The men’s eating club – a northern Spanish tradition

 One tradition that sets the Basque Country, Navarra and La Rioja apart from the rest of Spain is the men’s eating club. These clubs, called ‘sociedades gastronómicas’ in Spanish used to be totally off limits to women, perhaps to give men a breather from what they perceived as the strictures of the matriarchal society in the Basque country in which their wives ran the household and administered the family budget. Times have changed of course and women are sometimes invited to eat there but are never allowed in the kitchen. Ever.

A poster/poem warning wives that they can't go to the kitchen

A poster/poem warning wives that they can’t go to the kitchen

Last week I was invited to have lunch at one of these clubs, La Rondalosa, in Logroño. This club is more than just a place for its members to cook, eat, drink and sing. It’s also a ‘sociedad recreativa’ (recreation club) and as such, actively participates in the wine festival of San Mateo, with the members parading behind their banner with a band. My friends who attend the Sanfermines in Pamplona will recognize it as a ‘peña’.

The lunch I attended was particularly interesting because we ate the season’s first fresh white asparagus and enjoyed the wines from Bodegas Pastor Domeco, whose owner José Pastor is an old buddy.

Cooking freshly picked, peeled white asparagus

Cooking freshly picked, peeled white asparagus

If your only experience with white asparagus is the tinned variety, you’re missing a real treat. This vegetable is grown along the Ebro Valley in La Rioja, Navarra and Aragon with the first harvest in April and the last in June. Wisely, the producers have decided to market their asparagus as ‘Espárragos de Navarra’ rather than several independent appellations. The best asparagus is harvested in April. In fact there’s a saying about it:

 

“En abril para mí, en mayo para el amo y en junio para ninguno”

(In April for me, in May for my boss and in June for no one”)

The asparagus stalks are dug out of the ground when the tip just pokes through. They’re peeled by hand (you have to wear gloves because your hands will turn black) and boiled until tender. They’re served warm with mayonnaise, vinaigrette sauce or by themselves and are a real delicacy. They are a world apart from green asparagus.

A lot of tinned white asparagus comes from South America and labeled as local produce but the fresh ones are indisputably local and are snatched up at local markets in April and May. If you happen to be in Spain at this time, don’t pass up the chance to try them.

Normal operating procedure at an eating club is to have an aperitif and a few glasses of wine to stimulate your appetite. Our aperitif last week could be considered a meal in itself, with seven or eight big plates of tapas.

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Afterwards, we tucked into a three course lunch: a fava bean and cuttlefish stew (habas con sepia), hake cheeks with smoked spicy peppers (kokotxas de merluza con pimientos) and fruit cocktail steeped in all kinds of liqueurs. Then, coffee and either a shot of dry anisette or a gin and tonic.

Fava bean and cuttlefish stew on the stovetop

Fava bean and cuttlefish stew on the stovetop

 

 

 

 

 

the finished product

 

 

 

 

 

Hake cheeks and red peppers

Hake cheeks and red peppers

 

 

The meal ended with the chefs tallying up the cost of the meal and dividing the cost among the people present.

 

 

 a lobster from the Bay of Biscay

 

a lobster from the Bay of Biscay

Several hours later, satiated, we made our way home for a short nap to prepare for a tapas crawl around Logroño’s Old Town. For me it was the perfect way to start the weekend!

 

Lessons from a Master Storyteller

 

Álvaro Palacios (Photo credit:  7canibales.com)

Álvaro Palacios
(Photo credit: 7canibales.com)

I read the other day that there are about 140,000 wineries in the world, most of them small. It’s not hard to imagine that given this fact, gaining the attention of distributors, retailers and consumers is a monumental task. Because wine is an emotional product, telling a good story is an essential first step.

Rioja has a number of master storytellers, notably María José López de Heredia, Agustín Santolaya from Roda and Miguel Ángel de Gregorio (Finca Allende), but the king is Álvaro Palacios.

