Five must-try traditional tapas in Logroño’s calle Laurel

Logroño’s calle Laurel is a required stop for both visitors and locals in search of tasty tapas and rioja. Nowadays, most of the bars have adapted their range of tapas to a more modern, elaborate style because of the influence of the bars in San Sebastian’s old town, but a few places here continue to offer tapas that have been popular for fifty years or more, using local raw materials or canned fish, prepared simply and cheaply. These bars are among the favorites of older natives of the region.

You should try them, too.

Calle Laurel wasn’t always a street full of bars and restaurants. In fact, it used to be one of Logroño’s red light districts. Local folklore says that the prostitutes used to hang a branch of bay leaves (‘laurel’ in Spanish) on their balcony to show prospective customers that they were free. The tradition of bars started when someone decided to open a bar where people could keep warm and have a drink while waiting for their favorite lady.

Our tour starts with

Hothouse mushrooms smothered in a garlic, olive oil and lemon sauce

Bar Soriano, Travesía de Laurel 2.  Closed Wednesdays and during the San Mateo wine harvest festival.

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Bar Soriano is unquestionably the most popular bar in the old town. According to José María Barrero, who’s in charge of the griddle, they serve over 7000 mushroom tapas a week. They source their mushrooms in Pradejón in Rioja Baja. Their sauce is a closely guarded secret but my wife thinks that it’s made from olive oil, garlic and lemon juice that’s blended into a thin sauce. It sounds easy to make, but several local competitors can’t come close to matching it.

The mushrooms are cooked in a little olive oil with salt on a very hot griddle. Just before they’re done, some sauce is sprinkled on top of the mushrooms. They are speared three at a time with a toothpick topped with a small piece of shrimp and put on a slice of bread.

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José María Barrero hard at work

Gilda

Bar Sierra La Hez, Travesía de Laurel, 1.

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What does this tapa, made with olives, hot green peppers and a salted anchovy have to do with Rita Hayworth? According to the Basque Gastronomic Academy website, this tapa was invented in 1946 in the Bar Vallés in San Sebastian, whose owner called it a ‘gilda’ because, like Rita Hayworth it was “salada”, verde y un poco picante”, literally, “salty, green and a little spicy” which aptly describes its appearance and taste but with a second meaning: “lively, uses salty language and a little provocative”.

In any case, it’s delicious. Sierra La Hez is also a great place to listen to Spanish music from the 70s and 80s and if you speak Spanish, owner Miguel Ruiz is a walking encyclopedia of this genre.

Patatas Bravas (Cooked potatoes with a spicy red and white sauce)

La Taberna del Laurel, calle Laurel 7.

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This is the perfect first stop when embarking on an evening in calle Laurel because the potatoes act as a barrier against the absorption of wine, beer or whatever you’re drinking. It’s always packed but you can hear the guy behind the bar yell “¡Una de bravas!” (An order of bravas) from the street outside.

Classic recipes for patatas bravas use only the spicy red sauce but the Taberna del Laurel, red sauce and a mayonnaise-like sauce to the red sauce.

You can find the recipe at the end of this post.

Bocadillo (small sandwich) with a half sardine in olive oil and a spicy green pepper

El Soldado de Tudelilla, calle San Agustín 33.

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It’s easy to make. Manolo, the owner of the bar, takes a piece of bread, slices it in half lengthwise, opens a can of sardines in olive oil and a can of spicy green peppers in olive oil, puts half a sardine and a pepper on the bread, and wraps it in a paper napkin. It tastes delicious with a glass of young red rioja.

If you want to know what bars were like 50 years ago, this is the place.  It features a zinc bar and a huge sink where tomatoes float and bottles of wine are chilling.  The wall behind the bar is covered with old bottles of rioja, some of whose labels are collectors’ items.

Sliced cod and red pepper in olive oil

Bar Achuri, Calle Laurel, 11.

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If you’re looking for traditional tapas, look no further, so forget about being squeamish and dive in. Among the delicacies on offer here in addition to cod are embuchados (fried sheeps’ intestines), fried pigs’ ears and roast cloves of garlic in rioja wine vinegar. YUM! No kidding!

These bars are also places where customers can enjoy words of wisdom as they eat and drink.  Here are some examples.

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La Taberna del Laurel: “It’s a beautiful day.  You’ll see how someone will come along to f@#k it up.”

 

img_5411Sierra La Hez: “I like to cook with wine.  Sometimes I even add it to the food.”

(Notice the tins of anchovies and sardines in olive oil behind the sign.)

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My favorite: Taberna del Laurel:  “Don’t steal.  The government hates the competition.”

Recipe for patatas bravas:

According to the directoalpaladar website, the red sauce isn’t tomato-based but rather a roux (slowly fried onions, sweet and spicy paprika and flour), to which you add chicken stock until creamy, then mix in a blender.

This website recommends:

  • three medium potatoes cut into bite-sized pieces, three tablespoons of sauce (see below), extra virgin olive oil, salt and a little parsley for decoration.
  • To make the sauce: ½ onion, ½ tablespoon of sweet paprika, one tablespoon of spicy paprika, two tablespoons of flour and ½ liter of chicken stock.

Chop the onion and slowly fry in a little olive oil. Before the onion browns, add the sweet and spicy paprika, mixing them with a wooden spoon.

Add the flour, fry it for a minute it or two and when the mixture starts to blend with the olive oil making a roux, add the chicken stock little by little to make a creamy sauce. Simmer for ten minutes so that the paprika and flour are cooked through, mix it in a blender and then strain.

