-cooked school dinner food to me) was incredible. You don’t get to eat food that’s been as intelligently cooked as this very often; it was as much a spectacle as Frank Gehry’s exterior. Favourite dishes on the 13-course extravaganza included the foie gras curd with red wine caviar and red pepper; tomato tartar with lobster and white garlic infusion; sea bass with a light foam of red wine; Idiazabal cheese soup with quince. All as equally magnificent and groundbreaking as the other – an utter bombardment of textures and flavours, all expertly handled. My favourite dish was something simply called ‘Gehry Egg’. It came in a small bowl with metallic-coloured edible shards emulating the very building in which we were eating; and underneath sat a perfectly poached egg, truffle and wild mushrooms. Four hours later we stumbled – nay, rolled – food-drunk (and, admittedly, a little wine-drunk) and happy back to our rooms, ready to sleep it off and do it all again.

The following day, thanks to our first foray into petrol station food, we didn’t bat an eyelid when we were recommended a restaurant in a petrol station. “There are bright green neon signs outside and it looks a bit like a brothel, but don’t worry,” said the hotel’s PR woman quite seriously. We didn’t worry at all. Same drill: petrol station, a room full of men, the room went silent. We shared a salad of pigs’ trotters stuffed with foie gras (yes, in La Rioja they serve foie gras in petrol stations – that pretty much says it all). The waitress, who seemed fascinated by the fact that we were there and equally intrigued that I was subtly making notes all the way through, was a delight. She had sweetly divided up the salad between two plates for us (each one equally as big as the full plate just served on the table next door) and told us how we must eat the dish: “Take a mouthful of the lettuce with every bite.” It was fabulous. My roast leg of lamb was perfection. And bless them: rather than the delicious looking chips all the other diners (an elderly woman arrived just after us) were eating, they served our main courses with ‘proper’ potatoes and vegetables. But much more importantly, my lamb came with a wonderful crisp green salad. There is nothing better, food-wise, for me than succulent lamb, crisp on the outside but falling off the bone, soaking in its juices, accompanied by the simplest of green salads dressed with nothing but olive oil and rock salt.
The simplicity of this showed an element of sophistication I’ve learnt not to expect from some of the best restaurants, let alone a road-side petrol station. The other main course of Magret of Duck was equally sensational: simply seared and perfectly pink, it was served with chestnuts, warm ‘marmalade’ and a cranberry sauce. It’s a dish that will be remembered for a long time to come. To finish we shared a cheese flan and, feeling very full, we were careful not to say we were sharing in case of a repeat of the starter. But to no avail: sure enough, our waitress came proudly out of the kitchen carrying two full-size portions. And, I’m ashamed to say, we both polished off the lot – it was just, just wonderful.

Before I continue, I feel I need to explain myself a little. Between these bouts of outright gluttony, we walked for miles, spent a day skiing and swam many lengths of the hotel pool, in an attempt to counteract the effects of the food and wine on our poor bodies. The following day, we toured some bodegas which were spectacular in every way, from the stunning architecture, to the equally stunning wines and the wonderful, friendly and immensely knowledgeable people who showed us around. For me, the stand-out tour was at a small winery by the name of Baigorri. This new generation bodega, handed down from father to son, practices brave, modern, new winemaking techniques producing some of the best Riojas we tasted on our trip: a limited number of bottles are created, with the utmost care and attention, and the wine is only available to buy in specialist wine stores. At the end of the fascinating tour, we were taken down to the restaurant and staff ‘chill out’ area to taste some wine. There were hunks of bread and delicious wafer-thin slices of jámon laid out for us and two of their most coveted wines were opened. Somewhere in between our oohing and aahings of delight, our delightful guide had snuck off, to return a few minutes later with the chef from the restaurant who presented us with a little ‘amuse bouche’ of morcilla (black pudding) wrapped in super-thin pastry with an intense sauce of roasted red peppers. I was in heaven, and we were genuinely moved by the generosity; and moved even more by the bodega’s exquisite Garage vintage. Sublime.

Hector

The tasting at the futuristic Baigorri bodega had certainly whetted my appetite – to be honest, I could have sat there all afternoon, polishing off the two bottles that had been opened for us. Such a waste that we couldn’t have ‘tasted’ more without looking like we were taking advantage. Our guide clearly knew her wine, so we reckoned she’d know her food too. She recommended her favourite restaurant to us: Hector Oribe in the hamlet of Paganos. They were fully booked for lunch, but if we waited for an hour they would squeeze us in. And boy was it worth the wait. From this unassuming little restaurant in the middle of the most unassuming village we’d stumbled across came some of the most accomplished food I’ve ever had (with its heaving dining room and Michelin Bib Gourmand, I’m obviously not the only fan). My duck breast with apricot coulis was pretty as a picture and faultless in texture and flavour. The carrillera of beef (fleshy cheek of beef) was slow cooked until mouthwateringly tender and layered with foie gras. It was mind-blowingly good.

I’ve fallen in love with the region of La Rioja. There is so much to love about it, and not just the fabulous food and fantastic wines. The people are friendly, open, warm and proud of their region; the landscape is breathtaking; the architecture – both old and new – is spectacular and diverse; and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning; that the best is yet to come. Like wine, La Rioja gets better with time.

Hotel Echaurran, Héroes del Alcázar, 2
Ezcaray, La Rioja
Tel: +34 941 354 047, www.echaurren.com

Hector Oribe,
Gasteiz, 8 Paganos
Tel: +34 945 600 715

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