Rioja: First day in Labastida

So we picked up Carlos in Haro, home to Lopez de Heredia, one of the oldest Rioja Alta bodegas and a MAS favorite, and then sprinted to LaBastida to a very excellent Asador Lopez de Aguileta, where we were the guests of honor along with Rodrigo, Carlos and their friend. We were the sole occupants at 3.30 in the afternoon, when everyone else is at rest/siesta. We would later learn, somewhat imperfectly, to time our activities accordingly because everyone observes the siesta in Spain, and frankly, an afternoon nap is a marvelous thing.

The interior of an Asador is usually simple, a wood grill, an oven for baby lambs and suckling pigs, sometimes brick and wood-fired, and a deep-fryer for all the fried calamares, sweetbreads, pig’s ears and other delights after a day or night or both of tasting reds. Big, wooden tables, perfect for large platters and family-style raciones and offerings. Our task, it would seem, was to sit down, and start consuming some of these amazing foods that were prepared at the moment of our arrival. After our prior culinary experiences thus far I regaled to Francisco Astudillo, our man at Elite Wines, he told us “you haven’t seen anything yet”, to which I replied ‘bring it”. Carlos adds “you only think you’ve been eating so far, now the real food begins”. I am up for this challenge; I’ve been training my whole life for this. Well, actually just since this morning but I’m really hungry after the Murrieta tasting.

Simple lesson on peppers, there are many here and they are as big a part of life here as chilis are in New Mexico. Lines of drying chili peppers adorn many a door frame, grocery and mercato, they are ground to powder, stuffed with fillings, pureed into sauces and just eaten grilled, raw or poached in olive oil. Our menu that day consisted of Piquillo peppers, red and green, they are big here and often stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs, Jamón, sometimes all of the above then battered and fried. There is also what I like to call an ‘angry pepper’, the aptly-named ‘Allegria’ which means joy but actually is a notch above a jalapeño, around Serrano chili heat. Stuffed and served w/ pig ears they are sublime. Sweetbreads, a favorite of MAS, are served in breadcrumbs then lightly-fried like shrimp, though you’ll never see these at Red Lobster I assure you. Salads are given a perfunctory role of roughage or fiber carrier, not the exquisite baby greens or micro sprouts we’ve come to expect for dinner these days simply romaine, tomatoes and raw onions, olive oil, red wine vinegar. There’s a saying “where’s there’s good wine there’s good vinegar”. There is bread everywhere for everything as a platform for holding a slice of meat, Jamón or excellent chorizo, or for sopping up sofrito and sauces. And calamares, oh what delicious calamares! All this gets washed down with wines from La Tierra, Bodegas Exeo and Agricola Labastida. These are the labels Carlos and his family are responsible for and they are, from the simple La Tierra Tempranillo, to the more complex aromatic garnacha of Cifras, then dense, herbal, smoky Letras and later the impossibly rich, chocolaty Belisario, beautiful hand-made wines created for foods.

So after devouring, drinking, laughing, mostly about my appetite, we get to the real deal, the lynchpin of the service, the Chuletón, a man-sized rib steak cut from a rib loin of a 4-5 year-old dairy cow who has simply been eating grass and forage for years now. Taken out of milk production their meat becomes the darkly-marbled wonder of protein and oleic acids, mineral-laden from grasses and herbs, tender and yielding from a life well-lived. Grilled on a wood-coal fire, then sliced very rare like our own carne asada, it is served on a cast-iron or stone platter that has been heated to sear the meat placed upon it with a handful of rocky sea salt. As the meat sizzles and cooks in front of you, you feel like Beowulf, or Conan, El Cid, Charlemagne, Achilles, axe or sword ready to fall into this perfect slab of beef or buey. And we do, with fervor, washing it all down with an excellent Bellasario ’04 Tempranillo, big, garnet gulps of glycerin-coated tannic tonic of the gods. It is good to be alive and in Rioja Alevesa. It it’s only our first day!



