January 13, 2013

Gourmet Tapas by the Sea...

I wish I could have stayed in Rioja forever, but soon it was time to leave this region of Spain and Hotel Villa de Ábalos. We continued our journey north and drove up over the mountains into Pais Vasco or Basque Country. As we drove the landscape changed and became more green, lush, and wooded. The architecture changed; we left the medieval stone house of Rioja behind and they were replaced by wooden houses and twentieth century apartment buildings. Vineyards and cattle made way to industry and sheep grazing. We were now in Basque Country.

Soon we were driving into the seaside city of San Sebastián. Called Donostia in the Basque language, this picturesque city is situated between two hills along a crescent-shaped beach. The beach is capped at both ends by small peaks. Monte Urgull rises above the old town on the east end of the beach and is adorned with a Christ statue that overlooks the streets below. At the base of Monte Urgull is the old city, a labyrinth of cobblestones streets and tapas bars. The west end of the beach Monte Ugueldo rises from the sea. The city seems nestled in between two bookends.

And my favorite thing about this city? It’s a food town. Yes, Donostia (or San Sebastián) is definitely a place to come when you’re hungry. There are simple tapas bars serving delicious little bites and highly acclaimed restaurants and everything in between.

Gambas a la plancha at Bar Goiz Argi
In the Basque language tapas are called pintxos (pronounced "peen-tcho"). While we were there tried several (okay, many) of the pintxos bars in Donostia. All of the good, but a few stood out - Bar Goiz Argi, Ganbara, and Borda Berri. Most pintxos bars offer a wide array of small dishes, however, each place has its speciality. At Bar Goiz Argi that special dish is Gambas a la plancha (or shrimp cooked on a flat grill). When we arrived we found a place to stand at the crowded bar and ordered the shrimp and txakoli (pronounced "choc-o-lee"), a crisp white Basque wine. The shrimp were perfect and paired well with the txakoli. They had a slight smoky flavor and were served with a fresh tomato pepper sauce.

Hongos a la plancha y yema at Ganbara
At Ganbara the speciality is hongos a la plancha y yema or grilled wild mushrooms with egg yolk. And it was delicious! The combination of woodsy flavor of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk was simple and very good. Before leaving Ganbara we tried one another pintxo - peppers stuffed with bacalao (or salt cod). These had an intense pepper flavor which was muted by the creamy fish and potato filling. To accompany our dishes we each got a glass of Rioja.

Risotto at Borda Berri
I’ve saved the best for last - Borda Berri. This pintxos bar is located on Calle Fermin Calbeton, a few doors down from Bar Goiz Argi. Here specialities here are risotto and beef checks. In addition, there are daily specials on a chalkboard behind the bar. I ordered mushroom risotto and marmitako and Jonathan ordered the beef cheeks and ribs. Soon we were enjoying our small plates and glasses of Rioja. The risotto was creamy with a rich, woodsy flavor. And unlike most risottos this one was made with orzo instead of rice. But, the marmitako (a local seafood stew) was my favorite dish.

Marmitako at Ganbara
The best part of enjoying pintxo is that you get to enjoy a small plate, glass or wine or cider, and the atmosphere at one place at each place, then you move on to the next. Not only does it give you the opportunity to try a wide variety of delicious morsels, it allows you to keep moving and see much more of the city in one evening.

The narrow streets in the old part of Donostia (or San Sebastián)
After a night of pintxos bar hopping, we walked around the narrow streets of the old city for a while. This area of Spain is politically complicated. The Basque people are very proud of their culture, traditions, and language. And there is a faction that would like to be independent from the rest of Spain. There are reminders of this throughout the whole region - Basque flags, political banners and murals, beautiful arts, and (of course) the local food. And at the end of the night, you can stroll along the beach promenade, where the sea and land come together to create this beautiful place.

January 4, 2013

Of Wine and Villages

Temprenillo grapes at Bodegas Miguel Merino.

