Editor’s note: This story is from 3 years ago when I first went to Rioja. Back then Catavino was not known, and I only had a small family site I was maintaining. Money was scarce, hell it still is! But this became one of my favorite stories, and since it took place in Rioja and the food was so good I thought I would share the experience with those of you who are not familiar with it. Enjoy!
April 28, 2005
Having to this point in my trip conserved my pennies; I decided that at least one night I was going to treat myself to decent meal at a nice restaurant. Every time I am traveling in Spain, I always take along my favorite travel guides, and they both agreed that when eating out in Haro, the best bet was Asador Terete. An Asador is the equivalent to a steak house in America but without the steak or potatoes. The Asadors all have wood fire ovens and specialize in the technique of slow roasting meats to create mouthwatering meals. My goal tonight was to try a local specialty of La Rioja, Cordero Asado; roasted suckling lamb.
Yes, the same suckling sensation that I had tried in Segovia only this time with a small helpless lamb. Thank you mister lamb for your sacrifice, and now, back the storyÃ¢€Â¦
So, heading out at a reasonable 9pm, the restaurant located in the upper portion of the building did not have its lights on. Thinking that I at least wanted them to be prepared for dinner, I decided to do a quick walk around the city and then headed back. Still no lights. I started to think maybe tonight was not to be and that I might have to frequent one of the many other asadors located throughout the heart of Haro, but I didn’t want to leave without at least asking. Entering the first floor bar, I was greeted by a man watching TV. Asking if I could eat something tonight, I received an enthusiastic, “Si, Si!” while he called up the stairs for someone to turn the lights on. What service! A whole restaurant opened on account of my hunger! Later on in the evening, I was to learn that it might have been better if they had shut the door, then and there.
Walking into the room, I was greeted by a young man who made it clear that I could sit where I pleased. Looking around, I saw that each wall was lined with butcher block style picnic tables, and on each side of the tables, sat long narrow benches. Accepting the fact that comfort was not their end goal, I sat down hoping that the money saved in interior design was put to a more important cause; like food.
Seated, my server draped a checkered picnic blanket across my table and arranged a complete place setting on top. So far so good. As I scanned the menu, I realized that I must make sure to order wisely or else I might just accidentally provide the funds for any future remolding. Quickly I found the Cordero Asado and was not pleased to seeing its value well above its brethren. Oh well, this one item coupled with wise choices elsewhere would not hurt the wallet too much and so I ordered: soup, lamb, wine, and dessert a simple menu and yet one fit for a king.
At this point, my solitary state was about to be interrupted. Bursting up the stairs came three individuals all tipping their heads to me with a “Hola, Buenos Noches” as is customary when you walk into the room. Replying, I acknowledged them and continued to wait further for my meal to makes its way to the table. Immediately, however, I knew I had a problem. Looking over cautiously towards the new arrivals, I noticed that the “henchman” or “sugar daddy” for the dinner was a unique man of rather large stature. In and of itself, not a problem, but his voice which was loud and gruff was accompanied by a rather loud breathing problem. Somewhat like an asthmatic buffalo grazing the plains. Huff, wheeze, snort, huffÃ¢€Â¦wheeeeeeze! Non-stop, and to say the very least incredibly irritating! This was also accompanied by random loud outbursts followed by a Whap! as the buffalo slapped at the portion of his female companion’s rear hanging over the edge of inadequately sized narrow bench. Without any music in the background, I resigned myself to the fact that for tonight, this would be my ambiance!
By this point in the evening, I had been given a small plate of bread and a bottle of wine; and while attempting to enjoy these, I did my best to ignore my new companions who also chose one of the closer tables to me. But the calm was now over as the buffalo started to talk at a level that indicated he was hoping for my attention. Reluctantly looking over, I noticed him waving and between labored breaths, it appeared that he was trying to communicate something to me in his Span-uffalo language. Getting up, he approached my table, the whole time snorting, while his voice grew louder.
I remember being told once that if a moose, or for that matter, a large buffalo charges you, you should remain calm and stand your ground. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but I thought I would try out the theory! With fear guiding me, I tried my level headed best not to move or say anything. Pointing to my bread in a Clan of the Cave Bears sort of way, I realized that all this beast needed was some nourishment for his already enormous belly. Holding out the bread he feigned politeness and mentioned that only a little would be necessary until the feeding trough was properly situated in front of his table. So to end this encounter as quickly as possible, I quickly split the loaf and handed half to him where with muffled breathing and sounds of moist mastication he loped back to his table. Fortunately, I was able to limit this encounter to a one time event.
Soon after this small storm, I was brought a large serving bowl of soup accompanied by a bowl and ladle. Nice self service. I quickly dug in hoping to kill the most severe part of my hunger so that it didn’t interfere with the main course. The soup consisted of a light broth with small noodles that wouldn’t have surprised me if it had come out of a small bag marked CHICKEN FLAVOR across the front. I can’t in fairness complain as this was the cheapest appetizer on the menu and not one recommend by the waiter. I had hoped to have a vegetable stew that is native to the region, but it was also priced a bit closer to the main course than I would have liked. Oh well, tasty, and at least I wouldn’t have to worry about this course interfering with my enjoyment of what was to come.
