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Rioja: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide

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Welcome to Catavino’s Gourmet Guide to Rioja. When we travel, we’re as focused on the bites as the sights, and if you are too then this should be the travel guide for you…
La Rioja

OVERVIEW: LAND OF NATURE

To travel through the land of La Rioja is to experience Mother Nature at her finest. Located in the upper half of Spain, La Rioja is bordered by the Basque Country and Navarre to the north, Aragon to the east and Castilla y Leon to the southwest. It is also home of the Iberian mountain range, with an average altitude of 1500 ft  that funnels seven rivers into valley and the famed Ebro River. These rivers go on to form tributaries that create additional valleys in their own right. Together, they create a plush and green area that generously nurtures agriculture.

Rioja is known as a hotbed of outstanding produce which provides the foundation to its simple yet quality driven gastronomy. From grapes that craft internationally recognized wines to lettuces, peppers, onions, artichokes, garlic, tomatoes, asparagus, beans, peas and peppers. And let’s not forget its notable goat and lamb products whose aromas can be savored when tossed over grapevines on open pits.

RIOJA CUISINE

With a wealth of quality ingredients, and a history of traditional dishes, it’s not difficult to come to Rioja with high expectations. Drive through the valley covered in blossoming cherry trees and grapevines, and it doesn’t take long to fall in love. But to truly understand the heart and soul of Rioja, you must be willing to open your mind, and your palate, to a vast array of new flavors.

Not to Miss Rioja Delights:

  • La Rioja ChulletasPiquillo Peppers (pimientos riojanos): Typically small and sweet, they are generally skinned and cooked before serving. Perfect fresh, but also great gently wood-roasted and preserved in their own juices, piquillo peppers are ubiquitous in the traditional cuisine of Rioja. You can find them stuffed (with bacalao or lamb); dipped in batter and fried, to make pimientos rellenos; and sometimes part of a stew, especially the substantial bean-and-chorizo stew, pochas a la riojana.
  • Esparragos Blancos: This white asparagus is a regional speciality from Rioja Baja, prized for its tenderness. To obtain it, farmers must mount dirt around each asparagus shoot daily as it tries to poke out of the soil. As a result, these shoots never see sunlight, which is what makes them so tender. Typically you will find them canned and served with mayonnaise. Otherwise, they can also be grilled and salted, and used in many different kinds of dishes including salads, soups, omelets and other egg dishes.
  • Patatas a la Riojana: Many of you have tasted Patatas Bravas, a typical tapa throughout Spain, but I doubt you’ve tried this version. Spain is not known for its spicy food – even black pepper is looked at cautiously; but here in Rioja, their potatoes come roasted with chorizo and smoky paprika – a delicious combo!
  • Chuletas Riojana: Perfectly grilled lambchops over vine cuttings – magical!
  • Lechal (suckling lamb) or Cochinillo (suckling pig): Either of these wee creatures are fed on its mother’s milk before being killed between the ages of two and six weeks. Roasted with olive oil or butter and served.
  • Patxaran: Patxaran is the liquor of Rioja. In Euskara it means sloe berry or baso aran (wild plum), a name you might accurately associate with sloe gin. A small dark berry with red juice, a sloe berry comes from a blackthorn bush and is a relative of the plum, while Patxaran is a sloe-flavoured liqueur most commonly drunk in Navarra, the Basque Country and La Rioja
  • Rioja Wine: Rioja is one of the most prestigious regions in Spain. Using the red Tempranillo wine as a base, and occasionally blending it with Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano grapes, the wineries of this region produce Rioja crianzas (aged for at least twelve months in oak barrels and another twelve months in bottles), reservas (aged at least a year in barrels and another two years in bottles) and gran reservas (aged in oak barrels for at least two years, and another three years in bottles). More information on Rioja wine.

BAR AND CAFE SCENE

Welcome to Logroño, the epicenter of Spanish Tapas. It is the home of hundreds of tiny bars all crammed in an even tinier set of streets all dedicated to their specific set of ingredients. And we speak of dedication, we mean it! Many bars will serve only one of the following: tripe, mushrooms, pigs ears, rabbit stew, chorizo, grilled anchovies, among many others. Mind you, this is not the cutting-edge gastronomic experience that you’ll find in several other restaurants across La Rioja, but it’s not meant to be either. It’s objective is to be a proper Tapas Crawl, which means a few tapas in one location, alongside a glass of wine, followed by a wander to another location where you’ll repeat the process over and over again. Some, will continue onto dinner, while others will be perfectly satiated in their ambling tasting menu.

