A Sip of Logroño

A Sip of Logroño

(Continued from my post about Burgos.)

Our next stop was the city of Logroño, the capital of the province of La Rioja. With only 5,045 square kilometers, La Rioja is the smallest province on mainland Spain and the second smallest overall, only slightly larger than the Balearic Islands. For any wine connoisseurs, the region needs no introduction. Located in the upper regions of the Iberian System of mountains, the province occupies the valley of the Ebro; and it is here that this mighty river splits and divides into seven channels, which is why La Rioja is known in Spanish as “The land of the seven valleys.” The climate of this valley—gradually varying as the land ascends from east to west—has proven ideal for viticulture.

Logroño is by far the largest city in this province, concentrating more than half its population within its reach. Like Zaragoza, the city is huddled around the Ebro; and like León and Oviedo, it is an important stop on the Camino de Santiago. Compared with any of those three cities, Logroño has played a relatively modest part in Spanish history. Surrounded by Aragon to the East and Castilla y León to the West, the city has never been a major center of power. But it is a center of wine—and that is what I was there for.

We took a Blablacar there the next morning. For part of the way, we were accompanied by two college-aged girls. I only mention them because they immediately struck me as odd.

In Spain, greetings are important. When you get into a car, you often perform all sorts of contortions so you can—like a proper human being!—kiss one another on the cheeks and make introductions. But these girls, who were Spaniards, sat timidly in the corner and gave us nervous smiles. And even though my Spanish was halfway decent by then, I found it impossible to communicate with them. Eventually we stopped in a small, no-name town and they hastily got out without even a word of goodbye. I looked around at the town, which struck me as one of the seemingly identical, featureless pueblos one drives through on the way to the major cities. Why were they here? Were they running away or something?

“Weird people,” the driver said, as we started driving away. I’m glad I wasn’t the only person to think so.

Our plan was to visit a bodega, which is the Spanish word for winery. (As a side note, I can’t help finding this word funny, since in New York City a “bodega” is a corner store.)

Our Airbnb host was out of town, so we were shown in by the host’s mother, a terribly nice woman who answered all our questions, gave us recommendations, and even made us reservations for a tour at a winery—specifically, the Campo Viejo winery. But there was one problem. When she left, we realized that she was under the impression that we had a car; the winery was well outside of town, and when I called to ask if it was possible to walk there, the man said “No, no, take a taxi.”

We were feeling stingy and we didn’t want to pay for a cab. Travel doesn’t pay for itself. Google Maps said it would take an hour, and that was exactly how much time we had before our tour. So we decided to walk. Our phones soon led us out of the city and into the surroundings countryside. We were forced to walk on the road because there were no sidewalks, but thankfully the roads were mostly empty.

In just forty minutes we were making our way through rows and rows of grape plants. Or at least I assumed they were. This was my first trip to a vineyard or a winery, and to my ignorant eyes the plants looked like stunted trees, not “vines.”

Logroño Vineyard
The colorful thing was part of a marketing campaign

Finally we arrived, and right on time. The tour began. And unsurprisingly, it was in Spanish. The guide very kindly offered to translate in English for us, but we bravely said no, hoping to improve our Spanish in the process.

Consequently, at a generous estimate I understood about 20% of the tour. Probably more like 10%. But here’s the outline. To start, he took us outside where he talked about the grapes, and then went downstairs where he told us about the history of the winery. Next he led us into a massive room where hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine were sitting on racks; he had to shout to be heard over the giant fans, which kept the room at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity. I believe this room was to combat the effects of “bottle-shock”—the temporary distortion in flavor that follows the bottling of wine.

After that, we were shown the factory. On metal platforms suspended twenty feet from the ground we walked among about forty gigantic metal tanks. He told us about the fermentation and distillation process, and I understood none of it. But even though I didn’t understand what any of the equipment was for, I think there is something terribly exciting about being around big, shiny, high-tech equipment. I felt like I had stepped into the future, and it smelled like fermented grapes. The last stop was most impressive of all. A ramp led us down to another massive room at the bottom of the building. Our guide switched on the lights, and suddenly I saw thousands of wooden barrels, all pilled atop one another, stretching out before me like the ocean. There must have been thousands.