As I was finishing up, the restaurant received the last set of guests for the evening, a party of four and fortunately, all polite and quiet. So as the buffalo and party continued to provided their peculiar version of ambiance for the evening, I was ready to move on to the second course.
Simplicity is of the utmost importance in the preparation of certain items in Spain. Roasted lamb is one of these things, and at times, I long for the sprig of parsley that most patrons throw to the side if only to liven up the plate a bit. Before me sat a square white plate with a roasted leg, skin glistening with small rivulets of fat as they cascaded down into a pool of pale yellow water. Nothing more. At first I was a big disappointed by this, no flair, no plates slamming down to cut the leg from the rest of the animal, no flames, or dancing, just bones, meat and juices. Let me explain the process of cooking a lamb a bit as I have heard it told by others.
First, take a lamb still sucking from the teat and kill it then remove all wool and organs. Second, sprinkle with salt water and set in a ceramic crock. Third, sunburn said animal at high temperature in a wood fired oven. Fourth, slowly cook it to perfection at a slightly lower temperature till done. Finally, serve on a plate making sure to sprinkle the juices over the top and adorn with a pinch of salt.
Sound good? Well it is, once you get into it. Granted, I had come hoping to be amazed and at first, I was not. What I did feel, however, was that this was a very interesting and quite tasty dish, though nothing to write home about. On the other hand, I am now writing home about it and for good reason. As you delved deeper into the heart of the shank the meat became more sweet, tender and moist. I lingered at first trying to decide whether or not I liked it and found that as I went deeper into the flesh I was incapable of governing the rate of my consumption. Gentle pieces of sweet flesh melted in my mouth coating it with a decadent layer of milk fed fat, surrounded by crisp delicate skin creating a contrast that my mouth delighted in. To accompany this I had a Crianza from La Rioja, a wine made by the same people who owned the restaurant. I wondered if the wine was made with the lamb somewhere in the back of the winemaker’s mind.
Terete, Reserva Especial 1999, Rioja, Haro
Deep purple with only the slightest browning at the edge. Sour cherry nose with light black pepper. Medium body with little in the way of tannins, and a nice acidity. Flavors of dried cherry, light leather, and dried fruit. This wine developed nicely over 2 hours and might still have continued to evolve if I had let it. 8euros
The dried fruit, leather and light black pepper all merged flawlessly with the delicate meat never overpowering the lambs delicate myriad flavors, rather the wine only helped to balance out the richness of the meat with a light spice and lush acidity.
Wheeze, snort, Hurmph, and what I hoped was not a “toot!!” erupted from the next table over, and I was quickly reminded of another reason not to linger too long on this treat. Was this dinner all that I hoped it would be? No, but it did show the potential and invoke the desire to seek Cordero Asado out again. Maybe I will go with a group sometime, so that the whole lamb could be shared and passed around, allowing everyone to experience the different cuts of meat.
I did pass up the lamb’s head, however. In the front display window of the restaurant, there was a strangely shaped platter set out for all to view. At first glance, I could tell it was meat, though of what part of the animal I was not sure. Upon further inspection, I realized that there were four lambs heads, split lengthwise arranged on a platter in a small circle. Curious, I wondered if they were for show or for dining upon. When I looked at the menu later in the evening, I discovered that it was indeed for eating, and although I was not ready for this experience, I made sure to take note of it, while wondering in the back of mind how it might be prepared. Fortunately the second set of restaurant patrons answered this question for me. Looking up I saw both halves of the head with all organs present served to the table next to me. Apparently the head is roasted, with as much simplicity as was reserved for my lamb. Unfortunately I think that it may take more than a sprig of parsley to make this dish palatable for me, not so much for the taste or texture, but rather the appearance!
At this point I was becoming surprisingly full, and I declined all but a small plate of strawberries and cream for an after dinner treat. Slowly enjoying the crisp light flavors of the berries after the richness of the lamb, I felt happy that I had been able to experience suckling lamb. Barring my company, the night had turned out to be a valuable experience and my only regret was not having had someone to share it with.
When I went to order a coffee at the restaurant, I was told that they did not serve it! Confused I pondered the fact that coffee to this point had been served everywhere I went. It seemed sacrilegious not to have it. Why should a place where I can access the internet have coffee, but a restaurant where I have a nice meal, does not? Oh well, leaving the restaurant I said goodbye to the same man still watching the TV and headed out in search of a café to help with my digestion. Sipping my coffee in a small cafe, I felt grateful for what I had experienced that day, basking in the fact that my coffee was at least not being interrupted by the occasional snort!
Till soon, Ryan