If you’re in a hurry or not an especially accomplished chef (making a good roux takes time), I suppose you could make a thick tomato sauce and add Tabasco, but that’s cheating!

To cook the potatoes, there’s more than one option, like most things Spanish. Some recipes recommend just frying the pieces of potato while others suggest first boiling them for two minutes and then deep frying them.

 

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9/21, license to party

For the last five years Spain has suffered the devastating effects of an inflexible labor market, an economy based on overbuilding residential property, banks with questionable lending practices and politicians who thought they were above the law. When most people read the papers, they go directly to the sports pages to get a jolt of positive energy from reading about the success of Spain’s tennis players, football teams and motorcycle racers.

That’s the way it is for 51 weeks of the year, except during festival week, which in Rioja is the wine harvest festival in honor of St. Matthew (San Mateo in Spanish) from September 20 to 25, when all hell breaks loose and the region’s 300,000 inhabitants plus probably 100,000 others from neighboring regions and abroad devote themselves to a frenzy of partying. We deserve it.

The festival starts at 1pm on September 20 when the mayor lights a rocket from the balcony of the city hall in Logroño. This event is called the chupinazo. This year the mayor asked everyone present to forget about their problems and have fun.  Obviously, we were all paying attention because her instructions were followed to the letter.

The crowd waiting for the rocket, with the king and queen of the festival in the foreground.

The crowd waiting for the rocket, with the king and queen of the festival in the foreground. (Photo credit:  larioja.com).

In the past, the city hall square was filled with young people carrying bags of flour and plastic bottles filled with cheap red wine. On hearing the rocket explode, they would douse everyone in sight with wine and then throw flour around, making a god-awful mess of other partygoers who then walked to the old part of town to sing, dance, eat and drink in one of the 100 plus bars in the area.

In recent years, the city fathers have tried to enforce a ‘clean chupinazo’ by stationing police officers around the entrance to the square to keep partygoers from throwing flour around.  Fat chance.  As soon as everyone leaves the square, out comes the flour.

After the rocket goes off. (Photo credit: riojatrek.com)

After the rocket goes off.
(Photo credit: riojatrek.com)

The atmosphere in the old part of town is electric – big swaying crowds of people eating, drinking, dancing and singing, people meeting friends or running into friends unseen for years, going to bullfights, jai alai matches, eating lunch and dinner in bars or restaurants, staying out until 3 or 4 in the morning every day, catching a catnap and a snack and starting all over again.  Believe me, after five or six days of non-stop partying, one is actually glad it’s over.  Until next year, that is!

Calle Laurel, the epicenter of old Logroño. (Photo credit:  blogs.larioja.com)

Calle Laurel, the epicenter of old Logroño.
(Photo credit: blogs.larioja.com)

I consider myself extremely lucky (or extremely resilient) because I go to two of these festivals every year – San Fermín in Pamplona in July and San Mateo in Logroño in September. I have no intention of quitting.

Today is the last day of the wine festival and tomorrow, Logroño will go back to normal, with lots of bad news to fill the newspapers.  Right now, I’m trying to persuade my wife to go out tonight.  If I can get her off the sofa, I might have a chance!

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

 

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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

 

Three glasses of grape juice and a small beer

The Rioja grape harvest festival starts today at noon, but like most people who live here, we went to the old town last night to get a head start on the week’s festivities.

I was pleased to see so many people enjoying themselves but I couldn’t help feeling disappointment as time after time, groups of young adults would approach the bar and order ‘tres mostos y un corto’  (three glasses of grape juice and a small glass of beer).

Wait a minute, isn’t this the fiesta de la vendimia, the grape harvest festival?  Isn’t Rioja wine the signature product of our region?   I looked around each bar we entered and for every person drinking wine, there were at least 20 drinking something else. 

Curiously, the bars in the old town in Logroño are huge advertisements for Rioja wine:  hundreds of bottles, new and old, line the shelves, signs advertising the price of scores of brands from young wines to crianzas, reservas and even gran reservas, pictures of winemakers posing with the owners of the bars, vintage charts, wine maps and lots of other material, with not a single sign or poster of grape juice or beer in sight. Occasions like this are the least common denominator of wine culture – you don’t have to order a specific brand or a vintage, just ask for a glass of red or white. In spite of this, young consumers had obviously turned their backs on wine.

It’s no secret that wine consumption in Spain is dropping precipitously but it was a shock to see first hand people ignoring wine in such an obvious way.

I’ve written in these pages about the efforts made by the Rioja Regulatory Council, the regional government and our local newspaper LA RIOJA to promote wine culture among young adults but my feeling after visiting a few bars is that we are failing to reach the new generation of young adults that will have to sustain our industry for the next 50 years. After all, sales to the Spanish market account for 70% of the total, so a plunge in sales here means that Rioja will either have to make up the shortfall abroad – no easy feat in a ferociously competitive marketplace – or hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres of vines will have to be grubbed up.  In comparison to this, farmers’ grumbling about lower than expected grape prices is a petty matter.

However, if you ask a winery here how they feel about sales in the Spanish market, the unwavering response is ‘forget about it, we’re concentrating on international markets’. This head-in-the-sand approach, so typically Spanish, threatens to ruin our industry.

Last night’s events have piqued my curiosity and I’ll be devoting more space here to discovering why young adults have turned their backs on wine and what could be done to reverse the trend.

In the meantime, until my doctor tells me to stop, I’m going to continue drinking Rioja and wine in general.  A cold beer is nice on a hot day, but nothing beats Rioja and tapas!  After the festival officially starts at noon, some friends (all over 40) are going back to the old town for more. We might not be able to reverse the trend in consumption, but we’ll have fun trying!

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.