Autonomous Community Spotlight: La Rioja

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageI would have been totally clueless about La Rioja unless it was for a Spain-born love of red wine and Liz Carlson’s Young Adventuress blog. And without knowing it, I may have saved some of the best of Spain for last.

Name: La Rioja 

Population: 322,000

La Rioja Collage

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in Logroño.

When: 17th of 17, December 2012

About La Rioja: Despite having the smallest population in all of Spain, this region packs a lot of punch worldwide because of its wine. Reds, whites and rosés – many of which are celebrated – are manufactured from grapes grown in the vineyards that spain La Rioja and the southern end of the Álava province in País Vasco.

This area was once part of the Roman kingdom of Hispania Tarraconensis, based in modern-day Tarragona. Given its positions between kingdom kingpins like Aragón and León, the area was hotly disputed by even smaller dukedoms, but the Moorish Invasion of 711 meant that La Rioja was soon grouped into the Al-Andalus kingdom.

wine branches in la rioja

After Sancho the Wise swooped in during the early 9th Century of the Reconquista, he claimed the land for the Kingdom of León. After a bitter feud against the Kings of Pamplona-Navarra, La Rioja was given independence as the Kingdom of Viguera before being swallowed up by Pamplona once more.

The region continued to be jockeyed between Pamplona, Aragón, and the soon-united Castilla y León as part of both Soria and Burgos before a new administrative district was formed in 1822 by the Regio reform.

La Rioja got its modern name in 1982 when the Spanish Constitution was passed into law and Autonomous Communities were given more self-governance. The province stands for more than just their cash cow, but for a place where wine is an integral part of the culture.

Oh, and dinosaur footprints have been found here, so toma.

Must-sees: It should come as no surprise that wine is the main attraction in this tiny autonomía. More than 14,000 vineyards and 150 wineries fills the 75 square miles of the Denominación de Origen, whose lifeblood is the snaking Ebro River.

spanish wine

The earliest reference to wine in La Rioja is dated in the late 9th Century, and thanks to the continental Mediterranean climate and a series of peaks and valleys that protect the vineyards from the wind, several highly rated wines have been produced here. The most common grape varieties are tempranillo and garnacha, and the technique of aging wine in oak barrels for at least one year sets wines apart from other Spanish DOs.

You can visit a number of the wineries in La Rioja, particularly in the Álava province and outside of Logroño. We stuck to just a few – Bodegas Darien on the eastern edge of the city, Marqués de Riscal in Eltziego, Laguardia and its underground medieval aging caverns (as well as trippy Bodegas Ysisos) and romantic Haro.

Marques de Riscal winery in Eltziego

Our wine tasting trips were pre-booked and included a guided tour and several tastings afterwards. There are a few bodegas within walking distance of town, as well.

Logroño has a definite small-city feel and served as an excellent home base. We skipped the old town’s few historic sites and instead focused our time on pinchos heaven: Calle Laurel (and its lesser-known counterpart, Calle San Juan). Pinchos are northern Spain’s answer to tapas: simply order a glass of wine and a single serving of food served atop bread, and within a few bars, you’ll be stumbling down the “Path of Elephants.”

tortilla at bar sebas

If you can rent a car, get out of town: Haro and Laguardia are beautifully preserved towns, and a visit to the monasteries of Yuso and Suso means you can get your Spanish nerd on: the first written records of Castillian Spanish are housed here! Apart from that, Roman ruins are scattered around the province and each of the 174 villages seem to have their own flair.

I’m all for Spanish public transportation, but La Rioja is one place to rent a car (so long as you’re not imbibing!).

The town of Assa, La Rioja

A fair number of towns in La Rioja – notably Logroño, Cenicero, Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada – lie on the pilgrim route to Santiago, so expect to run into pilgrims and arrows

My take: Admittedly, my four-day trip to Rioja has a lot of speed bumps. Getting ticketed by cops! Having my cell phone robbed! SO MUCH SPILT WINE! But I loved our venture north, and my companions and I often talk about it being the last weekend hurrah before we got into the heavy adult stuff. 

Wine Tasting at Bodegas Darien

Apart from indulging on Calle Laurel and in little blips of wine towns, we had a chance to not focus on ticking off historical sites or racing to see museums before closing time.

I’ve got a preliminary plan to drive up to Madrid in May and pick up a friend so we can spend a long weekend in Logroño together. After all, eat, drink and be merry!

Have you ever been to La Rioja? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia

The Best Bites from the Devour Barcelona Tour

Food in Barcelona has always made me skeptical, despite a rich culinary history and the production of several globally recognized chefs. I’ve been to La Ciutat Comptal half a dozen times, but couldn’t recall being impressed by much, save a seafood paella in Barceloneta before I’d tried the real thing.

