Homage to an unknown wine brand

In the world of food and wine, nowadays everybody’s talking about specialization. The world’s top restaurants are making names for themselves with revolutionary prep and cooking techniques while wineries are making wines from rare or newly discovered varieties and aging them in innovative ways in oak from the four corners of the world. Anything goes as long as it’s original.

The other day however, we ate at a small neighborhood restaurant in Santander where we were served everyday Spanish home cooking: beef stew, meatballs, grilled sardines, and salad, washed down with a chilled bottle of unlabeled red wine mixed with ‘gaseosa’, a fizzy, sugary bottled water whose closest equivalent outside Spain is Seven-Up.

A no-name wine with 'gaseosa'

A no-name wine with ‘gaseosa’

It was delicious (and unbelievably inexpensive – 24 euros for two), reminding us of meals in Madrid in the early 1970s when we used to go to the same local restaurant every day for lunch and served hearty portions of home cooking with unlabeled wine in carafes or bottles, two courses, dessert, wine and coffee for next to nothing. I vividly remember that the restaurant served a different main course every day, every week. I don’t remember the exact days, but it was something like chickpeas on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, fried eggs, rice and fried bananas smothered in tomato sauce (arroz a la cubana) on Wednesday, paella on Thursday and fish, usually breaded fried hake fillets on Friday.

There was nothing pretentious about the food. No novelty, no experiments, just good, filling comfort food like people ate at home. And when you’re on a tight budget like we were, big lunches like those tided you over until the following morning.

Pochas, or white bean stew - the perfect comfort food.

Pochas, or white bean stew – the perfect comfort food.

Back then people would take their empty bottles to the corner tavern where the bottles were filled from a big vat with a spigot. The first year I lived in Spain was in a boarding house and the housemother used to ask any boarder who happened to be around before lunch to go out with a couple of bottles to fill. Restaurants would have this kind of wine wine delivered in large dame-jeannes called ‘garrafas’ where they were decanted into bottles or carafes.

A typical Spanish 'garrafa'. (Photo credit:  todocoleccion.com)

A typical Spanish ‘garrafa’.
(Photo credit: todocoleccion.com)

I never knew where this wine came from – it could have been Valdepeñas, La Mancha or Gredos west of Madrid – it was certainly from an area near Madrid – and didn’t have an appellation of origin. It didn’t even have a label! However, when chilled and mixed with ‘gaseosa’ it was the perfect accompaniment to simple, cheap, tasty, filling meals.

You might be wondering why everyone mixed the wine with this fizzy water. It wasn’t because the wine was undrinkable by itself but rather because we guzzled it like water. Moreover, in the summer, with temperatures almost always over 100º F (38ºC) it was the only way you could drink wine.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

La Pirula, a local family style restaurant in Santander.

'Who drinks well, lives well'.

‘Who drinks well, lives well’.

The next time you’re in Spain, try one of these local restaurants, called tascas, tabernas or casas de comida where you can get a menú del día for as little as 10 euros. Try the house wine with gaseosa. No visit to Spain is truly fulfilling without this experience.

A Tapas Crawl Down Logroño’s Calle San Juan

Most visitors to Logroño’s Old Town congregate in and around calle Laurel, our legendary tapas street.  Locals, however, tend to have their tapas and drinks on calle San Juan, a short walk away. Until recently, San Juan kept a more traditional profile than its better-known neighbor, a street packed with bars serving traditional specialties such as tortilla de patata (Spanish egg and potato omelet), zapatillas (ham on toasted bread), lecherillas (sweetbreads) and fried mushrooms, while on Laurel and adjacent streets, the fare has evolved toward the modern (at least for tapas), like steak and roast suckling pig.  The wine selection on San Juan used to be firmly Rioja, while on Laurel, you can find wine from just about everywhere, to the chagrin of 600 Rioja wineries.

