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.

 

Logroño-La Rioja – Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2012

When the media publishes statistics, La Rioja is usually at the bottom of the chart because we’re the third smallest province in Spain, just ahead of Spain’s two North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

We recently got a big boost to the top with the announcement of Logroño-La Rioja’s appointment as Spain’s gastronomic capital in 2012.

What usually happens in cases like this is for the local and regional government tourist bodies to organize a series of events.  The private sector here usually waits for the government to open its pocketbook rather than take the initiative.  This time, however, local business has taken the lead.

Somos Capital (an expression with the double meaning of ‘We’re the Capital’ or ‘We’re Important’), created by the restaurant Tondeluna, owned by the Paniego family in Ezcaray, one of La Rioja’s two 1-Michelin-starred restaurants and the Marqués de Vallejo hotel has organized a program of appearances by some of Spain’s best chefs and food writers to celebrate this honor throughout the year..

Among the chefs who have accepted an invitation so far are:

  • Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
  • Andoni Luis Adúriz
  • Quique Dacosta
  • Paco Morales
  • Lorenzo Cañas
  • Marisa Sánchez
  • Ignacio Echapresto
  • Juan Ángel Rodrigálvarez

The last four chefs are from La Rioja, adding to the excitement.

Francis Paniego of Tondeluna hopes that Ferrán Adriá will accept, too (“He hasn’t said ‘no’ yet”).

The timetable for each event is:

6:30 pm   a press conference with the week’s guest

7:30 pm   a short talk by the guest

9:00 pm   dinner and wine pairing featuring some of the best Rioja wines, with the guest chef-inspired menu prepared   by the staff of Tondeluna.

Five per cent of the total take for the evening will be donated to ARSIDO (the Down’s Syndrome Association of La Rioja).

Each dinner and tasting costs 50 euros per person and is open to 50 guests.

I was pleasantly surprised to read about this and hope I can attend at least one of the dinners.  It’s going to be tough, however. The price is right, the chefs are the best in Spain and it’s for a worthy cause. 

How can the local government top that?

Dealing with borders

One of the most difficult things a potential visitor to Rioja has to deal with is the fact that the wine district is located in three different regions, or comunidades autónomas as they’re called in Spanish:  La Rioja, Álava and Navarra. These are like states in the USA, or länder in Germany – regions with a high degree of local autonomy.  And, as we all know, where there is autonomy, there are regional governments eager to promote the beauty and other attractions of their particular region.

This poses no problem for locals, who drive back and forth across the Ebro every day with scarcely a thought about entering and leaving La Rioja, Álava and Navarra.  It has, however, been the source of some confusion for tourists, who have heard about Rioja wines for years, only to discover that there is no single source of information about accommodations, restaurants and tourist attractions in the area.  In addition, since grapegrowing and winemaking are major sources of employment (and tax revenue) here, the three regional governments work hard to promote ‘their’ Rioja as if the others didn’t exist.

Sometimes this regional focus borders on the absurd, such as holding two harvest festivals, international wine tastings featuring only Riojas from one region and ‘wine bus’ tours that stop at the border.  This is especially confusing because it’s been a tradition for wineries to buy grapes and wine from all over Rioja. For the regional governments, however, the location of the winery is the key.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has worked very hard to bring these regional elements under one umbrella.  In fact, one of the most important accomplishments of the current president, Víctor Pascual, has been to convince the governments of Álava, La Rioja and Navarra to invest in brand Rioja. 

While I’ve always defended the idea of a single, unified PR pitch for Rioja wines, regional autonomy is a fact of life, so today I’m going to point you to the wine tourism websites of La Rioja (roughly speaking, the area south of the Ebro river) and Rioja Alavesa (most of the area on the north bank of the Ebro west of Logroño).

Both the Rioja Alavesa Wine Route and the La Rioja Tourism websites contain a wealth of information about wine villages, wineries, accommodation, restaurants and other attractions that will help wine tourists make the most of their visit to our region.

I hope that this information, as well as Inside Rioja will make your trip here as enjoyable as possible.