Rioja Parte 1 – What’s old is new again

(First, an advisory: this is part one of a two part installment for Rioja. we will publish more tasting notes and photos at a later time in an attempt to make these posts as timely and readable as possible)

We came to Rioja with a hunger and a big thirst for the cave and barrel-aged reds that they were so famous for and full of juicy, plump ripe fruit aromas, spicy, garnet-colored, mineral-laden reds with the character of this rugged land of wind, river, rock and stone. We were not disappointed, and in fact were surprised by the quality and tastes of the new projects including white wines being made now, and the meticulous but draining process of making such high-quality wines. Our hosts for this stage were a study in contrasts between the grapes and wines of Rioja Alta with all their Bordeaux influences, and those of Rioja Alavesa, the wines of the people who have lived there for centuries. Please be advised that the settings in which these wines are made are as compelling, and striking as the wines themselves, and the photographs confirm this.  Our God’s-eye views were of jagged, stony promontories overlooking canyon-cut rivers, the Rio Ebro, lifeblood of this region, that extends all the way to the Mediterranean, with smoky mountains in the distance and sweeping hills and slopes carpeted in green-leafed young 35 to old 75 years old, to very old 100 year-old vines. The vines, twisted, desiccated and gnarled from weather, drought, manipulation, pruning,  stand as silent sentinels in these quiet, somber landscapes. Yet there is still life in them, precious, unyielding energy wrought from the parched soils, deep water table and arid winds. They are cloned, wisely, to perpetuate the precious lineage, and their children and offspring are nurtured, pampered, and preened in the hopes they too have long, fruitful lives. I guess that’s where that saying comes from?

An old house in renovation, the estate and Castillo of the Marques de Murrieta w/ the Castillo Y’gay, is a fabulous property just above Logroño city.  Logroño is the actual governmental seat for La Rioja, and is surrounded by smaller towns and villages famous in their own right like Haro, Laguardia, and Labastida.  Murrieta is now under renovation to its former glory days as a premier purveyor of old-style, barrel-fermented and cave-aged reds,  and now whites. Founded in 1852 by Luciano Murrieta, he is considered to have been the father of modern Rioja winemaking, and, after some time in France’s winemaking regions, was inspired to use oak barrels and aging in the Bordeaux style for his Spanish grapes in some 300+ hectares. This house’s wines are the personification of  suavity and elegance, perhaps inferred in its historical approach to winemaking, albeit in a modern facility now. As far as the eye can see are gently rolling fields of vines, and several plateau of special vines above the main property. As with all things material it’s location, location, location.

Afterwards we were to head to LaBastida and the house of Fernandez-Gomez, Agricola Labastida, La Tierra, and several other labels. Our host was Carlos Gomez, a cross between Tom Joad, Jack Nicholson and Ken Kesey. His heart and soul, and those of his brothers and family members were big enough to embrace us as family members and guests, ensconcing us in luxurious apartments once used by Napoleon and his mistress. Well, that’s what they told me. If you do take a wine holiday in La Rioja by all means look up Larrazuria Enea for accommodations, they are exquisite.

This bodega too is an old house but of a different kind, that is, a small, family-run business four generations-old, but attached to winemaking for centuries. Their ties to this land, this soil, these vines run deeper than their larger counterparts. Their vineyards occupy only 30 hectares facing the slopes of Tolono mountain but produces mineral-rich, well-integrated reds and whites that are expressive of this rugged, ancient landscape. This is the wine to have with fried sweetbreads, giant rib steaks and baby goats, which we did! Their Bogeda is located in a summit-like promontory atop caves from the 15thsieglo, in what was once the old Jewish quarter, in a complex of four old buildings.

Labastida, is a medieval town that overlooks the Ebro River, with Pais Vasco on one side, and the mountains of Navarra on the other. It occupies a strategic position too in that it receives a cooling breeze, a special geographical dispensation from the North Atlantic currents that cools its grapes at night helping slow their maturation and ripening. As with real estate of all kinds, it’s location, location, location. This is what all winemakers’ desire, an ability to hedge against over-ripeness and declining acidity by allowing grapes to bake in the sun all day and take a cool shower at night.

This is not a place of modern industry save for the numerous stainless-steel fermentation tanks dotting the landscape at various bodegas, and the occasional tractor. Adobe and soft golden stone, fieldstone rubble walls and cobbles dominate the texture of this village; yes this is truly a village. From the right perch you can survey everything, smell fresh bread baking, hear the conversations of children playing, and even catch the cockledoodledoos in the early morning from the beta alarm known as rooster. There are also church bells, every half an hour. My cricket alarm on the iphone is not out of place here.

