Where Gastronomy and Language Come Together
San Millán de la Cogolla monastery library. Photo by: Luis Carré/©ICEX.
Author: George Semler/©ICEX
The complete Camino de la Lengua Castellana begins where Spanish began at San Millán de la Cogolla in La Rioja, continues through early Castilian epic poetry and El Cantar de Mío Cid in Burgos, and proceeds through Cervantes country in Valladolid. Mystic poets Santa Teresa de Ávila and San Juan de la Cruz are identified with the city of Ávila. Salamanca was the setting for La Celestina (by Fernando de Rojas, 1470–1541) and the picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes (an anonymous work dating from 1554), two of the most important works in early Spanish literature, while Alcalá de Henares was the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes and the original home of the University of Madrid. This article covers only the first two stops on this itinerary: San Millán de la Cogolla, birthplace of the Spanish language, and Burgos, home of El Cid.
It was in La Rioja at the Monastery of Suso above the small town of San Millán de la Cogolla where, in 1910, a 10th-century Latin manuscript on St. Augustine was discovered containing the first recorded writings in the Latin vernacular known as román paladino or "plain Romance language". The notes were written around the year 1050 in the margin of the text by a monk (or various monks) to explain difficult Latin words in the language spoken in their villages. Notes appear in both Spanish and Basque, not surprisingly, as many villages in the western Rioja were Basque-speaking. These notes became known as the Glosas Emilianenses.
The literary importance of the Monasteries at San Millán de la Cogolla resides not only in the Glosas Emilianenses but in the number and quality of the manuscripts in the libraries and in the work of the first poet in the Spanish language, Gonzalo de Berceo (1195-1260), who wrote and recited his poems in the Monasterio de Suso. Berceo's 25 poems under the title Milagros de Nuestra Señora (Miracles of Our Lady) are considered his best work. Berceo's verses, often presented in troubadour form, were original in their popular language, humorous, and realistic, with exact descriptions of the places, such San Millán and Silos, where his stories take place.
It is probably no coincidence that both literary and wine cultures flourished in the same place. For the same reasons that the Mediterranean climate and agriculture easily reached up the Ebro into La Rioja, where grapevines, olives, almonds, artichokes, asparagus, peppers, peas and chard flourish, Roman civilization cruised up the river on shallow-draft barges past the Rioja Baja city of Calahorra, as far as the port at Varea just 3 km (1.8 mi) below Logroño at the confluence of the Iregua and Ebro Rivers.
The Ebro valley floor, including Logroño's Calle del Laurel (Laurel Street); Haro's horseshoe-shaped restaurant and tapas circuit, La Herradura; Elciego's Frank Gehry-designed winery and Laguardia's taverns and restaurants, offers many dining opportunities to explore, but this itinerary heads south up the Najerilla valley and over the Sierra de la Demanda, following the beginnings of Spain's first medieval epic poetry into Castile, through Santo Domingo de Silos to Burgos and the birthplace of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid.
From the Suso Monastery, the most poetic way to the mountain town of Ezcaray, is the five-hour walk along the through the lost mountain villages of Pazuengos and Turza. Facing the fortified 12th- to 16th-century Gothic Santa María la Mayor church is Hotel Echaurren, home of Marisa Sánchez and her son, internationally-acclaimed chef Francis Paniego. Marisa is a widely-respected master of traditional Riojan cuisine, while Francis is a contemporary innovator and chef and founder of El Portal, his own restaurant in Hotel Echaurren, as well as consulting advisor of the Hotel Marqués de Riscal restaurant in Elciego. Patatas a la riojana by Marisa, followed by a Francis creation such as his Merluza a la romana confitada a 45 grados sobre pimientos asados y sopa de arroz (Hake in batter cooked at 45 degrees over roast peppers and rice soup) are the best of both worlds.
After descending the valley of the Oja, just 10 minutes east of Nájera, Daroca de Rioja is the home of La Venta de Moncalvillo, where the brothers Echapresto, Carlos (sommelier) and Ignacio (chef) have put together an important gastronomical detour along this literary itinerary. The seasonal menu here runs from spring vegetables to summer salads to small game and wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, morels, and porcini in fall to big game and stews in winter.
No new seeds
Starting up the LR-113 road up the Najerilla valley, the town of Nájera sits astride the limestone Najerilla river. Nájera, one-time seat of the Kindgom of Navarre and home to the Rioja's best Gothic cloister, is a pilgrim stop on the Camino de Santiago. Nearby is Tricio where we meet Jesús, known as Chuchi, is the driving force behind the pimiento najerano (Nájera pepper), a sweet and meaty red and sometimes entreverado (red and green) pepper officially registered under the PGI Pimiento Riojano.
Another 10 km (6.2 mi) up the Najerilla, Baños de Río Tobía is the main curing and processing center for Rioja's ham, chorizo and charcuterie. Carmelo and Fermín Loza are two of 11 brothers and cousins working in the family business, Embutidos Loza, founded in 1920 by their grandfather, Amando Loza Alonso. Baños, at 600 m (1,968 ft) above sea level, provided a combination of dry mountain air and cool temperatures with good transport accessibility to become a leader in the curing and processing of ham, chorizo, pork loin and sausages from producers all over Spain and southern France.