The Best Part on the Barcelona Food Tour

So I left it up to the experts – my friends at Devour Barcelona Food Tour. I’d taken their pilot tour in Madrid and knew that founders Lauren, Alejandro and James appreciated not just the food itself, but the person behind the dishes, making the tour a perfect mix of cultural, gastronomical and historical.

Renée met us on a blustery January morning on Passeig de Gràcia. Like me, she’d left the US for a year but found herself in Spain years later. Being the force behind Devour Barcelona is her dream job. She immediately gave us a hand out that detailed what we’d be eating on the four-hour tour, but I preferred to be surprised.

walking tours in Spain

The tour seemed to get off to a slow start. Apart from walking about ten minutes towards the Grácia neighborhood, we began with a pastry. Admittedly delicious, it didn’t tell me much about Spanish cuisine, much less Catalan. And once we reached Gràcia, a neighborhood that feels like a small city itself, our trip to the market yielded two more Spanish staples. 

We hit the 10am mark and Gràcia began to wake up – and we got a real taste for Catalan gastronomy.

Botifarra sausage sandwich with cava

Bar Pagés welcomed us into a shabby chic bar with round wooden tables, comfortable arm chairs and a smashing wine selection. The family behind Casa Pagés, a family restaurant in the same neighborhood, opened this smaller snack bar, which looks like the hybrid of a wine bar and coffee shop.

barcelona cava

Renée told us about cava, the “confused cousin” of champagne. Made mostly in the Penedès region of Catalonia, cava uses grapes native to Spain like Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. And the reason it’s so cheap? Cava is the region is largely produced by machines! And it’s also a standard morning drink, the way anisette is in Andalucía, so bubbly for breakfast didn’t feel strange.

butifarra and cava on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

After we’d been poured a glass and toast, our second breakfast was served: a simple botifarra sausage sandwich with roasted green pepper and crushed tomatoes. Simple, hearty and crazy delicious. 

Bomba de Barcelona and Pam amb Tomaquet at La Anxoveta

Like many, Carlos and his wife found themselves out of work when the crisis hit. They decided to take over a neighborhood bar called La Anxoveta and breathe life into catalan cuisine staples. Here we’d be sampling two more heavyweights of local gastronomy: pa amb tomàquet and bomba de Barcelona.

Carlos came out with his hands practically talking for him as he rattled off questions to us. He explained the pa amb tomàquet as Renée translated that this simple dish that was once a poor man’s breakfast has become one of the region’s most beloved foods. He cut two slices of pan de cristal, a thin, rustic piece of bread, then showed us how to add the tomato, olive oil, garlic and salt so we could do it on our own.

Next out came the bomba, one of Barcelona’s signature tapas. Born out of a bored cook with a revolutionary streak, María Pla invented the bomba in the 20s as a response to the anarchist violence playing out in the street. The weapon of choice was a cast iron ball with explosives inside that had to be lit with a fuse. Pla’s neighborhood of Barceloneta was a hotbed of activity, and her playful take on food and history has endured.

Bomba de Barcelona Madrid Food Tour

Renée claims the bomba at La Anxoveta is the best in the city – it’s like a glorified croqueta with potato and ground beef, sitting on a bed of spicy tomato sauce and topped with a garlicky alioli sauce. In short, perfect!

Almond pastry at Syrian bakery Príncipe

barcelona storefront

Our walk continued through Gràcia. This part of the city was once a separate village and home to holiday villas; with the industrial revolution, the city’s population surged, and L’Eixample was born. Gràcia was swallowed up by the city, but the barri is like a whole different city surrounded by a city, much like my Triana. 

Gràcia has also opened its arms to foreigners, both domestic and international, and the streets are lined with boutiques and restaurants, snack bars and pastry shops with international fare. Mustafa is one of Gràcia’s business owners, a Syrian national who came to Barcelona on holiday and decided to set up shop. He was a man who spoke very little on his visit, but I left wanted to give him a hug.

Baklava in Barcelona

Mustafa’s pastry shops is simple – it is clean, smells faintly of honey and offers only the Syrian pastries to patrons and to Middle Eastern restaurants around the city. We could choose one, and given how perfect each one of them looked, it wasn’t easy. I watched as the other four chose chocolate or honey confections, but I took a small one with almond. Growing up across the street from a Greek family, I’d loved baklava from a young age, and the almonds coated in honey and the flaky pastry layers had me back on Silverthorn Drive.

Vermouth at C’al Pepe with boquerones en vinagre

It’s almost inevitable – at 1pm on a Saturday, my body needs a cerveza. When Renée suggested going for a drink in the sun-drenched Plaza de la Virreina, I knew she’d take us somewhere great. Up the hill towards Gràcia, she confessed that finding C’al Pepe – or Joe’s House – was a totally lucky find. 