This clear distinction has become blurred in recent months, as many bars on San Juan are going upscale to follow Laurel’s lead.  Last Saturday, my wife, some friends and I did a short tour of San Juan. Our first stop was Tastavin where the bar was packed with elaborate meat and fish tapas, most of which had been cooked in the kitchen and needed to be reheated in a microwave oven just before service.  I ordered pluma ibérica, part of the feather loin near the shoulder joint of an Iberian pig, grilled and topped with a green pepper sauce.  The rest of our party ordered grilled red tuna drizzled with soy sauce.  We drank Buble, a white made with the godello grape from Valdeorras, a denomination of origin in Galicia in northwestern Spain, near the town of Verín and the Portuguese border.

Tapa of pluma ibérica

Tapa of pluma ibérica

 

Red tuna and piquillo pepper tapa

Red tuna and piquillo pepper tapa

Our next stop was Bar Torres, which had been transformed from a dark, dingy place into one of San Juan’s most popular bars.  Although Torres offers a wide range of tapas, the specialty is a grilled patty of wagyu beef (from cows bred in Japan that are massaged and fed beer).   Here, we drank Sela, a crianza from Roda in Rioja. If you’re a visitor to Logroño, you’ll enjoy looking at the pictures of the city in the mid-20th century that hang on the walls.

Crowd in Bar Torres

Crowd in Bar Torres

 

Wagyu beef patty in Bar Torres

Wagyu beef patty in Bar Torres

 

IMG_1268

It was getting late, around midnight, so our next stop was our last for the evening, although the streets were still teeming with people. We decided to go to La Tortilla, where, as the name implies, the specialty is Spanish omelet.  We ordered our slices of perfectly cooked (meaning that the egg isn’t completely cooked and the potato is al dente) omelet with hot sauce made from a piquillo pepper concentrate on top – that packs quite a wallop!  We washed the omelets down with glasses of Campo Viejo from Rioja. Visitors shouldn’t be put off by the gooey texture of the omelet – it’s how it’s supposed to be!

Tortilla is probably Spain’s most popular tapa.  Here, the local restaurant association sponsors a contest to determine who makes the best tortilla.  There are two categories:  regular –  tortilla using egg, onion, potatoes and salt –  and special, where anything can be used as an ingredient.  Once the winner has been chosen, Inside Rioja will sample Logroño’s best offerings.  My mouth is already watering!

 

Spanish potato omelet with hot sauce

Spanish potato omelet with hot sauce

Tastavin  San Juan 25, Logroño  http://tastavin.es

Bar Torres  San Juan 31, Logroño

La Tortilla  corner of Travesía de San Juan and calle Portales, Logroño

 

Drinking for charity

Here in Rioja, people don’t pay much attention to the typical macroeconomic indicators such as unemployment, housing starts and car sales.  The talk of the town is how full the bars and restaurants are.  Judging from these numbers, Rioja seems to be doing just fine, although my friends in the restaurant business tell me that Mondays and Tuesdays are slower than usual because people burn the candle at both ends from Thursday through Sunday and need a rest.

One of my friends, the owner of the Cafetería Monterrey (which happens to be next door to our apartment building), a wine writer and I usually have lunch together once a week at a nearby bistro, El Lagar.  A few weeks ago, Roberto, the owner of the bar, informed us of an idea he had to get more traffic in his place on Mondays and Tuesdays:  a series of wine tastings whose proceeds go to a local soup kitchen.

Casimiro (the journalist) and I thought the idea was terrific and wondered why no one else had thought of it.  Here’s how it works.

Every other Monday and Tuesday the bar invites a winery to give a sit-down, tutored tasting to 20 customers.  Each taster pays 50 euro cents to taste three wines. The winery and the bar each put up 50 cents, so the soup kitchen gets 1,50 euros a taster, or 30 euros a tasting.  In addition, there’s space at the bar so others can listen in on the winemaker’s comments, even though they pay full price for their glasses (here a white costs 1,50 and a crianza 2 euros a glass, so it’s still not expensive).

