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Spain Trip report June 17-27 (long)

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Spain Trip report June 17-27 (long)

robeo | Sep 23, 2002 09:50 PM

Received a request to post this rather long(sorry!) account of this past summer's Spain trip with my brother (who is a frequent traveller to Spain and fortunately for us very fluent in Spanish) and a former colleague of mine from Intel days. It's part journal, part review of wines, restaurants, and lodgings. It may be of use for those planning trips in the Barcelona/Rioja/Ribera del Duero regions.

Hope you enjoy reading,
Rob
---

We arrived separately in Barcelona on Monday evening,
June 17. Our accommodations were at the Hotel
Urquinaona, located at Ronda de Sant Pere, 24
www.hotelurquinaona.com. It's a small, modern hotel
with all the basics covered - even a pc w/free
internet access on one floor. It's located very
close to the Pl. Catalunya and a reasonable walk to
the gothic quarter.

Tuesday June 18: Barcelona

After a walk to see sites in the gothic quarter, we
had lunch in the early afternoon at a tapas bar Cal
Pep (Pl de les Olles). The bar was completely full
but they let us sit down in the back room which has 6
or so tables. The chef/owner was present talking to
the many regular customers. We asked for a sampling
of house specialties and were brought out plates
including colorful, fingernail-sized clams, tiny
fried fish, fried artichokes, jamon serrano,
pimientos de padron (including the occasional very
hot ones), crayfish (requiring crafty knife and fork
skills to get the meat out of the tails), and
perfectly cooked savory potato and ham
tarte. Preparations were simple, the ingredients were
extremely fresh. Wines were house cava and house
white - both were straightforward, minerally, and
extremely dry. Though there were many of Spain's top
wines available from the list. A light dessert of
foamed lemon soufflé and crème catalan in shot
glasses was satisfying. Total came to about 30E per
person. I definitely recommend visiting.

Dinner that evening was at Ca l'Isidre (Les Flors 12)
www.isidre.mhp.es. This was a place my brother had
been impressed with on previous trips. It was a taxi
ride away from our hotel. The menu was very
traditional based on what's fresh at the market
picked out by the owner though some fancier
ingredients were incorporated - foie, truffles, cepes
etc. First courses we ordered were a smooth gazpacho
w/fruits del mar followed by raviolis stuffed w/foie
and truffles with a port sauce. The main courses
included a memorable "fillet of bull" (my joke of a
translation) which they informed us was unique since
the bull was from a bull fight - very lean but still
with great flavor, kind of reminding me of what I've
tried of grass fed beef currently trendy in CA. Other
entrees included a wonderfully tender baby goat
confit, and an plate of pig's feet with cepes and
truffles. The latter at Ca l'Isidre I think requires
an acquired taste for the gelatinous. The wines we
selected were a recent vintage of Onix 1163 from
Priorat and '97 Margues de Vargas Reserva from
Rioja. Both with substantial ripe fruit if slightly
on the volatile and the oaky side. The wine list had
excellent selections. The owner emphasized the value
wines but is also proud of his selection of rare
older vintage large format bottlings. For dessert, we
chose a house specialty served in an eggshell
consisting of a very smooth custard with a chocolate
sauce bottom layer where you eat the whole of it in
one spoonful. We finished with some Spanish brandy
and also got recommendations from the wait staff for
later on in the trip. Total came to about 100E per
person. Food enthusiasts will appreciate the fact
that the waiters and owner appreciate talking about
their wines/foods.

