Social Distancing in the Good Old Days

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Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.

But that was in the good old days.

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I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.

The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.

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(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)

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Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.

Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.

Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.

This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.

Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.

(Photos:  Tom Perry)





Five Great Bars off the Beaten Track in Logroño

Most tourists who visit Logroño, the Rioja region’s largest city, never leave the old town – calle Laurel, calle San Juan and adjacent streets – because of this area’s tapas bars, restaurants and the vibrant atmosphere. Plus, as one of my friends says, “It’s just a short stagger home or to your hotel.”

Another part of town slightly off the beaten track – a ten minute walk from calle Laurel – is quickly becoming an interesting alternative to the old town for great wines and tapas without huge crowds. The L-shaped area is bordered by the Gran Vía, República Argentina, Menéndez Pelayo, Somosierra, Huesca and María Teresa Gil de Gárate.

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This area used to be on the other side of the railroad tracks that marked the edge of town (today the Gran Vía) until the tracks were moved about half a mile south in the 1960s. Now it’s practically in the middle of town.

The following places are among Inside Rioja’s favorite spots:

El Lagar, calle Huesca 13; +34 941 588054

Owner Carlos Martínez Bujanda belongs to one of Rioja’s foremost families of vintners that own Bodegas Valdemar and Finca Valpiedra. At El Lagar you can enjoy a wide range of wines by the glass with a tapa, a larger plate to share at the bar or have a sit-down meal in the restaurant in the rear of the building.



With his family connections, Martínez Bujanda is of course a wine lover. He has amassed an impressive collection of fine wines, mostly from small wineries in Rioja and the rest of Spain but also some carefully curated wines from large wineries in Rioja. These wines are showcased in a large glass-fronted fridge located between the bar and the restaurant.

Barrio Bar, calle Menéndez Pelayo 10; +34 941 570162

Barrio Bar is ‘the neighborhood bar’ in Spanish. It’s a combination bar/art gallery/advertising space for alternative activities in Logroño. Want to learn how to dance the swing, take a yoga class or practice transcendental meditation? You can find out at here.

Tapas and shared plates emphasize vegetarian and vegan offerings as well as typical Spanish tapas including potato omelets and gildas.


Vermouth is the house specialty at Barrio Bar

Barrio Bar specializes in vermouth, with local and Spanish brands that compete with the ubiquitous Martini. When you visit, try a ‘marianito’, a small glass of vermouth on the rocks with a slice of orange or a ‘vermú preparado’ – a Marianito with a splash of gin, kind of a reverse Martini cocktail.

Odisea, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 15; +34 666451193

Susana Miranda, the former marketing director of our regional newspaper La Rioja and a partner recently opened Odisea. The bar offerings feature small tins of anchovies, mussels, sardines and the like that you eat straight from the tin as well as a vermouth blended by the owners. Some of the products are presented very imaginatively.


A gourmet pack of mussels


Susana Miranda shows off her vermouth

The back of the space is a design studio that houses the partners’ office as well as an area where you can buy original gifts.


La Carbonera, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 18; +34 941 700125

This bar/restaurant used to be a coal warehouse, one of many small businesses located on calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate. Urban renewal has pushed these businesses to industrial sites outside of town, with bars and restaurants opening in their place. The street has been closed off to traffic so it’s the perfect place for a stroll, a few glasses of wine and some tapas.

La Carbonera features one of the best selections of wine by the glass in Logroño thanks to Juan Marcos Gutiérrez, the first Riojan to receive a sommelier certification. When we visit, our routine is always the same – “What’s new on your list?” Juan takes out his Coravin and serves a sample, after which we usually open the bottle to drink with one of their small shared dishes – fried pork belly, a French omelet with small pieces of potato or a croquette.


Juan Marcos Gutiérrez with his wine selections

La Carbonera is also a restaurant specializing in aged beef from Galicia. The owners have opened a second location- La Sucursal de Luismi – downtown on Avenida de Portugal (an area that we’ll cover in a future article about Logroño’s Golden Mile of hamburger joints).

Beitia, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 35; +34 697 486323

Beitia recently moved to a bigger space. They needed it because both the bar and the outside terrace are always busy. Beitia specializes in typical Riojan tapas and shared dishes – leeks in vinaigrette, snails, deep-fried sheep’s intestines, garlic soup, lamb’s livers, potatoes with spicy sausage and freshly picked white beans (pochas).