But lest you get the idea we are in a time-warp of thatched roofs and cow manure in the streets, let me allay your fears by saying this is where some of the keenest wine minds in Spain reside, men, and women who wring out precious juices from vines made to “suffer” and turn them into miracles of beauty, clarity and expression. The clarity and strength of vision is strong here, the ideas and craft relentlessly reinforcing the practices of past generations.

It is nice and humbling to be a liminal figure here, dwarfed at last by the immensity of the landscape,  with so much strength and purpose surrounding me. The teams here are highly motivated, collaborative workshops.

In Logroño, long the center of the Rioja universe, we encounter a small urban core, and bustling activity of harvest time. Much of what we see in is the activities of the entire region; that is to say the harvesting of grapes, to and from vineyards and fields laden with dark clusters, gangs of workers picking, gathering, dumping grapes onto trailers in somewhat poor practices by our standards and those of our hosts. We see this by mostly the big houses, or mediocre winemakers who harvest earlier than the smaller producers we’ll be visiting. On our way we traverse acres and acres of vines in fields – not since Ribera del Duero have we seen so many vines. After the scant 400 hectares that comprise the entire GetariaTxakoli DO, one of these fields can exceed that with triple the yield.

The vines are mostly Tempranillo, the main grape of the region, a hearty native with tremendous flexibility and versatility. Other varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano,  Malvasia, and Viura the main grape of white wines here. Of course the skill of the winemaker is first and foremost when creating a successful vintage. So much is said of the region’s wines, but some of its success is due to the diligent inspection, testing and tasting of grapes and wines throughout the process of winemaking. The DOC of La Rioja has the strictest rules and regulations being one of the two DOCA’s in all of Spain, a ‘super’ designation equaled only by Priorato. This is to ensure quality and economic prosperity, but as we witnessed, can also pit small vineyards against huge, conglomerate-owned wineries not concerned with the laborious and traditional methods, culture and traditions of winemaking. They might see old, low-volume 100 year-old vines like old workers, old and in the way, ripping them out for new clones eager to produce lower-quality but higher volumes, but that is rare. The interface can be onerous at best and crippling at worst as small vineyards struggle to stay viable and expand or improve their cradle to market positions. Often the politics of water predominate as drought is a recurring phenomenon.

None of this was on our minds as we entered Marques de Murrieta’s Castillo, a reconstruction of the original 19thsieglo Castillo. Tawny ocher, the dun, drab green of the olive and oak trees, rubble and adobe walls seemed to emerge from the soil seamlessly like brows or the ribs of a boat, the streaky, crumbly, rocky arcielo clay soils gave everything a Western movie tint.  John Ford would have loved this as a set location.  Workers were busy setting stone paths, finishing wall treatments of the main production building, a long, basilica-like body containing the actual fermentation tanks, offices, and receiving docks. The smell of fermenting grapes was everywhere. The religious analogy is apt as the workers here are as fervent as monks and in fact the first winemakers were monks. Hallelujah! This visit during harvest would not be conducted by the winemaker, but two of the professional staff.

We were greeted by the lovely and charming Miryyam Ochoa and her vivacious assistant Alejandra Revuelta. Their gracious offer for an appointment was greatly anticipated as we had only just begun to sell their superb wines at MAS. Any insights would be appreciated. Their sister vineyard in Galicia, Pazo de Barrantes, was a wonderful visit so we were keen to view this masterpiece-in-the-making. The reputation of the house was legendary and we were eager to taste the fragrant, polished, deep, umber wine. Today was shaping up very nicely. Alejandra was tasked with giving us a tour of the vineyards which swept out before us as far as the eye could see several hundred hectares, then climbed above the Castillo to the heights above Logrono itself, a lovely, windswept plain named ‘ La Plana’, from which their most-prized grapes were grown to make their Gran Reserva.

An interesting dynamic for me was that this house was predominately run by female winemakers and staff, an increasing demographic reality in what was once an entirely male-dominated field. The quality and keen professionalism was evident from our first step on their immaculately tended properties, winemaking facilities and taste of the finished products. When I asked a fellow-Rioja winemaker if this was a trend or an enigma he told me bluntly that women have a more keen sense of smell and thus taste, and that for many houses succession is a family thing, and if there are no sons then daughters must step forward to inherit the business. Whatever the reason for promoting women in this field, one could not argue with the results.