The selected winery is the house wine for the two weeks that the promotion lasts, so there’s an economic incentive for wineries to participate.

This simple promotion achieves four goals:  more people visit the bar on normally slow evenings, customers can learn about the featured wine and improve their general knowledge about Rioja, relatively unknown wines get some well-needed exposure, and last but certainly not least, the profits go to a worthy cause, because there are lots of needy people here.

I hope this promotion goes on for a long time.  With over 600 wineries in Rioja, there’s certainly enough supply for years to come.  And, given the Spaniards’ propensity to copy others’ ideas (one of the most famous sayings in Spanish is “¡Que inventen ellos!” -Let others invent it- by the early 20th century essayist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno), maybe the idea of teaching the locals about Rioja wine will catch on!  They need it.

Smartphones and tapas bars: an interesting combination

Going out for tapas and a few glasses of wine is always fun, but last week it was especially so because my wife and I decided to follow the Logroño city guide to tapas bars published by Bodegas Campo Viejo as part of a promotion of their wine Alcorta.

Throughout the fall and winter of 2010 and spring of 2011, Alcorta has organized gastronomic routes around the tapas bars in 11 Spanish cities and regions (Gijón, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, La Rioja, León, Zaragoza, Burgos, Salamanca, Madrid, Granada and Murcia).

From March 11 to 27 it was La Rioja’s turn.

Rioja wineries promote their wines all the time in the bars in the old part of town, but this promotion was different because of its use of internet and smartphones to win prizes.

The first step was to enter the Alcorta website www.alcortavino.com to read how to participate.  Here we discovered that participating bars would give us a city guide and tell us which tapa they were featuring with a glass of Alcorta.

Our first stop was at El Soldado de Tudelilla where we ordered a capricho, a piece of sardine with a spicy green pepper and our guide was stamped with the name of the bar.

So much for traditional tapas.  We decided that we would concentrate on some of the bars that offered really innovative dishes.

 Our second stop was La Canilla. Here, the specialty was slices of steak with peppers from Gernika and shoestring potatoes.  The Gernika peppers from the coast in the Basque Country were similar to the peppers from Padrón in Galicia, about which the gallegos  say ‘ pimientos del Padrón, unos pican y otros non’ (Padrón peppers, some are hot and others aren’t.) You had better have a glass of wine handy because when you eat a hot one, it makes your tongue burn and your eyes water.  Sort of a gastronomic lottery.

Our third stop was Las Cubanas, which used to be one of Logroño’s most famous family restaurants but has found a new life under the current management as a tapas bar where we enjoyed a piece of crisp suckling pig.

For our fourth tapa and glass of Alcorta, we went to a bar that had just opened:  D.O. Rioja.  Their specialty is a layered liquid potato omelet served in a small bowl.  It was available with just egg and potato, with cheese added or ham.  We ordered a plain one and one with ham.

Since I had gone by myself to El Soldado de Tudelilla, my book had the required four stamps, but my wife needed one more so we went to calle San Juan to Tastavin.  The bar was out of their specialty (foie gras raspberry sauce with caramelized goat cheese) so we were offered a roast artichoke heart with caramelized onion on top. Delicious!

Although we were full and a little wobbly on our feet, there was more to do to to take full advantage of the promotion.

Inside the city guide there was a BIDI code (a square third generation bar code) and a code consisting of an eight-digit combination of numbers and letters.

Our city guide told us that if you took a picture of the BIDI code with your smartphone, the application would tell us instantly if we had won a prize, to be redeemed at the bar.  Sadly I was unable to get my smartphone to capture the code (and I did it when I was still sober!)

When we arrived home, we opened the Alcorta website and entered our codes.  The website told my wife that she had won a gift box with a bottle of Alcorta, a corkscrew, stopper and other accessories.

The last step in this process was to fill out the back of the page with the four stamps and place it in the box located in each participating bar.  After the promotion is over, a drawing will be held, with the winners receiving a personalized gift box of Alcorta.