Vermout bar on Devour Barcelona Food Tour

Catherine and I were psyched – Joe’s Place is the de facto Old Man Bar of our college town – and C’al Pep did not disappoint. There was no bar, no menu, no other guiris in sight. Rafa had taken over from the original Pep and strove to maintain the bar’s ambience. It truly had the hallmarks of an old man bar: old vermouth posters hung on the walls, yellowing at the edges. Siphones and old Westerns on the TV. We even had the requisite Spanish abuelos at the end of our table.

Devour Barcelona food tour

We were served a glass of sweet vermouth with fuet sausage and pickled anchovies. Between the bar, the company and the snacks, I had fallen in love with Cal’s bar, Gràcia and perhaps even softened my hard feelings for Barcelona’s food scene. 

After one last dessert and a coffee, we did as the Spaniards did – lay down for a nap and let the food coma pass.

Logo TNS-01

Devour Spain food tours graciously let me chow down for free, but all opinions and calories consumed are my own! I also invited Catherine along as part of the Typical NonSpanish program with Caser Expat.

Have you ever eaten well in Barcelona? Check out my other recommendations for food and a chance to win an eBook from Eat Guides Barcelona!

Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

Tapa Thursdays: Banderillas

Just as soon as it came, spring has left.

In other words, it’s already too hot to sleep.

My diet changes with the weather – just as soon as I’ve put away my heavy sweater, I stop eating lentejas. With my summer wardrobe comes gazpacho, salad, caracoles, fried fish and banderillas with my beer.

Where it comes from:

What it is: A banderillas is a snack that takes its name from the barbed sticks used in bullfighting (and, according to Google images, also the name of corn dogs). Pickled vegetables are stuck onto toothpicks and eaten in one bite. These vegetables can include gherkin pickles, red peppers, cebolletas, guindilla peppers and olives, and sometimes include anchovies or even chunks of cheese, depending on preferences.

Goes great with: Beer and a warm, sunny day! Just don’t drink them with wine – the banderillas are briny with a kick from the pepper and therefore kill the taste of a robust tinto.

Where to get them in Seville: The banderilla is great for parties, and you can buy pre-made jars at the supermarket or make them yourself at home. As something to matar el hambre after work, I’ll grab a tapa from La Melva (Cardenal Ilundain and Manuel Siurot) or any other old man bar.

What are your favorite bar snacks? Do you like banderillas?

Tapas Thursday: Sampling La Brunilda

I have visited so many places whose names ring famous, and usually have felt like something was missing.

When it comes to food, I’m beginning to have high expectations.

In Seville, a city that’s home to seemingly hundreds of tapas bars, it’s hard to not fall victim to the newest or the trendiest. New bars and eateries pop up so often, and even a week’s absence from traversing the center means I’m bound to come across a new bar.

When La Brunilda opened (I think) earlier this year, my friends raved about the food. Websites raved about the food. I went earlier this month, a bit skeptical but looking forward to a new place.

Like many trendy new bars, the space – which looked like a converted coach house, thanks to a large door and exposed brick – was airy and not busy  early on a Tuesday. Having to work two hours later, I chose to not even read and weep the wine list and opted for a beer.

My friends suggested asking the wait staff for daily specials, but we were clear: D chose papas bravas and a magret de pato with a carrot cream, G and I both got an oversized tapa of dorada with pisto and cream of Idizbial cheese, and I couldn’t resist risotto with crunchy onions and asparagus. 

Believe it or not, I liked each dish more than the last.

I hope you haven’t taken a bit out of your computer.

While the food was spectacular, I didn’t feel that the service was. Our dishes came out quickly, but it took ages to refill beers and get the bill – I couldn’t even imagine how long it would take on a busy weekend night.

If you go: La Brunilda is extremely popular, so it’s best to go early or during the week. Located on Calle Galera, 5, near Reyes Católicos, the bar opens at 1p.m. for lunch and 8:30 for dinner. Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

A Cooking Day in Málaga: Preparing Spanish Dishes in Andalucía

Spain is a country that’s easy to get lost in. I don’t mean the culture or the romanticism – I mean, GPS systems are absolute crap, and it’s easier to end up on the wrong road than it is to arrive to your destination calmly and on time.

Stuck in our constant chatter, Mickey and I missed our exit, had a local forget we were following him to Almogía, and ended up on a dirt road. I called Mayte, one of the women behind A Cooking Day, and she told me she hadn’t heard of the town we’d just driven through.

“There will be wine,” Mickey soothed. “There is always wine on a Spanish table. Don’t stress.”

 As it turned out, we were in Mayte’s driveway, but wouldn’t find that out before turning around again. But Mickey was right –  as soon as we’d sat down in the airy courtyard of her country house, dripping with Bougainvillea and antique lanterns, I felt at ease and over my road rage.

