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