Wednesday June 19: Barcelona/Priorat

First bodega appointment at Costers del Siurana in
the town of Gratallops. Interesting driving into the
Priorat which gets pretty rugged. Soils have a
reddish color and somewhat reminded me of a mountain
terrain similar to Moab, Utah. Interesting to see
many hillside terraces overgrown and without any
vines, presumably abandoned when phylloxera came
through. At the smallish sized recently built bodega
we met the owner Carles Pastrana briefly and then
were lead on a tour by the winemaker of the cellar
followed by a tasting of current releases. They make
four premium wines - a dry white named
Kyrie(extremely limited in the US) - richly oaked and
somewhat Condrieu-like, dry reds L'Obac and Miserere
- good structure, dark fruits, noticeable heat,
reminding me of dry farmed old vine wines of CA, and
finally the Dolc L'Obac(extremely limited in the US)
a rich red dessert wine. Overall, I would say these
wines(starting at about ~$40/btl) are expensive for
what they are especially when in Spain. They also
make a second label red called Usatges which we had
during lunch at a small restaurant in Gratallops
called La Font with simple, traditional foods. The
second label was much more rustic and a bit austere.

After lunch, we returned to Barcelona to meet with
one of my brother's food suppliers (my brother has
worked at the gourmet deli Zingerman's in Ann Arbor,
MI as a meat/cheese buyer and is now at the Big Ten
Deli). The supplier's top recommendation for us was
to meet with Carlos Piernas, a former chef who now
produces specialty foods made to order through his
business named Carpier www.carpier.es. Currently the
production is at his house to the North of Barcelona
where we met him for a wonderful tasting
experience. His specialties included smoked fish and
meats, using customized smoking equipment he designed
himself for extremely subtle effect using small round
pine cone needles. He served us his smoked salmon in
generous sushi sized pieces (his preference rather
than thinly sliced) that had amazingly smooth texture
and pure salmon flavor. And there were many more
small dishes to taste such as smoked cod, sturgeon,
and very succulent octopus. Besides fish, there was
quail confit, foie terrine (he buys the foie from
France and makes the terrine on the premises), rabbit
terrine, select iberian jamon serrano, cured ox meat
(if I remember correctly from the Vega Sicilia
Estate), and lastly was fantastic premium grade
Beluga caviar from off the coast of Iran. Going back
to the salmon, he also does some interesting flavor
combos - the most unique being the smoked salmon
dusted with ground coffee beans where raw coffee
beans are also used during smoking. And though Carlos
has an interesting selection of small production
Spanish wines on his wine rack, he also has quite a
nice selection of perfectly matched French wines
(especially Bollinger and Trimbach) given to him by
the wineries in exchange for his products. We
consumed several bottles of Bollinger Champagne
(Special Cuvee and '95 Grand Annee) during the
tasting. We were impressed with the passion that
Carlos has for the quality of ingredients and the
special care he takes with his preparations. And it
will be interesting to follow his progress - he
showed us a picture of an impressive estate where he
will soon move to for future production.

Thursday June 20: National General Strike / Sant Celoni

With virtually nothing open due to the strike this
was a good day for a self-guided walking tour of
Modernist Architecture (I think it was described in a
Lonely Planet Guide). On a side note regarding the
strike, in Spain, squirrels are the symbol for those
ignoring the strike - so that is the explanation of
the otherwise perplexing stickers put up everywhere
of a crossed out squirrel silhouette. Fortunately we
did not need public transportation that day since it
was all shut down. More crucial for our plans that
night, and the cause of some anxiety, was whether we
could even get into the underground garage to get out
our rental car! Fortunately we found an open
entrance and were able to leave Barcelona for the
nearby small town Sant Celoni. Much less affected by
the strike. We had a reservation for dinner there at
El Raco de Can Fabes www.racocanfabes.com, one of
Catalunya's celebrated restaurants and also awarded a
Michelin 3 star rating. The Chef, Santi Sanatamaria,
is known for traditional Catalan cuisine as well as
more modern and inventive foods. He has three tasting
menus - "Commemorative" which is a selection of
classics listing the year they first appeared on the
menu; "Evolution" a selection of modern dishes; and
"Seduction" which is a mix of classic and
modern. Here's what was on the "Seduction" menu that
night (notes are a bit crude/approximate since the
courses were to be a surprize)...