Alejandra has a passionate, dreamy, poetic character. Her manner of describing the history of this place, its collaborators, genesis, and current path, (because what is a wine if not a glassful of history and time,) is both breathlessly professed and very astutely and critically observed.  She is from here, part Spanish part Italian and like so many before her, the wine is part of her life too. We should not be surprised by her profound and passionately expressed appreciation of its importance and the importance of this estate. Let it never be said that any of the viniviticultors or their staff ever departed from their admiration of their respective estates and wines. These people love their jobs! I must admit I was somewhat moonstruck over this angel of the vineyards.

But let me get back to the place. I was impressed by the immense investment of time and money reflected in these new facilities and restoration of the old Castillo for sole the purpose of historical elaboration, a re-telling of the Marques de Murrieta’s story, and entertainment events. The placement of the ancient oak barrels, 10,000 L in size, the old pressing room, the ancient contraptions used for harvesting, photos, room after impressive room lit dramatically, it was a bit overwhelming after the small viñeros we had been visiting, but worthy of our admiration because their approach was the same; uncompromising quality to produce unique and exquisite, well-integrated wines expressive of the grapes these soils produced. And now we taste!

The new Marques de Murrieta, Vincente  Dalmau Cebrian-Sagarriga, the Count of Creixell, a raffish, ruggedly handsome young man, has seen fit to embark on this mission of restoration and advancement into the future of Rioja, and Galician wines. We applaud his bravado, marketing style, penchant for at-play photos, and sense of adventure, for this business is not for the faint of heart. Our tasting, flawlessly prepared by Alejandra was simply four wines:

Their landmark white ‘Capellania’ 06,

Flagship Reserva ‘Marques de Murrieta’ ‘05,

The Gran Reserva ‘CastilloY’gay’ 04,

And last the new ‘Dalmau’ 05.

The care and precision is evident in our first swirl of Reserva, like the other wines, hand-picked and meticulously pressed to impart maximum aromatic, phenolic  and fragrant qualities, all these wines had superb, silky-soft acidic character, plump with red berry fruits and long, soft finishes.

The aromatic character of the Capellania was especially unique, 100% Viura, it receives over a year in oak giving it a soft, smoky quality perfect for some of MAS’ hot-smoked tomatoes or wild salmon rilette, fois gras or boquerones if you like. ‘It is a white wine with the spirit of a red’ Alejandra reminded us. These wines are all exquisite and we are proud to serve them at MAS. Many thanks to Rolland and the Marques Maison and Domaines staff for making this happen. My fave is still the Gran Reserva with the new-style Dalmau second. Alas we had to cut our visit with the angels short due to navigational snafus which made us much later than we planned. Sometimes GPS and satellites are no match for two bungling walking apes in an Audi. As it stood we had an angry cook, three angry winemakers and a whole lot of food waiting for us in Labastida down the road. We made our goodbyes, but I think i could have stayed there at Murrieta forever. Alas, the journey must go on. Adiós las Señoritas de Murrieta, Adelante La Tierra!

Hondarribia: Hotel Jaizkibel

Pintxos in San Sebastian

If you want to do tapas in Spain, you have to visit San Sebastian. This Basque city on the Bay of Biscay has made the tapeo tradition its own with hundreds of tapas bars lining the streets and inviting passers by to come in with their open doors and abundant displays of tapas on bar tops. Except here it is called Pintxos or Monteditos, both variations of open-faced snacks of bread slices overlapped with sumptuous ingredients. I suspect this was started to upstage the next bar as they are stacked pretty tight here.

No worries, the options are virtually endless, which poses no problem for us, even though we only have one meal in San Sebastian we want to experience as many different options as possible. Eating and drinking many different options is the call of the night as each bar features their specialitiy, mushrooms, sardinas, steaks, shrimp, snails, etc. No shrinking violets permitted on this tour.

