It was bound to happen. We fell in love with Spain. Traveling across its vast and spirited landscape, we experienced its diversity of all things wine and food—from the traditional and rustic to the conventional and avant-garde—encountering the creations of Spain´s most innovative winemakers and chefs.
WE HEADED EAST on N-122 towards medieval Peñafiel, a small town known for its spectacular 15th century cliffside castle, which overlooked the village of red-roofed houses, labyrinth narrow streets and restaurants.
In Peñafiel, lamb is king. It is a traditional gastronomy that I have looked forward to something fierce. We made our way into town and noticed that parking was difficult. It reminded me of Boston’s North End without the attitude. “Grab that parking spot!” I exclaimed, as Marc squeezed between a delivery truck and a brick wall. We parked and headed on foot in search of a restaurant that served lamb. We came across Restaurante M. Eugenia, a down-to-earth establishment that offered traditional styled Peñafiel cuisine.
As we entered the restaurant, a brass, grey-haired woman yelled, “Hola! No hay esperar suba arriba!” I leaned against the door and nervously fumbled through my handbag to find my iphone. My Spanish was not very good, and Marc’s translation would only work in a Tijuana prison or a kitchen so I needed one of those reliable little translators. Her voice echoed through the dining room as she fervently pointed towards the wooden stairs. I questioned if we should high tail it out of there, as the restaurant appeared to be empty. As we made our way towards the stairs, a farmer rushed by with a freshly killed baby lamb thrown across his shoulder. He headed to the back of the restaurant where the staff anxiously prepared lunch from an elongated open kitchen.
“It doesn’t get any fresher than this”, replied Marc, as we made our way to the second floor. Marcos, the very hospitable maître d’ greeted us and pointed to a table as he followed with bread and water. Like most Spaniards, he spoke quickly and assumed we were from the area.
“Hola Marcos, we’re from the states and our Spanish, eh, no es tan buena!” Marcos was quick to revert to our spoken language to ask, “So what brings you to Peñafiel?” Like most tourists might respond, “The food and wine, of course”. We settled in and noticed that this was a ‘locals’ hotspot. Where were the tourists? Not here, that is for sure.
Marc scanned the menu and immediately fixated on the 1/4 Lechazo Asado (roasted suckling baby lamb), plenty of food to feed a party of two for 38€. Marcos was impressed, “Excellent choice, as it’s a specialty of Valladolid — you’ll love it”.
Most locals in the restaurant made a deliberate attempt to ignore us, but we struck up interesting conversation with the adjoining table as we waited for our meal. I did not catch his name, but I remember him telling us that he was Peñafiel’s Economic Developer responsible for writing all the checks for the small town. He was quite entertaining as he told us stories about Marcos’ past. His familiarity with the towns’ people led me to believe he could chronicle every diner in the restaurant. I forgot what it is like living in a rural area.
As for the meal, it was definitely worth the trip. The baby lamb was seasoned and placed in an earthenware dish with a little water and roasted slowly for several hours in a traditional roasting oven called a Horno Asador. Served tableside in a large iron skillet, the lamb was tender and well executed—nothing fancy, simply succulent and worth every penny. We complimented the dish with an inexpensive three-euro carafe of local red house wine, a Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero. As it turned out, the wine was on par with most of the wines we had paid top dollar for in the states.
We finished with a flan de la casa and a couple of double espressos and then Marcos surprised us with liquor shots. I don’t recall the Spanish name of the drink but it reminded me of a White Russian made from vodka and coffee liqueur. I am sure Marcos would have continued to pour us shots had we not insisted he stop! We headed home to get an early night’s rest, as we had plans to drive to La Rioja in the morning.
The Grand La Rioja, Spain | Bodegas LAN & Dinastia Vivanco
WE SIPPED DOUBLE ESPRESSOS before heading to the village of Fuenmayor in the heart of Rioja Alta. There we will meet Amaya Cebrian, the marketing director for Bodega LAN. We arrived at the vineyard which occupied an area of 72 hectares with vines as old as 60 years, producing some of the most spectacular Tempranillo made in the international style. “What do the initials stand for?” I asked. “LAN – Logroño, Álava and Navarra, which are the three provinces in the Rioja Designation of Origin”, responded Amaya.
We toured the facilities and then tasted their top-tier Tempranillo: Viña Lanciano, Culmen and Lan Edición Limitada. They were beautiful wines offering velvety textures and complex layers of cassis, blackberry, mineral and tobacco.
Managing to sample five wines without swallowing (which seemed like a sin considering the quality of wine), we made our way to the medieval village of Briones. This is where the famous Bodega Dinastía Vivanco and museum reside. The wine museum, which started as a modest project, has grown to a private enterprise with a large assortment of books, works of art and archeology, wine production machinery and a 3,000-piece corkscrew collection.