1) amuse plate which had 5-6 separate small tapa-esque bites for each diner

2) salt cod w/creamed zucchini, topped with pine nuts and crisped bacon

3) oyster in shell

4) lobster claw on top of crab salad & couscous, with a lemon sauce

5) raw sardine with celery-turnip soup poured over the sardine at the table

6) frog legs over tomato confit surrounded by a buttery foam

7) grilled turbot, sea cucumber, fennel stalks, broccoli puree

8) roast suckling pig with candied dates

9) cheeses (these were at extra cost, a couple being French since they
explained the French cheeses were excellent at the time, Hmm? )

10) sorbets

11) raspberries and vanilla ice cream

12) plate full of petite fours

Wines included a '00 Paralais Xarel-lo from
Penedes(major Cava region). A dry, non-sparkling
white. It had spicy, herb notes, and subtle spearmint
and went wonderfully with the seafood courses. The
sommelier explained it is fermented in oak and then
aged in chestnut barrels and made in very small
production allocated to only a handful of restaurants
in Spain(el Bulli also gets some). This was
definitely my favorite white from the trip. The red
was a '95 Hacienda Monastario Special Reserva - rich,
ripe, smooth Ribera del Duero. Very nice pairing with
the turbot and suckling pig. Desserts were with a
glass of Chivite VT Muscat followed by a powerful '67
Gontier Calvados digestif. Overall, an extremely
memorable dinner - but I'm fairly certain it was a
slightly off experience due to the strike. There were
probably only 4 other occupied tables the entire
night. A couple of the evening's misses were our
waiter seemed to lack detailed knowledge of the
preparations and the desserts seemed uninspiring. On
the positive side, the flavors of each
course(whatever they exactly were) were extremely
refined and well executed. The Sommelier Angels Serra
provided excellent wine service. And the very elegant
antique country cottage style interior was very
tasteful. Cost was ~190E/person.

We stayed in Sant Celoni at The Hotel Suiss
conveniently located within walking distance from the
restaurant. The Hotel is in a more classic European
style building w/simple but comfortable rooms
www.hotelsuis.com.

Friday June 21: Rioja - Muga / El Racillo

Woke up early to drive to the Rioja for an
appointment at Muga. From Sant Celoni, after about
1hr of traffic around Barcelona we turned west to
drive at least 4hrs at up to 85mph in a squirrelly
european rental car to make the appointment. Not
recommended!!! But at least the drive was before any
wine tasting. Muga is a super classic style Spanish
bodega. Very large - they ferment in huge oak casks,
fine with egg whites, and make all barrels on the
premises, starting with aging the oak boards in the
open air. We tasted through their current release
lineup including dry white, dry rosé (great value),
Prado Enea, Reserva Especial, and Torre Muga. Prado
Enea is the classic style Rioja versus Torre Muga,
introduced by the new generation of the family in the
rich, heavily oaked, new world style. All widely
available in the Bay Area.

For two nights we stayed in the Casa Rural El Parque
in the town of El Racillo. The town was ~45min drive
outside Haro up in the mountains. The drive was not
unlike going up into the Northern CA Sierra Nevada's
but on perhaps a slightly smaller scale. If you want
to get away from civilization this is the place(seems
to be the way with all Casa Rurales). El Racillo is a
very small, old town with sounds of cow
bells(attached to cows) and views to the Pontono
(reservoir lake) below. We had dinner that night at
the only restaurant in the village, the Bar Cameros -
the food was plain and the older woman waiter
impatient but the wine list made up for it. We were
able to order a '78 Rioja Cune Imperial Reserva that
was quite impressive - brick color, lighter at the
edges, perfumey aroma, tobacco, dark fruit and a
little spicy for only 44E.

