SPAIN: Basque and La Rioja

DINE and Destinations - - CONTENTS -

In the small but di­verse La Rioja wine re­gion and Basque coun­try of north­ern Spain,

Adam Wax­man finds a culi­nary ex­pres­sion syn­ony­mous with cul­tural iden­tity

I’m in love

with a Gali­cian oc­to­pus. Mar­i­nated in olive oil and pi­men­tón, it has never been more ten­der. You never forget your first pin­txo.

Along Logroño’s nar­row Calle Lau­rel the “pub crawl” is el­e­vated to de­lec­ta­ble heights. Each bar of­fers its own sig­na­ture pin­txos (tapa held with a tooth­pick) and se­lec­tion of lo­cal wines. At one stop, a cup of av­o­cado, smoked salmon tar­tar, mus­tard and olive oil; across the lane, a cros­tini of shrimp-stuffed mush­rooms; next door, squid driz­zled in pesto and, around the cor­ner, seared foie gras and ba­con with a maple glaze. I just can’t get enough. We pair with wines like Viura from Cuné Win­ery, and Mar­qués de Ris­cal Tem­pranillo (shown above), burst­ing with lay­ers of ripe berries and earthy un­der­tones. So­cial and cel­e­bra­tory, this is the way to eat in La Rioja and Basque Coun­try, Spain: “ir de pin­txos.”

Cui­sine here pays homage to the land, de­vel­oped from the lo­cal har­vest. Out­side Venta Mon­calvillo restau­rant we smell burn­ing wood. Veg­eta­bles from the gar­den are be­ing roasted for lunch. Seven hun­dred wines are listed on the menu. We are told the aim is to forget time and or­der 15 cour­ses. Well, I just hap­pen to have a belly full of time to fill. Rich mush­room soup is served in an eggshell, crisp ap­ple flower is crowned with a dol­lop of foie, and tomato sponge speck­led with olive ash is en­cir­cled with black gar­lic and smoked an­chovies. Each dish is a del­i­cate dis­play of na­ture and nur­ture. Six hun­dred winer­ies

dot the Rioja re­gion. Many fam­i­lies make their own wine, and main­tain un­der­ground cel­lars. At sun­rise, aboard a Glo­bos Ar­coiris hot air bal­loon, we softly as­cend to an aerial bap­tism. With cava in hand, we float 1,200 feet above the Span­ish coun­try­side and sur­vey this vast re­gion of me­dieval monas­ter­ies and vine­yards.

A wa­ter­fall of mould sta­lac­tites en­tombs the wine ceme­tery of Cuné. Be­hind a locked gate are bot­tles from the in­au­gu­ral 1888 vin­tage. Want a taste? The key was thrown into the Ebro River so they can never be con­sumed. The con­so­la­tion is still a prize: The Gran Reserva is a juicy wave of vi­o­let and cas­sis with a hint of licorice. Aged 24 months in oak, this is quin­tes­sen­tial Tem­pranillo.

En route to the coast we stop along the Camino Trail pil­grim­age route at the Cathe­dral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the only church to house live an­i­mals. Since 1350, live chick­ens have been cooped in­side to com­mem­o­rate the story of “the hen and the cock that sang af­ter be­ing roasted.” Af­ter a prayer and a cluck we head to lunch.

There are more Me­dieval towns in Spain than any­where else in Europe. In Vi­to­ria, we en­ter a 15th cen­tury inn, El Por­talón, and step back in time. Slow cooked rib-eye steaks are ten­derly mar­bled, juicy and ro­bust, and per­fectly match a bot­tle of Izadi Cri­anza with in­tense fruit, a touch of smoke and spice.

The renowned de­signer, Cris­to­bal Ba­len­ci­aga, once said, “El­e­gance is elim­i­na­tion.” Along San Se­bastián’s board­walk, the sound of seag­ulls in the ocean breeze is calm­ing. We stroll the Parte Vieja for the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of bars in the world. More pin­txos please! An­chovies from nearby fish­ing vil­lage, Ge­taria, pair with a crisp sparkling Tx­akoli. Cros­tini stacked with black olive paste, sun­dried tomato, caramelized onion, jamón Ibérico and goat cheese with burnt honey is an orchestra of bold flavours that hits ev­ery har­mo­nious note (shown left).

Spain is a con­stel­la­tion of Miche­lin stars. Over­look­ing the river in Bil­bao we enjoy the tast­ing menu at one such star, Mina. Mus­sels lux­u­ri­ate in co­conut and lemon­grass oil, grilled hake is en­livened in a pot­pourri of herbs and root veg­eta­bles and slow cooked pork belly, seared crisp, is as vi­brant to the eye as to the palate. It’s the qual­ity of in­gre­di­ents and the at­ten­tion to their pre­sen­ta­tion that make din­ing here so tan­ta­liz­ing.

The heart of Bil­bao is la Plaza Nueva. Chil­dren play soc­cer, el­derly men de­bate pol­i­tics, cou­ples dance un­der the stars and, around the perime­ter, rev­el­ers pack ev­ery bar and café to drink and taste the gas­tron­omy of Spain. If you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the best of Europe with­out the sky­high cost, this is the place to be.

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