After we toured the museum, we sampled the crianzas and reservas. Vivanco’s crianzas were fruit driven with subtle toastiness and the reservas were more intense with soft tannins and mature fruit. Rafael Vivanco first introduced me to the wines of Dinastía Vivanco at a Spanish wine educator’s class where he taught me that the traditional La Rioja wines of today are very different from those of the past. Although the oxidized style of Rioja’s ancient times still exists, many of the producers today focus on the vibrancy and fruit flavors of the wine. Prior to leaving the bodega, we headed outside to visit the winery’s ampelograhic gardens, where plantings of 220 grape varieties from all over the world were on display.
Lunchtime arrived so we grabbed a bite to eat at the museum’s wonderful bistro before heading back to our hotel in Haro. As we entered the village, we observed eight police in Land Cruiser Defenders, Mercedes smart cars, BMW motorcycles, and several other vehicles we could not identify. We walked into the hotel and asked, “What’s with all this commotion?” No one seemed to know but locals ensured us not to worry.
The Small-Town Charm of Castelldefels, Spain | DOM restaurant
WE SPENT A NIGHT in Barcelona then departed for a 13-mile drive southwest to Castelldefels, a place known for its small-town charm, beachfronts and historic castles.
Five minutes from our destination, we made the roundabout onto Paseo Marítimo drive. There were no signs of four-star hotels and we could not smell the aromas of the Balearic Sea. As we drove a little further, the road gently sloped towards the waterfront’s edge, dropping us at our landing spot, the Bel Air hotel.
I jumped out of the car and headed inside to play the infamous ‘I suck at Spanish’ game with the front desk while Marc unpacked the car. With keys in hand, we headed to our room, unpacked and admired the views from our balcony. It was time to celebrate with a glass of Mencía while we watched the kite surfers line the beach with bright colorful parachutes. It was definitely serenity at its best. For me, tranquility is about a glass of wine, a crust of bread, and a perfect seafront view. The simple things in life should not be overlooked, but rather embraced. This is what Castelldefels is about—the simple pleasures in life.
We soaked up an hour of tranquility before heading down to the hotel’s main dining room, DOM. The restaurant, which flies under the radar in culinary circles, is lead by Chef Marc Fibla. He worked under the master of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, who uses shades of abstraction and surrealism in his cooking to create what he likes to call the ‘deconstructivist’ movement—others in the industry call it Spain’s molecular gastronomy rage.
What I find most interesting about this movement is how it has continued to evolve since the ‘70s. Back then, a group of San Sebastián chefs transformed French nouvelle cuisine into a modern style that evolved through the ‘80s. A decade later, the influential Adrià hit the scene with his outrageous 38-course menu, exploiting scientific principles to push the limits of modern cuisine. He introduced groundbreaking concepts like sorbet of grilled corn, foam of smoke, rosewater bubbles and frozen gin with hot lemon fizz.
Having apprenticed under Adrià, it’s no surprise that we were about the experience irrefutable pleasures of Chef Fibla’s kitchen.
We arrived at high noon to a minimalist white dining room with a serine seafront backdrop and the smell of freshly baked bread. “Mesa para dos?” responded a server, anxiously waiting to seat us. No translator in hand, I quickly replied, “Podemos mirar el menú?”
I could tell by Marc’s expression he was impressed by how quickly I picked up Spanish. Little did he know I butchered the sentence! The server immediately reverted to our spoken language, “We have a table for two, and here is the menu”.
An amuse bouche of Gazpacho and assorted dried root vegetable chips made it to the table, setting the stage for what would be a gastronomic treat.
My entrée of wild boar cantolini was bold and delicate as were Marc’s trio of sausages with orecchiette in broth. Both dishes had a perfect yin and yang symmetry that seemed to unify the forces. I dragged the crusty bread to sop up the last bit of juice from my plate. The server approached our table to check up on us. “Do you have a table for two tonight?” I asked. Hesitating, with a look of regret, “We’re very busy this evening”. The disappointment on my face must have said it all, as he responded, “…well, if you show up at opening, I might be able to find you a seat.”
Five hours later, Marc and I arrived to an empty dining room at eight o’clock. We opted for the Menu Degustació, an eight-course tasting paired with regional wines. I had difficulties reading the Spanish menu, but the element of surprise was half the fun. The experience was, to be modest, a smashing success.
We started with the Cogollos con Ventresca de Atun Fresco y Conservas, a seared tuna dish served with hearts of palm and shaved root vegetables. The color of the plate was vibrant as were the flavors. Sweet hearts of palm contrasted the earthiness of the root vegetables. This meal screamed for white wine and our Sommelier really nailed it by paring the tuna with the ‘08 Bodegas Fillaboa Albariño, which had rich, tart flavors and bright acidity.
The next dish arrived with a chilled glass of Agusti Torello Brut Cava. The squid, paired with a cured sausage made of ground pork, paprika and spices sat on top of a triangular bead of pureed sweet potatoes. The elongated, fried root vegetables made the dish a work of art, resembling the likes of what one of my designer friends J. Manganelli refers to as a Dave Chihuly nested in a plaza designed by Eisenman.