Iberian pork ‘secreto’ with green peppers and home fries

Do the above dishes turn you off? Take a walk on the wild side and try one! Riojans have been eating them for hundreds of years and our life expectancy is one of the highest in Spain!

Still fainthearted? Beitia also offers slices of grilled filet mignon and pork tenderloin from Iberian pork (called ‘secreto’ in Spanish) with grilled red and green peppers as well as other dishes for the unadventurous palate.

There are lots of other interesting places in this area, including El Tirador and Vinos Murillo that we have already profiled in Inside Rioja.

The next time you’re in Logroño, visit some of the bars and restaurants away from the tourist areas. You’ll save money and enjoy really good food and wine.




Beans, beans, the versatile fruit

January is a miserable month in the Rioja region. The holidays have passed, most people’s bank accounts have taken a serious hit (in Spanish we call it ‘la cuesta de enero – ‘the January hillclimb’), we are trying to lose the weight gained over the holidays and get back into our exercise routines.

Our favorite food in January and the rest of winter is ‘comida de cuchara’, literally, ‘food you eat with a spoon’, especially all kinds of stews made with beans: lentils, chickpeas, red, white, brown and black beans. These legumes provide warmth on cold, rainy winter days as well as slow-absorbing carbs.


A one kilogram bag of Anguiano beans, with a recipe and the seal of guarantee

I recently read a book (The Four-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss) that recommended eating a lot of legumes that provided slow-absorbing carbs as part of a diet. Ferriss wrote the book for Americans, who traditionally don’t eat a lot of beans, except for baked beans, with a sauce full of molasses, not the ideal diet food. He urged his readers to soldier through what he thought was an unpalatable diet of beans. After all, every American knows the rhyme ‘Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you f***!’ On the other hand, for those of us that live in Spain, this diet is paradise! All last winter and so far this year we have eaten lots of lentils, chickpeas, red, white, black and brown beans. And yes, we have Beano! Sadly, we haven’t lost any weight but we haven’t gained any either! Diets in an area like Rioja with so much good wine are hard to keep!

Recently we got a call from Wine Fandango, one of Logroño’s hip gastrobars, reminding us about a special dinner where each course from the pre-meal cocktail to dessert was made using red beans from the village of Anguiano. The dinner was part of a series of events (‘La Rioja a Bocados’- La Rioja Bite by Bite) at Wine Fandango, highlighting regional produce made in an innovative way by chef Aitor Esnal.


The poster advertising the Anguiano bean dinner

Anguiano in the southwest corner of La Rioja is most famous for its ‘danzadores’, men who run and twirl around down steep village steps on stilts. No less famous are its beans, locally called ‘caparrones’, that have a quality seal from the Government of La Rioja attesting to their origin and method of cultivation.

The event opened with an introduction from Javier Llaría, a producer from Anguiano who explained the characteristics that made the local beans so special – the beanstalks are grown at an altitude of 650 meters (2132 feet) on stony soils that provide drainage and reflect sunlight back to the plants, with a large temperature difference between day and night, and selection of individual beans on sorting tables. 20% of the harvest is rejected and therefore not certified.

It could have been a wine grower talking. There were many other similarities between bean and wine certification, especially problems with certain producers who don’t like the fact that the certification process means control over their production and certain retailers that prefer to buy large quantities at bargain prices rather than in the one-kilogram package with the seal of guarantee. The bean producers from Anguiano have chosen to adhere to the fairly lenient demands of a product guarantee rather than the tight strictures of an appellation of origin. Mr. Llaría understood the fact that the Rioja appellation was founded in 1925 and has had almost a century to work out most of its problems while the Anguiano bean producers have just started working together.

The meal

Opening cocktail: “Alubión” (a play on ‘alubia’ – ‘bean’ in Spanish) made by Esnal’s wife Beatriz, the restaurant’s mixologist, with liquefied beans, rum, almond liqueur, sugar, and orange juice with a slice of orange peel as decoration. It was surprisingly good.


‘Alubión’, the bean-based cocktail


Capuccino from Anguiano made with liquefied beans, small pieces of spiny lobster and cacao. Served in an espresso cup.