It always amazes me that we can develop things like wine-making to the pitch of perfection, an exquisite blend of science and art, and yet we cannot solve problems like poverty. I suppose there’s more profit in the former.

Finally it was time for the tasting. Our group gathered around the bar, and the guide began pouring out classes of white wine. He tried to talk us through the process to properly taste wine—sniffing and gurgling and pondering—but I had downed my glass before he’d even started. I liked everything, but I must admit by pallet is extremely insensitive: all wine tastes pleasant but rather similar to me. Case in point: the thing I remember most fondly from the tasting was not the wine, but the free chorizo and bread sticks that I munched on ravenously.

Best of all, we didn’t even have to walk back. There was a nice Spanish couple from Burgos on our tour, and one of them was very excited by the opportunity to practice his English with us. He spent the whole tour tasting chatting with us; and when we finished, he offered to give us a ride back to town.

“Do you trust me?” he said, as we climbed into his car. Normally this kind of comment would send chills running down my spine; but in the mouth of a non-native speaker, it seemed nice and innocent.

Well, we survived. In just ten minutes we were back in town. Since we didn’t have any plans beyond our wine tasting, we decided to kill time before dinner by visiting all the church buildings in town. Logroño, as I mentioned, is situated along the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route that runs along the north of Spain. This route is clearly marked with the classic cockle shell insignia; and even though it was cold and off-season, we saw a handful of dutiful pilgrims, wearing blue rain jackets and lugging around giant backpacks, making their way through the town.

None of the churches or basilicas of Logroño is memorably impressive on its own, especially after seeing the Burgos Cathedral. But taken together, the churches of Logroño form a wonderful tableau of religious architecture.

We went to four or five in quick succession. One church that sticks out in my memory is the Iglesia de San Bartolomé, which has a wonderful front portal, bursting with radiating arches and crowned with a sculpture of the Last Judgment. The inside was empty, except for a lonely priest sitting in the confessional booth; and in the cold silence of that stone building, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the lonely priest, waiting for a congregation that seldom comes.

Logroño San Bartolomé_Fotor

Another church worth mentioning is the Iglesia de Santiago del Real, one of the largest churches in the city. You can recognize the church from the equestrian statue of Santiago wearing his pilgrim’s hat, his arm raised to strike. As we wandered through the dark and cavernous insides, examining the chapels and altars, a man came in, kneeled down on a pew, and prayed. Three minutes later he got up and left, the thud of the heavy wooden door echoing ominously through the interior.

Santiago's_Church_in_Logroño
Photo by jynus; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons

“I wonder what it’s like to be a catholic in one of these places,” GF said. “Does it add to the experience?”

I had been wondering the same thing. For the two of us, all the altars, chapels, and architecture of Catholicism are simply art; our appreciation is purely aesthetic. It must be a different thing completely to look upon the giant crucifixes in the stone buildings, and see the Truth of the Universe. Sometimes I almost regret that these stronger, more spiritual pleasures are cut off from me. But so it goes.

Logroño Cathedral.jpg

Last we went to the cathedral, which you can recognize by its two towering spires. Technically the Cathedral of Logroño is a co-cathedral; indeed it is one of three in its diocese, along with the Cathedral of Calahorra and the Cathedral of Santo Domino de la Calzada. In any case, we weren’t able to look around because there was a wedding being held. When we peeped in, the groom and the bride were kneeling before the altar while loud organ music was playing. The priest was standing nearby. Catholicism may be fading here in Spain, but it’s certainly not dead.

