Foodie Weekend Among Vineyards
Salted cod mille-feuille from El Rincón del Vino restaurant in Logroño. Alejandra Garrido/©ICEX
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX
There are few places where the link between wine culture and good food is as clear as in this city. Logroño is the capital of La Rioja, one of Spain's foremost wine producing regions. Good quality restaurants, tapas bars on Calle Laurel and neighboring streets, shops selling exclusive food products and La Rioja wines, all jostle for space in the old quarter alongside monumental gems. Rodrigo García tells you how he explored the city.
The city of Logroño currently has 200,000 inhabitants and was nothing more than a village on the banks of the river Ebro until, in the 12th century, increasing numbers of pilgrims made their way to Santiago de Compostela. The city's development was intimately linked with its past and present role as a stopping place on the St James' Way. Pilgrims enter the city from Navarre over the Puente de Piedra (literally, the stone bridge) over the river Ebro, from where they get their first glimpse of the most famous monuments: the Gothic spire of the Palacio church, the Romanesque church of San Bartolomé, the church of Santiago and the slender, almost twin towers of Logroño cathedral.
It is Friday afternoon, and we take advantage of the few hours of daylight left to follow in the footsteps of Way of St James pilgrims as they pass through the city. We cross Puente de Piedra (the stone bridge) and go straight into the old quarter along Rúa Vieja. A huge St James scallop shell set into the ground shows us we are on the right track. This street, packed full of mansions and old houses (many are being renovated as part of a municipal program to modernize this historic part of the city), also has several calados, old wineries now out of service but bearing witness to the fact that wine played a major role in Logroño's social and economic life for centuries.
One of the best preserved is the 16th century Calado de San Gregorio, which you can access from Rúa Vieja and exit in Calle San Gregorio, after going down a steep natural slope that was used by the winery for part of the winemaking process.
We leave Rúa Vieja and enter Barriocepo street, where two of the city's most unusual places await: the church of Santiago Apóstol (St James the Apostle), proof of the influence exerted on Logroño by the St James' Way and on whose façade the Apostle is shown as a warrior in the middle of a battle. In the adjoining square there is a giant juego de la oca board ("game of the goose", a very popular board game in Spain) dedicated also to St James' Way.
Hustle and Bustle
We are gradually making our way to the culinary centre of the old quarter. Soon, we will begin to see streets such as San Agustín and Marqués de San Nicolás full of bars, and cuadrillas (groups of friends) coming and going. We plan to spend tomorrow late afternoon and evening really getting to know the city's typical tapas, so today we decide to have dinner in one of the Logroño's most picturesque restaurants, El Rincón del Vino.
As soon as we go in, we realize that this is not just another restaurant. The cosy dining room is in a calado under a beautifully preserved domed ceiling. The chef Sergio Soto and his wife Sonia are the young couple running this restaurant, where the food is halfway between traditional Rioja-style and modern trends. It has a spectacular wine list from the Qualified Designation of Origin Rioja, with some amazingly well-priced gems.
The house specialties include, naturally, barbecued lamb chops, various dishes with salt cod (the most popular fish, along with hake, in Rioja cooking), seasonal vegetables, and in autumn they serve game and a selection of wild mushrooms and funghi from nearby forests. Sergio assures us that, "one of the great advantages of working in a region like La Rioja is that we have everything we need to hand, with vegetables from the Ebro valley, legumes from the Oja and Najerilla valleys, peppers, excellent lamb, sausages and fish from the Cantabrian Sea, only two hours' drive away".
Guided by Sonia we try a fantastic black sausage from Ezcaray (the Rioja village where Sergio's family come from), lamb chops roasted with vine shoots fire as a traditional dish and a salted cod mille-feuille, one of the items on the menu with Sergio's innovative signature.
Off to Market
On Saturday morning we rise early to catch the atmosphere in the San Blas Market, or Plaza de Abastos, also in the old quarter. This is a traditional market, like those in many Spanish towns, where you can buy food from local producers. The personal service from the stall holders and the fantastically fresh food are two of the best features of this kind of market.
In the case of this market in Logroño, the central area is occupied by fruit and vegetable stalls, all selling seasonal produce. Borage, leeks, cardoon, curly endive, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, green beans, plums and cherries, to name but a few of what is on offer from Rioja market gardens and orchards.
Alongside the fruit and vegetables, La Rioja gastronomy is also known for its love of pork and lamb products. As well as fresh cuts of meat such as ribs and chops, the butchers' market stalls also sell traditional sausages, like Rioja chorizo, which no respectable household can be without. Cured sausage, lard, lambs' feet, pig snouts and ears, La Rioja style cured meat (in salt and pimentón, a type of Spanish paprika) are also on sale in these marketplace butchers.