In our opinion, this promotion had everything:  the consumer can enjoy Alcorta with some great tapas and win prizes.  It’s also attractive to young consumers, who can use their smartphones. For the winery, it means increased visibility, lots of names for its data base, a jump in sales and the opening of new accounts.

We had a lot of fun participating in this promotion, although we couldn’t figure out how to use the BIDI code app correctly.  It probably would have worked if we had been using an iPhone rather than a Nokia. In our case, the phone was apparently smarter than we were.

El Soldado de Tudelilla, San Agustín 3

La Canilla, San Agustín 7

Las Cubanas, San Agustín 17

D.O. Rioja, Laurel 4

Tastavin, San Juan 25

La cuadrilla

Everyone knows that one of the signs of alcoholism is drinking alone.  It’s true that Rioja has its share of alcoholics (with the cost of young Rioja at 85 U.S. cents a glass, I’m surprised that there aren’t more!)  However, drinking is a group activity in Rioja, based on ‘la cuadrilla’.

‘Cuadrilla’ can best be translated as ‘crew’, but not in the nautical sense.  A bullfighter has a ‘cuadrilla’ (the picador, the banderilleros, and the mozo de espadas), a construction company has  ‘cuadrillas’ of bricklayers, painters, plasterers, formwork specialists etc.  In addition, ‘cuadrilla’  means the group of friends that you hang out with.

Here in Rioja you can see cuadrillas going from bar to bar before lunch and dinner having a small glass of wine or beer and sometimes a tapa. Each round is paid by a different member or the money is collected at the beginning and the rounds continue until the money is gone.

Unless it’s a special occasion when everyone goes to the old part of town to the highest concentration of bars, cuadrillas drink in their own neighborhood.  Since there are several bars on every street in Logroño, and most other cities in Spain, you can have a few glasses of wine without going too far from home.

A variation on the theme of the cuadrilla is having a few glasses of wine with your spouse after work.  We do this at least three times a week, visiting several bars near the house.  It’s a great way to get a little fresh air, some exercise, see your friends and chat with the bartenders, whom we know very well, to hear the latest jokes.  You enver get drunk because the glasses are small. Spaniards are gregarious people and the streets are full between 7:30 and 10 PM every night, so it’s easy to run into friends from the neighborhood.

One of our favorite bars is El Tirador (The Shooter).  Like other bar owners in Rioja, Pedro Ruiz, his wife Toñi and their children moved to Logroño in the early 1970s.  Pedro is from San Asesnsio, one of the most important wine villages in Rioja, and the bar serves wine from the family’s small winery.  The bar takes its name from the fact that Pedro was a rifleman in the Spanish army.

El Tirador serves  a wide range of tapas: a hothouse mushroom, a piece of pig’s ear, sausage and my favorites:the VIP –  two boiled quail eggs, a pickled anchovy and chopped onion; and  the huevo frito – a fried quail egg with a piece of sausage on a piece of bread.

Bar El Tirador, Somosierra 22, Logroño.  Tel.  941 24 40 39.

The Man from Soria (El Soriano)

IMG_1380_editMost people don’t know that Spain, after Switzerland, is the most mountainous country in Europe. This has had a profound effect on demographics, as people in the north have moved from an economy based on agriculture and tending livestock in the hill country to a service economy in cities and towns.

This is what the Barrero family decided in the early 1970s.  Born and raised in a small village in the mountains of the province of Soria, near the border with La Rioja, the family moved to Logroño to make a living and soon opened a bar on the Travesía de Laurel which they named ‘El Soriano’ (the man from Soria).  It’s easy to find it because of the scores of people waiting to go inside to order a hothouse mushroom tapa, the bar’s specialty.

El Soriano is unquestionably Logroño’s most famous tapas bar, written up in newspapers and food magazines in the USA, Germany, the UK, Sweden and other countries.  Every journalist that I took through the old town for 15 years has sampled the mushrooms, taken pictures and  inquired about the recipe for the sauce, a secret that brothers José María, Ángel, Santiago and sister Marisol guard more closely than the gold in Fort Knox. 