Logroño Wedding

Finally it was time for dinner. For this we went to the Calle Laurel, the famous culinary arterty of Logroño. The street is so narrow and so full of people during meal times that no car could make it through—and none did. Restaurant after restaurant is packed into the small stretch of street; and in each one you can see plate after plate lined up on the bar, waiting for you to partake. Many of these dishes are ostentatious in their presentation: meatballs are served in a wine glass, covered in a bright red sauce; ham is suspended like a flag on a ship from toothpicks sticking out of the top of a croquette.

To avoid the crowd, we got to the street at 7:30 (very early for Spain), picked a restaurant, and dove in. We ordered whatever caught our eye. But to my dismay, as soon as I chose a dish the waiter would take it and stick it in the microwave. The food still tasted good, but the microwave rendered it soggy and textureless, and one croquette was still cold in the middle.

We went to another bar and got the same treatment; and ditto in a third bar after that. All told, we samples six different bars before calling it quits, most of the food only moderately good. But thankfully we saved the best for last. To finish we walked into a bar that served only mushrooms—the Bar Ángel. They are the simplest things in the world, cooked in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt; and they are delicious. If you’re in Logroño, find the restaurant with the grill filled with mushrooms and eat your fill.

The next morning we took a Blablacar back to Madrid, riding with a couple of guys from Senegal; they both worked in a meat factory in Cuenca. One of them slept the whole time, but the driver was a sociable fellow and we talked in accented Spanish the whole way back. And thus ended another weekend in Spain.

Review: Cooking in Spain

Review: Cooking in Spain

Cooking in SpainCooking in Spain by Janet Mendel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are few places a New Yorker can go—especially in Europe—to find truly exotic food. Whether the cuisine is from Italy or Germany, China or Korea, Ecuador or El Salvador, chances are we have tried it—or some Americanized version of it—at least once. But, like many Americans, I was totally taken aback when I moved to Spain. The eating culture struck me as radically different; and the cuisine, if not exotic, was animated by a very divergent approach to cooking.

For a long time, I admit I was not very taken with what I discovered. Like many Americans, I am used to heavy meals with intense flavors, dishes that scorch your tongue and sit in your stomach like an iron weight, and I don’t feel satisfied unless I feel sick and slightly overwhelmed at the end of a meal. Spanish food very seldom produces that sensation. It is generally mild and relatively light. I don’t think I have ever had a dish from a Spanish restaurant I could call properly spicy, and Spanish portions are not usually large enough to produce the semi-comatose post-prandial mood that I was used to.

There are also many things that are simply not to my taste. I am not fond of tuna or hard-boiled eggs, yet nearly every sandwich in the cafeteria in my school has one—or both!—of those ingredients. And in general I cannot stomach as many carbs as the Spanish seem able to do. I am still baffled by bocadillos de tortilla—potatoes on a baguette?—even if I find them delicious; and many times I have been served a heaping plate of rice or potatoes with a side of bread (no meal in Spain is complete without bread), and wondered how Spanish people manage to stay so thin.

I am not the only American to have this reaction. Friends and family have expressed disappointment to me several times regarding the state of Spanish cookery. It is not that Spanish cuisine is bad, of course, only that Americans and Spaniards look for quite different things from food.

One major difference is that Spanish people like to be able to taste the ingredients, to savor the freshness and the quality of the individual elements of the dish, which is why Spanish cooking is often astoundingly simple and mild: both the form and the flavor of the original ingredient are preserved. Americans, on the other hand, like to transform and process ingredients beyond recognition. Another difference is that Spaniards are not so passionately fond of excess, and usually eat until they’re satisfied, not at death’s door. And this is putting aside the difference in Spanish meal times—lunch at two or three p.m., dinner at nine or ten—which I still have trouble adapting to.

Now, I should warn my American readers at this point that Spanish people are extremely proud of their food. Indeed, it seems to be the only thing about their country that Spaniards are unanimously proud of. They will freely denigrate nearly everything else—their government, their universities, their economy—but Spanish cooking is sacrosanct—¡se come bien en España!—and the quickest way to achieve good rapport is to praise the food vigorously. I would also like to mention, in self-defense, that despite some initial misgivings, I have grown to be extremely fond of Spanish cuisine—I swear!