Saturday June 22: Rioja - Lagronio/Abalos

No bodega tours available for weekends. We drove into
medium sized city of Lagronio for lunch at one of the
restaurants highly approved of by previous waiters,
Asador Egues. The chef, Fermin Lasa, has a real
passion for quality ingredients, simple recipes, and
is a master of the grill. His a la brasa (charcoal
grill) specialties include Chuleta del buey (Ox Chop)
and pescados. And the specialty vegetable is large
white asparagus. The interior was very utilitarian
with a few celebration related photographs and a
memorable brick wall topped with arches. The kitchen
(butcher block, series of handmade grills, as well as
a griddle for a la plancha preparations) is partially
viewable from the dining room. Chops are cut when
ordered and hearing the loud chop followed by sizzle
from our seats in the dining room table definitely
heightened the anticipation. We ordered Chuleta,
perfectly grilled and probably the best meat of the
trip, monkfish presented with its tusk like bones,
and duck breast. The latter two were excellent but
the Chuleta was by far the favorite. Wine was a '93
Tondonia Reserva- a spicey, rustic style Rioja that
went wonderfully with the foods. There were also very
filling traditional house-made desserts - something
similiar to Tiramisu and a condensed milk
pudding. After our meal we talked to Fermin during
his break to learn a bit more about his cooking. One
detail probably hard to replicate back in the US
being that the charcoal is a specially selected oak
variety which produces acorns which Fermin asserted
are favored by Iberian pigs. Total came to $35E /
person.

The rest of the sunny and very warm afternoon was
spent back at the "beach" at the pontono. Definitely
nothing like the Mediterranean, but nonetheless
enjoyable.

That evening we drove to a new Casa Rural, Casa
Chicote, located among the vineyards of Rioja Alta in
the medieval town of Abalos. The proprietor was a
very animated older woman named Nieves. She was also
the bar keeper around the corner which seemed about
the only other public establishment of the town aside
from the Church. This was a quiet town having the
feeling not unlike a ghost town. Other inhabitants
kept to themselves with the exception of some kids
who requested we leave the church courtyard (putting
it nicely) where we were taking a couple pictures so
they could play soccer. Had to laugh at that.Anyway, the many old dwellings were impressive to
see, many marked by Noble family coat-of-arms carved
into the stone walls above doorways.

Dinner that night was a spontaneous choice in the
nearby town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada were there
is a cathedral which is on the El Camino de Santiago
pilgrims route. Food was straightfoward and most
memorable was trying the local morcilla (dried
blood/rice sausage). Wine was '97 Contino Reserva -
more classic, somewhat leathery.

Sunday June 23: Bilbao Day trip, Laguardia festival back in Rioja

Bilbao, the heart of the Basque region, was not much
more than an hour away from Rioja making a visit to
Guggenheim Museum an easy day trip. It was a nice
change of pace. There was an interesting, if large,
main exhibit to see on 8 decades of Paris art
movements. Development/renovation going on along the
river where the museum is located may improve the
destination further but just seeing the museum
structure itself made the trip worthwhile.

We returned to Rioja for dinner that night to the
town of Laguardia (near Abalos) which Nieves
mentioned was an old town where cars are prohibited
within city walls having a festival. They had a band
that night in the main plaza and there were lots of
people out in the narrow streets. We ate a touristy
restaurant, Mayor de Migualoa. Not
recommended. Over-priced for the very average quality
of food/service at 60E/person. Wines were '96 Baron
de Oña - a rich, ripe new world style and the much
more classic styled La Rioja Alta.

Monday June 24: Rioja - Fernando Remierez de Ganuza / Echaurren / Haro

After seeing the classic Rioja approach at Muga the
previous Friday, Remierez de Ganuza was quite a
contrast. The technique at this much smaller bodega
is way more modern with several innovative ideas
which Fernando developed himself. Perhaps the most
unique being the intense focus on grape selection -
only the top "shoulders" of whole clusters are used
for the Reserva wine. The resulting wine exudes
amazing temperanillo fruit purity. The "feet" of the
clusters are used for a second label sold only
domestically (an interesting an robust wine produced
by carbonic maceration fermentation). His Bodega is
immaculate and excellently blends the antique
features of the estate with the modern winemaking
facility.

Lunch was at the hotel restaurant of Echuarren in the
Rioja town of Ezcaray - one of the recommended
places. Here the menu changes daily and is based on
classic comfort foods of the region prepared by Chef
Marisa Sanchez. They had an excellent wine list. Wine
was a splurge on the '94 Marquez de Riscal Baron de
Chirel, supposedly one of Rioja's top reds but
slightly under whelming in terms of concentration and
complexity for the price around 60E. Would defintely
like to return to try dinner.