Leaving the market behind, we cannot resist visiting two food shops on Calle del Peso, just next to Plaza de Abastos. Both of them, Frutas El Calahorrano and Frutas Pedro, sell seasonal vegetables, fruit and wild mushrooms, vegetable and meat preserves made in La Rioja and legumes, another of the most prized foods in the Rioja culinary repertoire.
From Market to Table
Seeing all these great quality products gives us an appetite. We make our way to Calle del Laurel, where we will return tonight in search of the famous pinchos (the local tapas) and go into El Cachetero, one of the most reputable restaurants in the city. On stepping over the threshold I am reminded of a picture showing a bourgeois restaurant in the 60s and 70s, with refined yet unpretentious décor.
The kitchen is run by Pilar Sábado with her son Diego Arechinolaza front of house; they are the fifth generation in the business. They serve a carefully selected range of typically Rioja dishes, focusing on fresh produce and flavor. We are brought an excellent menestra (Rioja vegetable madley), followed by kid, slow roasted at a low temperature for several hours, and hake in batter accompanied by roasted peppers, which remind us that simplicity and fantastic food frequently go hand in hand. Pilar, though, is far too modest: "I only cook how your mothers and grandmothers would have cooked, with loving care, plenty of time and choosing only the best produce from the market".
After lunch in El Cachetero we decide to visit Viena cake shop to have a coffee and something sweet. The cake shop has another establishment in Logroño, both run by young Juan Ángel Rodrigálvarez. We visited the one in Plaza del Espolón, which has been the most famous park in Logroño for many years. In Viena, we find the most innovative style of La Rioja cake making, with wine truffles and cakes such as "Vendimia" made with ingredients that include red berries and red wine. Close by, in Portales street, near the cathedral, we come across La Golosina, a shop that has specialized in Rioja sweets and traditional candy for decades.
Immersed in La Laurel
After a short rest, we begin the Logroño tapas tour. It is 20.00, and the bars around Laurel street are already starting to get busy. We let ourselves be guided by José María and Martín, two young men from the nearby village of Alesón who come to Logroño occasionally to "have a stroll round Laurel". Our tour begins in Soriano, one of the oldest bars in the area, where the delicious mushroom and prawn pincho reminds us that we are in Spain's leading mushroom production area. We continue along Villa-Rica, where we try a zapatilla (toasted bread with tomato and Serrano ham) and matrimonio, the curious name given to the "marriage" of a salt cured anchovy, a fresh anchovy in vinegar and a roasted green pepper.
In all the bars on Laurel, the most popular drink to have with your pincho is wine (always from the Qualified Designation of Origin Rioja), a corto (small glass) of beer or mosto (a non-alcoholic drink made from grape juice). The next stop is El Muro, where we are greeted with a huge bar full of pinchos, from which we choose one of the most traditional in La Rioja, stuffed peppers.
After a lively chat over a glass of wine, Martín suggests going to the bar right next door, Achuri, to try a pincho that at first glance may not seem very attractive, but which we love on trying it. This is embuchado, lamb's intestines wound up like a skein of wool, which is then cut into thin slices, cooked on a griddle and served with a hot red and green pepper garnish.
The list of bars and pinchos is so long that Laurel street needs several visits to get through all of them. Pepper, onion, bonito and sardine salad in El Soldado de Tudelilla, langoustine brochette in La Anjana, a pincho of griddled entrecote steak with peppers from Padrón and potato chips in La Canilla, Moorish kebab in Tío Agus, griddled cuttlefish brochette with garlic mayonnaise in Bambi, patatas bravas (spicy potatoes) in Jubera and so on. The average price of a pincho served with a glass of Crianza wine comes in at barely 3 €.
Sunday, Time to go Home
Logroño awakes to a fine mist that wraps itself round the city, giving it a nostalgic air that stays with us as we take a walk round the Ebro park, a project that has reclaimed the river bank for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike. Before rounding off our first trip to La Rioja and Logroño, there are still two more important appointments to keep: a guided tour of the Juan Alcorta winery, one of the most modern in La Rioja, and a lunch reservation in Asador Alameda, based in a traditional wine making town, Fuenmayor, only 10 km / 8 mi from Logroño.
Félix Fernández and Esther Álvarez head this family restaurant that pays homage to traditional La Rioja cooking, with stews such as Rioja-style potatoes and Anguiano caparrones (red kidney beans), vegetables such as cardoon, borage and artichokes, specialties such as roasted kid and, the very popular grilled (over an open fire) chuletón (steak on the bone).
We bid farewell to La Rioja, but convinced that we will return, because Logroño is just one point on a map packed full of places with fantastic food, history and hospitality.
Rodrigo García Fernández is member of www.foodsfromspain.com editorial team.