Most cookbooks I’ve looked at—admittedly not many—don’t give an accurate idea of the food you actually encounter in Spain, presenting instead a fusion or haute-cuisine version, but this book is different. Janet Mendel is an American journalist who has been living in the south of Spain for many years now. Her cookbook is the most “authentic” book on Spanish cooking that I have come across. It begins with an overview of the different regions of Spain, moves on to Spanish ingredients, and contains over 400 recipes, as well as a glossary for food terms. The glossary is especially useful, since I’ve found that menus are more difficult to translate than poetry. (In Spanish, food words are particularly variable from country to country, or even region to region, making a Spanish-English dictionary of limited utility when faced with a menu.)

The regional overview is also valuable, for, like everything else in Spain, food can be quite specific to a location. Each major city has its own distinctive dishes; and particular cities—Seville, Logroño, San Sebastian—are famous for their food. The major axis of difference, I’ve found, is between the north and the south. Typically I prefer eating in the north—Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque Country—though there is excellent food to be found all over. In the south, mainly Andalusia, they tend to fry nearly everything, with the exception of the two famous liquid salads, gazpacho and salmorejo, both of which are delicious and refreshing under the brutal southern sun.

The north is far more verdant than the south, and the northern coast is at least equally as good for fishing, which means they generally have fresher ingredients. The Basque Country is the province most famous for its cuisine, and deservedly so, but I am particular to the food of Galicia. If you get a chance, perhaps when hiking the Camino de Santiago, find a pulpería, order some of the Galician octopus—seasoned with the distinctively intense local paprika—and drink the local Ribeiro wine, young and sharp red wine often served in a ceramic bowl. It is an exquisite meal.

Recipes for all these, and more—including all the Spanish classics, like my favorites, cocido, paella, cochinillo, fabadas, croquetas, and tortilla—can be found in this book, in simple and easy-to-follow recipes, along with extensive information on Spanish wines, cheeses, and produce of all kinds. Admittedly, I have not had great luck in my attempts to cook Spanish food, but this was entirely my fault. (My croquettes and my tortilla turned into mush; I am not a good chef.)

My failures notwithstanding, Mendel’s book is excellent, and almost encyclopedic in its coverage of different ingredients and types of dishes, methodically going through every type of meat and fish, including sections on snacks and desserts, with charming little vignettes along the way. She clearly knows Spanish cooking thoroughly, both the typical dishes and the meals for festive holidays, and does not dilute it or change it to cater to foreign palates.

Unfortunately, however authentic the recipe, the dish will not taste exactly right unless you buy the ingredients locally. To pick just one example, pork products play an integral role in Spanish cooking (they say it’s because eating pork differentiated the Catholics from the Jews and Muslims), and you will have a very difficult time finding true Spanish pork in New York. And this is a shame, considering that Spanish jamón is far better than prosciutto, and Spanish chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) are wonderful flavoring agents for stews. Indeed, for my part I think Spain has the best pork products in the world, not that I would know.

As a parting piece of advice, if you go to Spain try to avoid those omnipresent tourists traps in the city center, with big yellow billboards advertising their paella. I had one of the worst meals of my life at one of these in the Plaza Mayor. You can find many excellent fine-dining establishments in Madrid. But to find more typical food, done well, look for the cheaper, less ritzy places. I can recommend the Café Melo’s—the menu has about six things, and they’re all good—and the Casa Mingo, an Asturian restaurant with famous roast chicken and Spanish cider, that’s right next to the chapel that contains Goya’s remains. And if you’re in Madrid in winter, try La Cruz Blanca de Vallecas for its famous cocido madrileño, a heavy stew of meat and garbanzos.

Well, I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer. I can only add that Spanish food may seem unpromising at first; but once you develop a taste for it and you know what to look for, it is a fascination and a delight.

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