We start off slow, visiting a handful of places and having a glass of txakoli or a beer here and there, a tortilla, some croquettes, maybe some jamon. Juan is strating to whine that he’s had enough but i know better – he may be saving his appetite for his favorite spot, Taberna Gandarias, but this timid old lady-like conservatism is not meant for San Seb with its profusion of bars, marisquerias, pasticerrias, and well, bars! We are a bit out of sync with the crowds so not much competition for seats but selection is overwhelming – how many different preparations of gambas? anchovies? bacalao? merluza? jamon iberico? hongos or setas they call them here? i am game to find out and we hit seven or eight bars before arriving at the steps of the old Barrio by the Cathedral. This is the nexus of the old section of town where i think the pintxos had their start because it is by the fishing wharves and boats as they would arrive, bar owners would compete for the freshest cod, snail, anchovies and crabs. It is a menagerie of food, people, sights, smells, and the sounds of people living. Men in social clubs devoted to eating, smoking and arguing, people eating on the barrel heads outside of Tabernas, lovers embracing on the oceanfront, San Seb has it all. a bartender tries to coax me out of my beloved Otterbox for my iphone – “do you have an iphone” i ask, “no but i like the cover”. we are unable to come to a deal, one of his antique bullfighting posters for one Otterbox.

This place rocks! They have definitely keep the soul of tapas intact while elevating the food to another level, they use fresh market products on a daily basis and asking “what’s good today” is a great idea. Our bartender at Bar Gandarias, Juan’s fave,, Fer, recommended some goat-cheese stuffed and fried piquillo peppers, bacon-wrapped goat cheese,  from the plancha shrimp, padron peppers, snails in brown vinegar sauce, and grilled wild Porcini or Boletes mushrooms, and finally a chuleton cut from a massive rib loin, about a kilogram of rare, tender aged beef from a pastured dairy cow. marvelous.

They also have a tap system for wines, a cruvenet, which allows them to serve great wines by the glass under a gas-charging system, including Vega Sicilia Valbueno 2005, which we savoured every magnificent drop.

The Rain In Spain . . .

. . . is not mainly on the plain or anywhere else for that matter. we’re in a 5 month drought here and in every region we visited, and temps are still in the upper 70’s and 80’s. the Mediterranean beaches are full of scantily clad revelers, bars and taperias bristling with cold-frosty canas, zurritos, & caras of cerveza, cava, and gin-tonics. In Gracia, where we are staying this month, a favorite haunt of ours to beat the heat in the afternoon is Elephanta, a hole-in-the-wall bar specializing in gin-tonics, which Spain takes very seriously as we have learned. This drink occupies a niche here not unlike margaritas do in America – whether it is the ritual for stripping oils with tongs from citrus peels, using the bar spoon to direct a column of tonic deep into the goblet/chalice/fishbowl, the very selection of your tonic (six or seven types)placing rose petals on top, or shaving a fragrant, dried bean related to favas into the emulsion, it is refreshing and delicious. and powerfully intoxicating.

Also i have noticed there’s a tendency to lump together ethnic restos on one street, and so near us is a street full of Portuguese, another with Mexican, another Italian, another Ethiopian and African. It’s all good and one Mexican taperia had some delicious Maguey seleciones and decent guacamole.

Recently with our free time, we have combed the best tapas bars so far and here’s our faves. they all have open kitchens so you can watch the action too! In the Eixample are two. First, Tapas 24, much like MAS in intensity, staff, tee-shirts and service, a free-wheeling never-stops till closed kind of place with lots of yummy dishes out of the deep fryer as well as our favorite bikini, or grilled cheese sammie.

then there’s Paco Meralgo, the punnish-named posh taperia with soft cushiony stools for big-bottomed lads like me, a very seafood-intensive menu with extras like sweetbreads and carpaccio, or beef tenderloin ‘dedos’ or fingers roasted in garlic, olive oil and chilis. scrumptious!

the old standard of course is CalPep, a very seafood-centric bar/restaurant near the waterfront with 6 or seven different clam dishes, almost as many calamare, little fried fishies or sonsos, and some yummy bean and seafood or butifarra sausage dishes as well. whole fish like Rape or angler are also roasted for you. All have fun, friendly, attractive staffs that make good suggestions and you should always listen.

More standard restaurants two favorites emerge, Taberna El Glop, our neighborhood family-style sit-down resto with tables packed back to back, parties enjoying rabbit and snail paella (it was yummy), giant Chuleton rib chops off the wood grill, with good wine selections and of course, tomato bread. Then there was Gresca, a newer project in the Eixample also featuring beautifully composed seafood and meat dishes from Chef Raffa with subtle, elegant infused sauces, reductions and glazes. we had a superb bottle of Godello from Valderroas here.