A good Spanish meal would not be complete without Jamón ibérico, so it was no surprise to see the next dish, a deconstructed version of ham and peas which played well with the tropical fresh fruit flavors of the ’08 Castell del Remei Oda Blanc. This wine was made from the Macabeo (mah-cah-bay-oh) grape which is traditionally blended with Xarel•lo (sha-REL-lo) and Parellada (pair-ee-ah-tha) to make sparkling Cava. Our server pointed out that Macabeo is also used as the base for Spanish Absinthe, a distilled anise flavored spirit.
The coastal view quickly turned black as the sun fell below the horizon. This was fitting as we lead to our main course, braised short ribs with garlic churri. Our sommelier paired this dish with a 2005 Merum Ardiles from the Priorat region, a small but mighty area located in the northeastern part of Spain known to produce sophisticated and sought-after low-yielding Garnacha and Cariñena. Big and bold, this wine really cut through the fat of the braised ribs making it a perfect pairing.
Our finale consisted of several small dishes—an assortment of cheeses and dried apricots, the intermezzo of Yoghurt y Moras and these amazing little chocolate doughnuts served with saffron and orange sauce. Every dish paired well with the sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry, which added layers of dried fruit, toffee and liquorice flavors that paired magnificently with the cheeses, fruit and chocolate.
At the end of service, Chef Fibla made his way to our table. Contradictory to his assertive management style in the kitchen, his personality was quite subdued and humbling. In broken English, Fibla asked, “Do you think my cooking is good enough to serve in America?” I replied, “Do you like the weather in San Francisco or Portland? You can fly back to the states with us and we’ll open a restaurant!”
The Rugged Terrain of El Molar, Spain | Bodega Clos Galena del Priorat
On Sunday, we drove 89 miles west from Castelldefels to arrive at the remote location of El Molar to visit the Priorat region, which sits in the south of Catalonia between the Camp de Tarragona and the Terres d’Ebre. On our arrival, feral cats and stray dogs greeted us as we drove down a tiny one-car road. The town reminded me of an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western as metaphorical tumbleweed rolled past us in the town square. We were there to meet the Master Miguel Pérez Cerrada of Bodega Clos Galena. An oenologist and university lecturer, he has made his Priorat winery his life’s work and strives to make distinctive wines.
Miguel pulled up in his luxury SUV, rolled down his window and said, “Greetings and welcome to El Molar. Come with me.” We followed him down a rugged dirt road until we reached his eleven-hectare parcel surrounded by forests and nature in the Priorat Denomination of Origin, in the municipality of El Molar, in Catalonia. Miguel’s wife and three daughters met us at the winery and then we headed on foot through the vineyards.
The scenery was craggy and the vineyard was stony, as is most of the Priorat region. The soil, made of Paleozoic bedrock consisted of Carboniferous slate subsoil called llicorella, a term that is synonymous with the Priorat region. Miguel grabbed a handful of the reddish black soil and pointed to the small particles of mica and quartzite that reflect and conserve the heat.
We continued up the hill to see remnants of a building, which dates back to the 12th century. I wondered what had become of the people who worked or lived in it and its relevance to the Renaissance period at the outset of the High Middle Ages. The first evidence of grape growing in the region began when the Carthusian monks called their monastery Scala Dei, introducing the art of viticulture in 1163.
Looking north, we observed an adjoining parcel, which was clearly unmanned. Miguel claimed land abandonment as the keeper has not been by in months to clear it for vines. It seemed as though the landowner’s feeble attempts lay to rest. Moments later, we get a lesson in organic farming as Miguel kicked over a rock. An abundant amount of ants scurry the topsoil. When I asked Miguel if the ants are disruptive or supportive for the vineyard, he said, “Ants are synonymous with organically managed vineyards in the Mediterranean region due to climate conditions and no pesticide use”. I later find out ants play a critical role in the erosion processes by modifying soil properties and increasing macropore flow.
We headed back to the winery for a late lunch. Prior to our arrival, Marc pre-arranged to cook a meal for Miguel and his family. Having worked as an executive chef in the states, he was prepared to deal with the challenges that lie ahead of him. Marc hoped to prepare a mélange of grilled vegetables over an open fire, but he had to compromise by sautéing with a wok on an electric stove. He served the vegetables with traditional Aglio e Olio (garlic and oil) pasta with parsley. I’m not sure how he managed to crisp up the thinly sliced garlic but I guess that’s why I leave the cooking to him. Miguel’s daughter demonstrated how to make Pa amb tomàquet, a dish no proper Catalan meal could go without. She took a piece of crusty bread and smeared it with squashed fresh tomato, and then drizzled a little bit of olive oil on top. As we set the table for lunch, Miguel lined up the wine glasses.
Although the vines are now dormant, we learned through tasting that his vines, which grow on poor, rocky soils, produce mysterious wines that are reminiscent of intense mineral, licorice and spice. They are all blends of Garnacha, Carignane, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, each producing distinctive flavors. “I can seriously taste the struggle these vines went through to produce such intensely flavored wines—it’s like magic in a glass”, I exclaimed. Miguel’s face lit up with a sense of pride, and rightfully so.
~Pamela Heiligenthal | November 2010