Poetic kidney beans
Continuing up into the Sierra de la Demanda, 7 km (4.3) south of Baños is the village of Anguiano, famed for its three bridges, its summer festival starring dancers on beech wood stilts plunging down the steep slope from the San Andrés church, and, above all, for its caparrones, tiny red kidney beans. Grown in rocky soil at altitude, these pea-sized maroon-colored beans have exceptional taste, gossamer skins that melt on the palate, and a supremely delicate texture.
Caparrones de Anguiano are grown exclusively on 3-m (10-ft) high vertical bean trellises or stakes, planted by hand, led up the poles, stacked in haystack-like pyramids to dry, and then spread out on canvases to open by driving tractors over the pods. Then comes the cleaning and selection process, ultimately producing some 8,000 kg (1,763 lb) on a good year.
Another dozen miles of twisting mountain road rises up past the Puente de Hiedra (Ivy Bridge) and the road up to the home to the La Virgen de Valvanera, patron saint of La Rioja. Ten minutes farther up is the town of Viniegra de Abajo, where La Venta de Goyo, a hunting and fishing enclave, is one of Rioja's top highland dining destinations: seasonal game dishes: partridge and woodcock roasted with as little interference with their natural taste as possible, venison with apple and chestnut compotes, and wild boar stewed with wild mushrooms. It's also one of the best places for caparrones de Anguiano, stewed to perfection in pure spring water.
Past the Mansilla reservoir, with the rolling Sierra de Urbión mountain rising dramatically to the east, the handsome town of Canales de la Sierra is the border of Burgos and the region of Castile-Leon, where the road becomes the BU-825, headed south down to Salas de los Infantes.
Salas de los Infantes is famous for the pre-Chanson de Roland Poema de los Infantes de Lara, a precursor to El Cantar de Mio Cid, the earliest (1140) recorded Spanish medieval epic literature.
Today Salas de los Infantes is a good stop for a lechazo or sopa castellana at Mesón Ricardo and a walk around town. The tourist office at the Museo de los Dinosaurios in Plaza Mayor provides audio-guides explaining the town's most interesting points and the schedule for visits to the 15th-century Church of Santa María, where the remains of the heads of the Infantes de Lara are supposedly kept in a sarcophagus to the left of the main altar. The curiously twisted conical brick chimneys and ancient houses, many of them abandoned, are the town's best sights, while Jamones El Pelayo is the place to go for local products ranging from smoked and dried goat meat to cow tongue and sheeps' cheese.
20 minutes west, is another key way station on the Spanish language route. Silos Monastery was an important library and scriptorium, or copying workshop, and the Glosas de Silos, 513 annotations in the margin of a Latin text, rank alongside the Glosas Emilianenses as one of the first examples of writing in the Spanish vernacular.
Turning to gastronomy, Tres Coronas de Silos hotel serves creditable local fare, while the antiques and foodstuffs store around the corner stocks morcilla de Burgos (rice black pudding), cured Vadorrey sheeps' cheese, and Rocas de Silos macaroons made of hazelnuts, egg whites, chocolate and vanilla.
Burgos, celebrating the city's first annual Fin de Semana Cidiano-a weekend devoted to the protagonist of El Cantar, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, El Cid Campeador (circa 1045-1099)-is abuzz with spectators coming in from the jousting tournament just completed in the Paseo del Espolón that runs along the Arlanzón River that splits the city in two. The stalls in the medieval market set up around the cathedral in Plaza del Rey San Fernando display nearly every food product available from Burgos and beyond: morcilla from Sotopalacios and Briviesca, flat torta de aceite bread from Tardajos, morcilla with cumin seed from Gumiel de Izán, the local fresh cheese from Burgos, cured sheeps' cheese from Sotillo de la Ribera, sheeps' cheese from Peñafiel in Valladolid, and Torta del Casar cheese from Extremadura.
Mesón del Cid in Plaza Santa María next to the cathedral is a classic 15th-century Castilian setting with ancient tiles, hand hewn beams and eccentric nooks and crannies, ideal for intimate dining in a lively maelstrom of movement. The typical Burgos menu of sopa Doña Jimena (garlic soup named for El Cid's wife), morcilla from Burgos with red peppers, and roast suckling lamb, followed by the postre del abuelo (grandfather's dessert) of fresh queso de Burgos cheese, hazelnuts, and honey, all accompanied by a generous flow of a red.
Casa Ojeda, near Plaza del Cid (Cid Plaza) on Vitoria Street roasts the finest lechazo in Burgos in its traditional wood oven-lambs so succulent, tender, and full of flavor that veteran Casa Ojeda staffer Antonio Sanllorente (66 years old and one of the original team that opened the restaurant in 1965) claims that: “To be good, they have to have heard the bells of the cathedral.”
Just northwest of Burgos in Vivar del Cid, birthplace of the Campeador, the Mesón Molino del Cid, at the start (Legua 0) of the Camino del Cid, is the place for Castilian specialties, from cocidos to cochinillos or lechazos. Even more important is the El Cid history, explained eloquently by owner Javier Alonso, who freely recites chapter and verse from El Cantar de Mio Cid. The original mill dates back to medieval times and may well have belonged to Diego Láinez de Vivar (1020-1058), father of El Cid, who was Hidalgo de Ubierna and Infanzón de Vivar, noble titles that would have given him an interest in the region's mills. The present mill machinery dates back to the mid-19th century, while the glass window in the floor of the back dining room shows the water flowing under the building.
George Semler who is based in Barcelona, has wirtten about travel, food & wine for numerous publications including Saveur, Sky, Forbes Life, Travel & Leisure for the last 20 years.