Mayte and Keti announced the menu before anyone had been introduced – ajoblanco, a citrus salad with cod and spring onions, fideuà and quince pastries, plus homemade bread. As with any Spanish weekend meal, we’d snack our way through the process, eating olives they’d marinated and malagueño cheese with homemade fig marmalade.

Prepping our meal

After meeting fellow blogger Robin Graham and his partner, as well as locals Ute and Sergio, wicker baskets were distributed and we went into the small huerto to pick fruit. Oranges, persimmons, figs and lemons are ripe at this time of year, and we’d be using several in our recipes.

Once back in the house, we donned aprons. Robin and I set to peeling shrimp while Mickey and Sergio pounded almonds using an iron mallet and a stone, a traditional method. As an American used to my fish coming headless and my chicken breasts cleaned, it was refreshing to know that we were truly making farm to fork food.

Mayte’s kitchen is spacious and modern, blended seamlessly into a century-old farmhouse that’s full of interesting pieces from her travels around the world. She and Keti, a longtime friend, set up the cooking classes in both English and Spanish earlier this year. They cater groups of two to just six, ensuring that everyone will get their hands dirty.

There would be blanching, chopping and stirring, but not without a glass of Rioja and a few stolen almonds.

Making our Food

First up? Kneading the bread and preparing it to rise. Mine refused to cooperate with me, and coupled with my lack of kitchen skills, I was toast. Ha. The day was a bit damp, causing the bread to need more time to bake and rise. I took another sip of beer.

We focused on the ajoblanco next, peeling away the case and chopping garlic – it was a dish I’d surprisingly not tried before. Mayte dumped everything into the blender and turned it on, and we were sipping it a short time later between nibbles of our baked bread and organic olive oil (Mayte’s recipe is below).

As we peeled the oranges we picked and chopped them, along with the ripe spring onions, the shrimp shells we’d discarded and the monkfish boiled in separate pots to serve as brother for the fideuà noodle dish that would be our main plato

Keti showed us a family secret – frying the noodles with a bit of oil and garlic so that they’d not get too hard later. As a last-minute addition, we made a simple alioli sauce of egg whites, garlic and olive oil to accompany this traditional noodle dish that resembles paella. 

La sobremesa

Nearing 4 o’clock, we  sat down to eat. The fireplace crackled as Mayte served us the salad. While I didn’t think I’d be too keen on mixing salted cod with oranges and onions, the malagueña salad was surpassingly good and felt layered, despite its simplicity.

Our bellies were happy and in good company around the table. Sobremesa is a Spanish term that refers to the conversation and camaraderie that always seems to happen around a table. In fact, the work for striking up a conversation is entablar, which perfectly encompasses sobremesa chat. I chose to bring Mickey because I knew she’d be right at home. Like me, she loves wine, food and good conversation.

As Keti finished the fideuà, we drank up, a rich Rioja that blended well with all of the flavors on the table. The noodles were cooked perfectly, creamy and with the right amount of flavor. Again, I was taken back at how flavorful something so simple could taste.

The Takeaway

For someone who loves food and dabbles in cooking, the outing was a fun was to spend a day. We rolled up our sleeves and got to see the process through, from picking the fresh fruit to taking the quince pastries out of the oven. Perhaps by my own election and in the name of art (and Camarón), I didn’t cook as much as I expected.

Mayte and Keti are personable, helpful and patient, and they make great company. I appreciated that they came up with a menu that pleased palates from five different countries and our two vegetarian counterparts, and the food was simple enough to repeat, yet filling and delicious.

Ajoblanco
Print
Ingredients
  1. 150g almonds
  2. 2 cloves of garlic
  3. 2 slices of bread (crust optional)
  4. 1/2 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  5. 1 litre of water
  6. salt and white wine vinegar to taste
Instructions
  1. Blanch the almonds blanching hot water until the skin peels off easily. Peel and chop the garlic cloves into fine bits. Soak the bread in water to soften it, then break it apart into smaller pieces. Put everything in the blender with the olive oil, a bit of vinegar and salt, and blend until you get a fine paste, adding some water if necessary. Add a litre of water and the salt and vinegar to taste.
Notes
  1. Tip: day-old bread works best for this recipe.
Adapted from Adapted from A Cooking Day Blog
Sunshine and Siestas http://sunshineandsiestas.com/
 Mickey and I were gracious guests of Mayte and Keti of A Cooking Day, but all opinions belong to me. A Cooking Day is available to speakers of English, Spanish or French for 50€ a head, which includes the materials, food and drink, plus company. Mayte’s cortijo is located just off the A-7, right outside of Málaga. For more information, consult their website.

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