Several other bars attempt to make a mushroom tapa like the one in El Soriano but so far, none can even come close to imitating it.  My wife and I think that the main ingredients are olive oil, garlic and lemon, but we haven’t got it right yet and the owners of the bar aren’t telling!

My recommendation:  don’t be intimidated by the number of people waiting outside.  Go inside to the far end of the bar where you will see chef José María cook the mushrooms on a hot griddle, spear them three by three with a toothpick,add a small shrimp, coat them with the secret sauce and serve them with a slice of bread. Eating this delicacy has its own secret, too:  make sure you lean forward so you don’t spill the sauce on your clothes! Just ask for “un champi y un crianza”.

The owners tell me that they serve 7,000 tapas a week, or over 330,000 a year,  more than two tapas for each resident of La Rioja!

Bar Soriano, Travesía de Laurel 2   Logroño  Tel. 941 22 88 07.  Closed Wednesdays.

El Soldado de Tudelilla

El Soldado de TudelillaMy favorite tapas bar, hands down, is El Soldado de Tudelilla (The Soldier from Tudelilla), on calle San Agustín in Logroño.  The bar is named after the owner’s father-in-law who lived in Tudelilla, a village in Rioja Baja .  This village is known for its wines, made from the garnacha grape, prized by the wineries from Haro for blending with their often low alcohol tempranillo.  The ‘soldado’ (not a soldier, but rather his nickname because he was short and stocky, apparently prized soldierlike characteristics in the Spanish army) brought his family to Logroño in 1947 and opened a bar to sell his town’s wines. 

Ther bar is run by ‘el soldado’s’  daughter Jacinta and her husband Manolo and is a favorite of the locals, who stand at the end of the zinc bar nursing their glasses of wine for hours, not going from bar to bar like everyone else.

A word about tapas bars in Rioja.  Unlike the pintxo bars in San Sebastian, where you can find a large selection of elaborate little dishes prepared by armies of white-aproned chefs, bars in Rioja usually specialize in one or two dishes, creating the reason to go to that particular place.  In El Soldado’s case, these are a fillet of sardine and a piece of green pepper between two pieces of bread called a ‘capricho’ (a ‘whim’) and a tomato,  sweet onion and olive salad made at the bar by the staff while you wait.  The tomatoes and onions are kept cool floating in the sink along with bottles of young cosechero Rioja (more about that in a future post).  My wife Toñica and I always get a kick out of watching Jacinta prepare the salad, throwing a big pinch of sea salt with a flourish, à la Emeril Lagasse, over the tomatoes and doing a little dance while pouring the olive oil over everything from a little glass porrón like the ones groups of people used to drink wine from in villages.

Another reason to visit El Soldado is to have el almuerzo in the back room.

Warning:  health nuts are avised to read what follows with caution!

Almuerzo, or mid-morning snack, is a Spanish tradition, as breakfast is usually a quick gulp of coffee while running out the door for work and one’s stomach starts to growl at about 10.  At El Soldado, you can order fried eggs (farm-fresh ones with huge orange yolks, not the ones with little yellow yolks you get at the supermarket in the USA), bacon, ham, spicy sausage,  hot sauce, huge chunks of bread that you jam into the yolk as soon as the plate is served and, of course, a bottle of Rioja (one never “does” almuerzo alone, but with a group of friends).  THAT really gets the blood moving until lunch time!

Almuerzo nirvana, however, is during the wine festival in September when it becomes breakfast and lunch combined, with eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, callos (tripe), wine, dessert, a shot of pacharán (sloe berry liqueur) and, as an afterthought, a cup of coffee.  The streets of the old town are filled with tables of friends and families enjoying their almuerzo.  One of the most popular ones is served under the bleachers at the bullring.

El Soldado de Tudelilla, San Agustin, 33  26001 Logroño.  Tel. 941 20 96 24