A waffle topped with beans, a red pepper sauce, collards and spicy sausage.


Grilled baby squid in a sauce of mashed beans, with a mousse of scallions and leeks.


Toasted filet mignon with a spinach leaf in a bean and garlic gravy and shrimps in tempura.


Dessert: Bean pie with chocolate, ice cream made with young beans, an almond cookie and raspberries.


The wine was El Buscador 2015 from Bodega Finca de la Rica (DOCa Rioja).

The verdict: Pass with Distinction

Before the meal we had some doubts about a meal made with beans as the main ingredient. Chef Aitor Esnal told us during his introduction that we shouldn’t expect a ‘caparronada’ (thick bean stew with pork rind – a Riojan favorite). The meal showed an extremely high level of creativity and tasted great!

Esnal and mixologist Beatriz Martínez’s next event will feature a cocktail and five course meal based on Riojan black truffles. We can hardly wait for that!


Chef Aitor Esnal (Credit:  Wine Fandango)

Wine Fandango, General Vara de Rey 5-26003 Logroño (La Rioja)

Tel. +34 941 243910;;


Bars, bars, bars

There are 985 bars in Logroño, according to Jorge Alacid, author of the blog Logroño en sus bares. Alacid cites data from the division of analysis of the Spanish bank La Caixa revealing that there are 6.4 bars per 1,000 residents of our fair city. The highest density in Spain? Not according to the study. Santander has 7.5 and Bilbao 7.3. San Sebastian, famous for its tapas scene, has 6.6, the same as Barcelona. Madrid comes in at a relatively paltry 5.3.

The fact that ‘density of bars per capita’ is included in studies of Spanish lifestyle habits is a testimony to the importance of bars in our country. Bars are where we have breakfast, our midmorning snack, wine, beer or a cocktail at all times of the day. It’s where we watch soccer matches and read the newspapers. And most important of all, it’s where we catch up on gossip and argue about politics.


Bars, like every other densely populated sector of an economy, need to have a competitive advantage to survive. Most attempt this with their selection of wines and innovative or traditional tapas. Others put on events to attract customers. Still others have positioned themselves as places Logroño’s beautiful people go after work to see and be seen.

My favorite bar stands out for entertainment. It’s Vinos Murillo, about halfway between our house and downtown, so we often stop there on our way to and from the old town. From the outside, it’s pretty nondescript. It has a narrow frontage, a weatherbeaten door, and a picture window filled with a huge sign that says “For sale: anisette for making pacharan”. When you go inside you find a bar running from the front door back to the kitchen, stacks of cases of wine on the floor, old bottles of Rioja on the back bar, posters plastered haphazardly on the walls, several plates of quail egg, olive and hot green pepper tapas, a karaoke box and microphone sitting on a table in a corner, a tiny barking chihuahua running in and out and two very outgoing brothers running the place.

In other words, it has everything going for it.

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Owners José Mari and Carlos (nicknamed the Dalton brothers after the bandits in the French comic Lucky Luke) try to encourage the different groups of customers clustered at the bar to engage with one another. Sometimes to get people to drink a certain bottle of wine, they will sometimes yell out to my embarrassment, “Try this Tobía garnacha. That’s what Tom is drinking!” Or they will tell you, “Hey, come and meet so-and-so’s brother. He’s in the Spanish Secret Service!”

The other day the brothers tried to train their chihuahua to climb over a maze of wine boxes to reach a plate of food. Of course the whole bar was watching.

Besides this crazy atmosphere, the bar is known for one of Logroño’s most original tapas: a baked potato. It’s delivered to you on a piece of newspaper with a spoon, a bottle of spicy olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika. The only drawback is that José Mari only makes them in the wintertime and only when he feels like it. So the first question most people ask when they walk in on a cold evening is “Hay patatas?” (Are there potatoes tonight?)


Vinos Murillo is much more than a bar. It’s theater, with an original act every night. The next time you’re in Logroño, check it out. If you’re lucky, José Mari might sing for you.

Vinos Murillo

Avenida de la República Argentina 26

26002 Logroño (La Rioja)




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:

A typical Spanish ‘garrafa’.
(Photo credit:

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



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

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 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.