Lorenzo Cañas – a chef ahead of his time

Lorenzo Cañas doesn’t have a Michelin star like several other restaurants in the Rioja region but there’s no doubt that he’s the best-known and loved of all the local chefs. He’s always been known as a chef ahead of his time.

Lorenzo Cañas

Lorenzo Cañas

He revolutionized the gastronomic scene in Rioja when he opened his restaurant La Merced in a palace on calle Mayor in the old quarter of Logroño in January 1983, about the time I moved here.  Pre-Lorenzo restaurants here offered the hearty fare of the region – baby lamb chops (chuletillas de cordero), vegetable stew (menestra de verduras), a white bean potage (pochas), chickpeas (garbanzos), white asparagus and several kinds of grilled fish, all served in rather unpretentious surroundings. Some people here say that the food was usually thrown on your plate rather than served. Lorenzo literally brought to the table his vast experience as a chef and diner at the best tables all over Europe, taking dining to a higher level in his gourmet restaurant with classical music, fine art hanging from the walls, porcelain dishes, linen tablecloths and a huge underground wine cellar stocked with mostly Rioja but also wines from other regions in Spain and many from abroad, especially France.

He was trying to bring the best in fine dining to our little region.

Bunch of fried green asparagus with pancetta, a goat cheese sandwich and a quail egg with Riojan chorizo on a spoon

Bunch of fried green asparagus with pancetta, a goat cheese sandwich and quail eggs with Riojan chorizo on a spoon

Most of his customers were businessmen like me with expense accounts from wineries and visitors from big cities around Spain.  Sadly, most of the locals didn’t understand what he was trying to create.  It wasn’t the cost of the meal but rather the modern twist on our regional cuisine that turned people off.  Here, most diners preferred simplicity of style, food like their mothers used to make in the village. I always thought it funny that people wanted to be seen driving Audis and BMWs but would rather eat in a local tavern.

a selection of fresh local vegetables with ham (served in a mold)

a selection of fresh local vegetables with ham (served in a mold)

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

the same vegetable dish after opening with a fork

The recession of the late 1980s slowed business down, especially from the wineries, and by the mid nineties Lorenzo decided to close La Merced.  He didn’t go away, though.  Realizing that even though Riojans didn’t appreciate a fine dining experience on a Friday or Saturday evening, they were prepared to pay big money for their children’s christenings, first communions and weddings, as well as for government-sponsored awards dinners, so he reopened La Merced in a huge new facility on the outskirts of Logroño as an events caterer and has been going full speed ahead ever since.

a fresh cod steak on a bed of red peppers from Nájera with a tomato and onion sauce

a fresh cod steak on a bed of red peppers from Nájera with a tomato and onion sauce

Two weeks ago, our local newspaper LA RIOJA took a big stand at San Sebastian Gastronomika, one of the world’s foremost gastronomic congresses.  The paper invited me along to cover the event from a ‘foreigner’s’ perspective.  Each day for three days, a lunch was prepared for chefs and journalists by a famous Riojan chef – Francis Paniego of Echaurren, Ignacio Echapresto of La Venta Moncalvillo (each of these with a Michelin star) and of course, Lorenzo Cañas.

roast rack of baby lamb with apple sauce and sautéed shiitake mushrooms

roast rack of baby lamb with apple sauce and sautéed shiitake mushrooms

the lamb was perfectly cooked

the lamb was perfectly cooked

All three meals were very good but all of us from the newspaper agreed that Lorenzo blew the others away.

A humble man not satisfied with his effort in San Sebastian (although I thought that his cod in tomato sauce was the best I had ever tasted) Lorenzo decided to invite us for lunch last Friday at La Merced, serving the same meal as in San Sebastian.

a pear from Rincón de Soto cooked in red wine , topped with lemon sorbet

a pear from Rincón de Soto cooked in red wine , topped with lemon sorbet

It was even better than the time before, and all the more amazing because Lorenzo is capable of serving that kind quality to three hundred people at a time.

Lorenzo spent several hours during and after the meal answering questions and reminiscing about his 40-plus years of experience.  His only admission of any prestigious achievement was showing us his book of VIP guests, filled with words of admiration from heads of state, ministers, actors, actresses and other celebrities.  The walls of his private dining room are covered with awards and certificates of membership in the most famous gastronomic societies in the world.