After our first night Hotel Villa de Ábalos and our fantastic breakfast there, we headed out to visit a couple of the local bodegas (wineries) and explore the nearby villages. We drove to the town of Briones where we had an appointment to visit Bodegas Miguel Merino. This is a small, family run bodega that Jonathan had read about on the Internet. (Wine tasting in Spain is different than in the United States and you have to make appointments to visit the bodegas.)

When we arrived at the bodega we were met by Miguel Merino, whose cheerful disposition and enthusiasm about wine and the winemaking process was infectious. They had just finished harvesting the night before, so the air was thick with the smell of grapes and the beginnings of fermentation. Miguel showed us the different machinery and explained the process he uses to make his wine. Inside large steel vats were filled with freshly crushed grapes and draped with wet towels to keep them cool during the initial stages of fermentation. From there he took us to the aging cellar where the barrels and bottles of his wine live until they are ready to drink. As we walked, he and continued to share information about the processes and philosophies he uses to make his wine. He explained the different way winemakers in Rioja release their wine for sale and consumption, as opposed to those in the New World. We learned that winemakers in Rioja prefer to let the bottles of their wine age in their cellars and release them when they are ready to drink, instead of selling them a year or two after they bottled them and telling the customer to age them a set number of years before drinking them. I think this stems from the Spanish idea that good wine and food should be accessible to everyone not just those who can afford expensive wines and gourmet cuisine.

The view from the village of Briones where Bodegas Miguel Merino is located.
Of course, the best part of visiting Miguel was trying his wines. He opened two bottles for us to try and sat down at a table with us to sip and talk about the wines. Both wines we tried were very good! That and Miguel's friendly disposition (and the fact that he speaks English very well) made our visit to Bodegas Miguel Merino fun and memorable. Before leaving, we bought a few bottles of Miguel's wine to bring home. As we were leaving, he gave us one of the open bottles and told us to enjoy it with our lunch at a cafe.
Wine tasting at Bodega Miguel Merino.

However, before lunch we had another appointment. (Lunch in Spain is much later than in most countries at between 1:30-3:30pm.) The next bodega we visited was Compania Vinocultura de Espana or CVNE for short. This is much bigger and more commercial, producing over six million bottles of wine a year. The tour and wine tasting was less personal than our experience at Bodegas Miguel Merino, but still interesting. We went on a tour of the bodega with three other couples, and while our tour guide was very knowledgeable and hospitable, she was not as friendly or enthusiastic as Miguel.

A cellar building designed by Gustaf Effil at CVNE.
At CVNE we visited the different aging cellars and learned about the different wines they produce. Here, my favorite part of the tour was visiting their underground wine library (or cemetery as our tour guide referred to it). This cellar is dug into the ground under the train station and houses stacks of bottles of every wine vintage the company has produced since the late 1800s. The old bottles were covered with blankets of mold and it was fascinating to see. From there, our tour guide brought us to try two of their wines with some crackers and charcuterie. Their wines were good, but again, I preferred Miguel's wines.

The wine cellar beneath the train station at CVNE.
After our tour and tasting at CVNE we walked up the hill to the nearby village of Haro. There we went to a couple of tapas bars on the main square for lunch and enjoyed drinking the wine Miguel gave us. After lunch, we wandered around the streets of this small village. I am always fascinated to explore the narrow streets and old architecture in Europe and the villages of Spain are no exception.

On the village square in Haro...
Before going back to Ábalos for the evening we drove around Rioja a bit, looking at the vineyards and watching the tractors haul carts of freshly picked grapes to nearby bodegas. We visited the town of Laguardia, which is situated in Rioja Alavesa on the border of Basque country. This hilltop how still has it’s medieval city wall and gate. Inside the walls, the narrow streets were filled with tourists and locals enjoying the fall afternoon.

The old city gate in Laguardia.
As the sky was transitioning to dusk, we drove back to Ábalos, excited to eat dinner again at La Cucina de Merche at Hotel Villa de Ábalos.