Álvaro is one of several brothers in the Palacios family from Alfaro in Rioja Baja. In the 1980s it appeared that family patriarch Antonio Palacios was going to pass the torch to his oldest son Antonio. Álvaro felt restless so he went to work for a few years at a barrel manufacturer and then struck out on his own. He settled in Priorato, a remote hilly area with slate soil in the province of Tarragona, known chiefly because of a company that made communion wines. He must have seen something special there because he soon began making very small batches of wine that he aged in a few oak barriques. I’m sure his father was proud of Álvaro for his independent spirit but that didn’t keep him from making a little fun of him. Antonio senior once told me that Álvaro only had two or three barrels – a joke at a time when a Rioja winery had to own at least 500 barrels to have the right to use the official Rioja crianza, reserva and gran reserva back labels.

The next thing I heard from Álvaro was at the holiday portfolio tasting in 1990 at Martin-Scott Wines, Campo Viejo’s New York distributor. Each of the suppliers present had to pour their own wines as well as those from producers from the same country who weren’t able to attend the tasting. I had to pour a wine called Clos Dofí, a powerful, inky red from Priorato made with garnacha and six or seven other varieties. Surprise! It was Álvaro’s first wine.

The rest is history as Álvaro has parlayed the wines from those few barrels into a reputation as Spain’s most famous winemaker.

A few years ago, the tables turned for the Palacios family with the eldest son leaving to start his own venture, and the Rioja winery in the hands of his sister Chelo. She persuaded Álvaro to return to Rioja to lead the family winery while maintaining his businesses in Priorat and Bierzo, this last one with Chelo’s son Ricardo Pérez.

Álvaro’s presence was quickly felt in Alfaro with the creation and success of Placet, La Montesa, Propiedad and La Vendimia with which he has tried passionately to elevate the image of Rioja Baja, the garnacha grape, that accounted for half the area planted to red grapes until the early 1980s, and high altitude viticulture at the family’s vineyards on the slopes of Mount Yerga.

It’s a job he’s been largely doing by himself. A few days ago he wrote an impassioned article in our local paper criticizing the decision of the governments of La Rioja and Álava (central and western Rioja) to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa while completely ignoring Rioja Baja. It’s a shame.

Álvaro once again turned the status quo in Rioja on its head at a recent press conference where he announced the creation of a ” game changing” single vineyard garnacha from Rioja Baja. At an interview given to The Drinks Business, Palacio touched all the right buttons, instantly creating enormous expectation about the release of his revolutionary Rioja. This is wine storytelling at its best.

Below is an excerpt from the article summarizing the interview which I have copied from The Drinks Business online:

“Palacios to release ‘game changing’ Rioja

28th March, 2014 by Lucy Shaw

Pioneering Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios is to release a “game changing” single vineyard Rioja onto the market next year.

Speaking exclusively to the drinks business at an en primeur tasting of the 2013 vintage of his wines from Priorat and Bierzo, Palacios said: “It will be nothing like any wine to have come out of Rioja so far.

“It’s a bit like a Gevrey-Chambertin in character – it has real soul and is quite magical.

“Currently in barrel, it’s a beautiful, bright ruby red and has crisp red fruit aromas of wild strawberries. It’s quite lactic too, so has a creamy mouthfeel, but also notes of tangerine peel, rosemary and thyme.”

Due to be called Valmira, the wine is made from 100% Garnacha grown in a three-hectare single vineyard of the same name at Palacios’ family estate in the village of Alfaro in Rioja Baja.

“I’m confident about the pricing because I’m confident about the quality of the wine. Plus, there won’t be a lot of it – only around 1,300 bottles of the 2013 vintage,” he said.

Palacios has been working on the project for a decade, but a standout harvest in 2013 has spurred the perfectionist to finally release it.

Over the last 10 years, Palacios has been busy grafting low bush vines with Garnacha and uprooting the Tempranillo planted in the vineyard.

“Garnacha is the queen grape of Rioja Baja – it’s been there for centuries. Producers were wrong to uproot it for Tempranillo in order to make a quick buck,” he said.”

The wine business would be a different place if more wineries told their stories with as much passion as Álvaro Palacios.