Keep in mind that La Rioja is spread out, and although the hub of fabulous bars lies in Logrono, don’t resist the desire to explore newfound regions with equally fantastic bars.

  • Calle and Travesía del Laurel (Logroño): Here you will find hundreds of bars and cafes for you to enjoy a wondering tasting menu
  • Plaza San Martin and Santo Tomas (Haro): Among the plaza, and rabbit warren of streets, you’ll discover dozens of little bars most notable for their local wine selection
  • La Plaza Mayor (Laguardia): In this quaint medieval city you will find a plethora of fantastic wine bars in and around the square. Don’t hesitate to walk around and pop your head into any little cavern that looks appealing. Undoubtably, they’ll have great wine and a bite to eat.

RESTAURANTS: BOTH TRADITIONAL AND CHIC

Basque chefs and experimental Catalan alchemists have long entered the limelight of world gastronomy over the past decade or so, while Rioja’s culinary stars have remained relatively uncelebrated. But given the scope and quality of Rioja’s cuisine — both classic and creative — it’s hard to imagine this region’s food staying under the radar much longer.

  •  Daroca de Rioja – This town is the reason why we encourage people to get out and travel to the smaller lesser known pueblos where you can find Venta Moncalvillo. This Michelin Star family-run restaurant serves traditional cuisine, made of high quality, and locally sourced, products.
  • Laguardia – Beyond the fab cafes and bars, you’ll also find dozens of outstanding restaurants speckling the narrow medieval streets. Examples include Amelibia, offering modern interpretations of traditional classics, with excellent quality local ingredients and an exceptional wine list.
  • Páganos – Here you will find wee restaurants such as Hector Oribe. This compact rustic-style dining room and a small, and open-view wine cellar, specializes in traditional, creative cuisine that makes full use of produce from its own vegetable garden.

DINING IN BARCELONA: DO’S AND DONT’S

Though Rioja is relatively chill when it comes to dining norms, there are a few I would suggest keeping close at hand.

  • When to Eat: Rioja (and Spain in general) functions much in the same way as hobbit’s village. There are approximately 6 meals a day, or more, depending on what your objective is. As a basic guide, you can assume the following: 8am coffee, 10:30 coffee and croissant, 14:00 lunch; 16:00 coffee and a sweet; 21:00 dinner. If you arrive 15 minutes late to any of the meals, rest assured so is everyone else. However, as Rioja is more of a  rural area, be mindful that places may close much earlier than Barcelona or Madrid.
  • Be Assertive: Understand that assertiveness is the key to success in any restaurant, bar or cafe. Whether you need to order, grab a drink or simply pay your bill, don’t hesitate to make a bee line straight to the server; otherwise, you may be reaching retirement before your needs are met.
  • When in Doubt use Silverware: Though you will see many people use their fingers, they tend to be tourists. As a general rule of thumb, even if you’re enjoying a pa amb tomat, cut that bad boy with a fork and knife.
  • Dress Code: Here I am only referring to the restaurant scene, but just about anything goes. Would I suggest avoiding a t-shirt and shorts for a nice dinner, no, but you won’t get kicked out. Rioja is lovely in its informality, but try not to abuse its flexibility.

FESTIVALS: THE FESTIVITIES NOT TO BE MISSED!

wine battle haroSpain’s endless enthusiasm for festivals and gatherings means that there’s hardly ever a week in the year that doesn’t include at least one. Whilst the majority of the fiestas are either cultural or religious, there are also gastronomy and cattle-related fiestas, not to mention the most relevant, wine-related fiestas.

But as your time is limited, let’s highlight some of our personal favorites:

  • Festivals of Santo Domingo de la Calzada (10th to 15th May): Hundreds of years ago, King Alfonso X “the Wise” granted a royal privilege to the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, allowing it to celebrate an annual fair. What started as an agricultural and livestock event, has gradually become a unique and especially attractive traditional fiesta where you can find medieval crafts, gastronomy, music, dance, street theatre and shows.
  • Battle of the Wine in Haro (June 29): The Battle of the Wine is part of the Haro festival in honour of San Juan, San Felices and San Pedro. This wine battle has its origins in a territorial dispute between the towns of Miranda de Ebro, in Burgos, and the town of Haro in La Rioja for possession of the place called Riscos de Bilibio. Mass is held at the shrine of San Felices and this is followed by lunch. Once over, it is time for the Battle of the Wine to commence: participants throw thousands of litres of wine at each other, using all kinds of containers and tanks, until everyone’s clothes have been stained a crimson colour and the atmosphere is laden with wine.
  • Stilt Dancers of Anguiano (22 June and last Saturday in September): This stunning dance is performed on 45 cm high wooden stilts by eight young men from the village, dressed in colourful waistcoats and yellow skirts which has become an internationally renowned tradition. The stilt walkers hurtle down the steep slope from the church to the main village square where you can experience their full glory – however, we do not suggest you try this at home.
  • Rioja Grape Harvest (22 September):  It is held in Logroño during a week around the 21st of September. On the 21st, St Matthew’s Feast Day, a traditional act takes places in the Paseo del Espolón square, in which the first grape juice from the wine harvest is offered to the Virgen of Valvanera, the patron Saint of La Rioja. During this week of fiestas, the Logroño celebrations include a procession of floats, food and wine tasting organized by the “Peñas” or social clubs, bull fights, the St Matthew pelota contest at the Frontón court of Adarraga, concerts, theatre, street music, fireworks on the river Ebro River.

Mind you that all of these festivals have plenty of street food and wine or beer stands available; hence it’s worth the excuse to wander.

SIGHTSEEING: IN BETWEEN MEALS

Whether you’re drenched in wine from participating in a few fiestas, or fully satiated from a 6 course meal, make sure to take the opportunity to wander through the picturesque towns dotting Rioja.

  • Dinosaur Tracks: Over 120 million years ago, dinosaurs inhabited Rioja from which their fossilised footprints still remain among the rocks. If your passions dictate, you’re welcome to take a guided tour of the 40 tracks currently excavated throughout the La Rioja region. Quite the treat for the budding paleontologists among us.
  • Monasteries: For more than ten centuries, La Rioja has been home to many spiritual centers, of which many of which are a treasure to visit. Examples include the Monastery of Santa Maria de San Salvador which was started by the Cister order of nuns and dates to 1170. Beyond its remarkable architecture, the nuns have been in this monastery since its founding and are dedicated to prayer and manual work, such as making pastries and sweets, decorating porcelain, and making rosaries.
  • Museums: La Rioja boasts of dozens of museums including art, architectural and archaeological museums, but nothing quite compares to the Dinastia Vivanco Museum of the Culture of Wine. This 4000 m museum belonging to the Dinastia Vivanco Foundation and houses a wide range of wine archaeology, sculpture, painting, etc., giving us a universal vision of the relevance that wine has had in all civilisations throughout history.

ACCOMMODATION: BEDDING DOWN FOR THE NIGHT

Naturally, if you’re going to make a destination out of Rioja, it’s best to ensure your accommodations are topnotch as well.

  • Hotel Echaurren Ezcaray: Priding itself on its gastronomy, this centenary family establishment has passed from father to son – currently run by the 5th generation. You can find this Basque hotel, nestled in the historic center of the town of Ezcaray, opposite the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore (national monument).
  • Señorìo de BriñasIn Briñas, 3 km. from Haro, a 7th-8th century hotel exists where you will find peace, quite and history. During the Spanish Civil War, it was used as headquarters by the Italian troops. Today, it hosts a small hotel that still has the splendour of his past. Plunge into the harmony of its charming spaces, decorated with stone, terracotta floors, antiques, pottery, as well as a spa.
  • Marques de Riscal: Designed by the architect Frank O. Gehry, creator of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the hotel has spectacular views of vineyards over El Ciego. Complete with a spa, and a Michelin star restaurant, it’s a stunning hotel surrounded in vineyards.

TOURS: TOP FOOD AND WINE EXPERIENCES

As one of Spain’s most celebrated wine regions thankfully Rioja has a well developed gastro and eno-tourism industry. Here are some food and wine tours which we have hand selected for our readers:

  • Three Day Wine Tasting Tour of La Rioja: During this private food and wine immersion experience you’ll spend your nights in a beautiful modern hotel in a winemaking village and venture out by day to discover the best of the regions food and wine. You’ll visit some of Rioja’s famous design wineries, visit family-run vineyards, and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants to name but a few gourmet experiences. You’ll even get to go horseback riding!

Many more Rioja tours coming soon! In the meantime do follow our award-winning Spanish food and wine blog for the latest in news, views and stories from Iberia’s culinary world.