That evening we had another festival to check out,
this time in Haro. Again people were congregated in
plaza where a band was playing. This time we ate true
tapas style with a drink and a tapa selection at 5 or
6 different bars. Definitely fun and great
foods. Being Monday, this was just the beginning of
an entire week of festival activities which was to
conclude with the annual "Wine War" (?) with a
neighboring rival town according to posters in the
streets.

Tuesday June 25: Ribera del Duero - Alion Tour

Left Rioja and drove west for approximately 2hrs that
morning to get to the Ribera del Duero for a tour at
Alion. It is owned by Vega Sicilia but the
winemaking and vineyards are distinct. The new bodega
was under construction so the tour was on the brief
side and with the tasting room hadn't been completed
so there was no tasting! One thing definitely
noticeable in Ribera is the large number of wineries
under construction.

Then, a drive out into the country for the next Casa
Rural in the smallest town yet of Castillejo de
Robledo. It was in a flat plains enclave of the
Ribera del Duero. Dominating the town is the ruins of
a Templars Castle. Also interesting is a centuries
old church. Only problem here was that we didn't set
up dinner with the Casa in advance and we were the
only guests so they did not already have dinner
planned. Therefore we had a long drive to find the
only place open that night which ended up being a
hotel truck stop.

Wednesday June 26: Abadia Retuerta / Valladolid / Madrid

The final bodega tour was in Sardon del Duero, just
outside Ribera, at Abadia Retuerta with a
knowledgeable and very friendly publicity director,
Ruth. Originally, the wines were made in an historic
abbey on the property but now the winemaking has been
moved across the street into a newly built, large and
very custom designed facility. The high level of
automation to assist in the winemaking is certainly
unique (a product of having a pharmaceutical giant as
parent). For instance, vessels of must/juice can be
moved around by arms attached to ceiling mounted
conveyor belts to any fermentation tank such that no
pumping is ever required. And in the adjacent aging
cellar, the barrels are suspended in vertical
columns, 5 barrels tall, making racking possible out
the bottom of the barrel via a special custom valve
put into every barrel (again no pumping/syphon). When
a new barrel is put into place, it never needs to be
moved for the 3-5 years of life at the bodega! The
modernization also exists in the vineyards were they
have computerized weather station monitors gathering
data and frost windmills which are very unusual to
see in Spain. While this approach could be alarming
to traditionalists, the resulting wines are well made
and well priced. Most are widely available in the Bay
Area.

For lunch, we went to the nearby medium-sized city of
Vallodolid. Our original choice of Meson La Fragua
had closed and so we went the new restaurant which
had taken over La Fragua's space - La Corte. Sort of
contemporary cuisine and a nice wine list. We tried a
straight forward Rueda white followed by the '98
Alion. The Alion had a new world style of ripeness
with concentrated oakiness. The food was enjoyable
but the atmosphere was loud(both sonic and
visual). I'd look for something different on any
future visit.

We drove to Madrid that night where I would be
leaving from early the following morning to return to
CA. Since we were staying with my brother's in-laws
that night we had an informal meal at their
apartment. Then we went out for one last night with
a family friend who appreciates the nightlife. The
cool thing about Madrid similar to all great large
cities is the endless variety. A few bars worth
mentioning - Los Gabrieles, consisting of several
parlor sized several rooms to walk through each with
murals depicted in exquisite hand painted tiles (it
does attract tourists), nearby Cardamomo, a smokey
and packed flamenco dive bar with an intimate close
up access to musicians, and finally a taxi ride away
to a seamier side street to a place you would never
notice unless you knew it was there called the Berlin
Caberet. This was a really different kind of bar
where they feature assorted 'actualizaciones' on a
small stage which rises up from beneath the floor
when the act begins. That night's performance turned
out to be a knife thrower(real knives!) Hard to
describe seeing this - I leave it up to your
imagination.

The End!

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