I feel sorry for friends who visit us here – we can take them to great tapas bars, local holes-in-the-wall and Michelin-starred restaurants, but to eat a Lorenzo Cañas meal you have to be invited to a first communion or a wedding!

Oh, I almost forgot about the wines:

Lealtanza white 2012 (Bodegas Altanza)

Tobelos crianza (Bodegas Tobelos)

Tahón de Tobelos reserva (Bodegas Tobelos)

Sorry for not including any tasting notes – I was too busy enjoying the food!

some of Lorenzo's many recognitions from Spain and abroad

some of Lorenzo’s many recognitions from Spain and abroad

more awards and distinctions

more awards and distinctions

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It ain’t over till it’s over

The Rioja Harvest Festival has ended, but the harvest itself has just begun, three weeks later than usual.  Whenever I see a Rioja winemaker, all but the oldest  ones always say the same thing:  “This harvest is the most complicated one I’ve ever experienced.” Recently, our local newspaper LA RIOJA featured an article by Fernando Martínez de Toda, chairman of the Department of Viticulture of the University of La Rioja that explains exactly why.

Fernando Martínez de Toda (Credit:  larioja.com)

Fernando Martínez de Toda
(Credit: larioja.com)

Rioja harvests have generally been uncomplicated since the early 1980s, a fact that Martínez de Toda attributes to global warming, with warm springs, long dry summers and the late onset of autumn rains. This has not been the case so far in 2013, characterized by a long winter, practically no spring and the late onset of summer. This year we were wearing coats until the middle of June.

Viticulture experts use the method of heat summation to measure the potential ripeness of grapes in a given region.  Heat summation is calculated by taking the average temperature in degrees Fahrenheit every day the temperature exceeds 50ºF (10ºC) between April 1 and October 31 (in the northern hemisphere) because it is assumed that grapevines are inactive below that temperature.  Each degree above 50º is one degree day.  If Celsius is used for the calculation, the number of Fahrenheit degree days is divided by 1,8.

In Rioja, Martínez de Toda has calculated that until September 18, there were between 200 and 300 fewer Celsius degree days than in the same period in 2012.  This means there’s a risk that the grapes won’t ripen in cooler areas – meaning most of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa.  The eastern half of Rioja, including all of the Baja will be spared. Most of these grapes have already been picked.

I’ve tried to explain to you many times that in ‘the old days’ (up to the 1980s) the large and medium-sized wineries in the western half of Rioja owned vineyards in Rioja Baja.  This is the reason why. The grapes in the western half of Rioja simply didn’t ripen during many harvests and had to be fleshed out with ripe grapes from the Baja.  It also explains why big wineries even today don’t usually own more than a few acres of vineyards.  They would rather have farmers and cooperative wineries take the risk, with the wineries buying from the places that have turned out the best grapes and young wine that particular year.

For Martínez de Toda, this harvest also brings potentially good news.  A downside of the long, warm growing season during the last 35 years has been an increase in the alcoholic strength of our wines along with a decrease in the formation of color in reds.  This season’s cooler weather favors the production of elegant, more balanced wines with less alcohol and color that doesn’t have to be forcefully extracted.

Wineries and growers now have powerful analytical tools at their disposal to help them decide the best time to pick. Every vintage, the Rioja Regulatory Council takes weekly samples of grapes from 55 vineyards throughout the region representing different altitudes, the year the vineyard was planted and the grape variety.  In each sample the following parameters are measured:

  • weight of 100 berries
  • probable alcoholic strength
  • total acidity as tartaric acid
  • pH
  • malic acid
  • potassium
  • total polyphenol index
  • anthocyanins
  • intensity of color

You can see the September 30 bulletin here.

This is a vast improvement over the decision to hurriedly pick on Columbus Day (October 12) with the help of a refractometer under the best circumstances or biting on a grape to see if it’s sweet, in the worst case.  Some wineries still talk about this downhome approach to picking to show their attachment to tradition, but you can be sure that the decision is made in practically all cases by someone with a college degree in winemaking, biology or chemistry.

In Rioja, as in the rest of the world’s grapegrowing regions, the uncertain end result of each harvest reflects an aphorism from New York Yankees baseball star Yogi Berra:  “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Here we also say, “One sunny day in October is worth 30 sunny days in September”.

In wineries throughout northern hemisphere, everyone, even the chemists, is keeping their fingers crossed.