For me there are lots of good ideas,  but also a strong feeling of what we do right at MAS. of course it all starts with the best ingredients, a point every chef, winemaker and bartender i speak to agrees on. we’ll be posting on the Boqueria soon so you’ll understand how high the quality of materials is here. then staff is so important – from the hustle and energy, informative suggestions, and friendly assistance, to the anticipation of needs, past preferences, they can make or break the evening no matter how simple. the food still is the lever that moves the  world and good, quick chefs and line cooks are invaluable. of course the customer is so important because the patience, anticipation, feedback and enjoyment outcomes all feed the staff and chefs and suppliers, and we couldn’t do it without you.

forgive our punch-drunk posting style but wifi is scarce, internet slower than xmas, and we never know when it’s gonna work for us. a small trade-off. my walking is getting better but last night we walked for about 40 minutes before we got to our destination. they’re riding me hard and putting me away wet here! upcoming events include a Barca match, a visit to the Can Feixes vineyard with the Huguet Brothers, a trip to the chocolate museum, and more fabulous photos. ‘sta’lo – tomas

Getaria: land of Txakoli

Txakoli or txakolina is a unique white wine made from two very distinct native grapes native to the Pais Vasco, Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza. We are happy to be in the land responsible for this wine, which has made many appearances in post-shift staff meals.

We follow a curvy road by the sea, which eventually starts climbing a rocky mountain. We are treated with amazing views on top, for Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grow on cliff-like vineyards facing the sea. We are visiting Ernesto Chueca, who owns Txomin Etxaniz: the vineyard that produces the white txakoli that can be found at MAS. He has taken the time to walk us around even though he’s finishing up harvest.

Mr. Chuecas pointed out that harvest usually happen in the beginning of October, but had to be pushed forward because of heat. The last grapes were harvested this morning and are being brought in in plastic crates, ready to be juiced.

The entire Txakoli DO is 400 hectares, which is tiny in comparison to other wine regions we’ve visited. Txomin Etxaniz is 40 hectares, making it the largest vineyard producing Txakoli. Even so, Mr. Chuecas told us that he has run out of 2010 txakoli to sell, and that the 2011 vintage won’t be ready til December – so we’re very lucky to have gotten our hands on some and will hopefully make it through the year (or the staff might throw a fit given that they love it so much!)

Just as other producers we have met, Mr. Chuecas keeps the production of his delicious wine, but always saves grapes for “experiments”, which he keeps in smaller tanks. We’ve been impressed by how many wine makers are always striving to innovate and experiment… a spirit that we greatly appreciate.

At the end of the tour, we drank a bottle of Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli and ate some delicious home-made, olive oil and garlic marinated, salt-packed anchovies and Cantabrian bonita belly or ventresca with Mr. Chuecas. These are staples of the region (and MAS)and consumed with almost every meal. He said that his wine paired great with these traditional Basque foods, and we have to agree!

Mr. Chuecas said that he might be sending some visitors to MAS in October: two of his nephews that will be in the US for the Basque Food Show in New York. We would love to have these guys over and return the amazing hospitality.

We’ll be in San Sebastian later. As they say in Basque, “Aur!!”

Mugaritz is Muga-Ritzy

so at the beginning was this challenge, every DO in our path and dinner at three-starred restaurants. it has been a furious race to make our rounds of appointments but we had been able to secure a reservation with Mugaritz in San Sebastian for the 28th of September. Celler de Can Roca and Tckts would have to wait as we are still wait-listed.

Whenever you can get into a place like Mugaritz it is special because you are watching, participating, sharing with an elite team of dreamers, artists, craftspeople, and concilliators. It is not always what it seems which is why you are first told to be patient, to the point of breaking, then you are asked to let go and enjoy, free your mind and your ass will follow. this is all done on two simple greeting cards when you arrive, and what an arrival. this place is quite remotely placed, so much so that when we were guided mischievously by the GPS/SkyNet drone down the “calle de miseria” and are almost lost to a culvert on an unlit country lane, we almost thought this was part of the initiation, until we figured out that we were just lost.

arriving finally you circle round the premises of a hilltop-lair, well-lit and calmly sedate in the still night, cicadas optional. from the approach the atelier/charette/kitchen is visible as a flurry of white smocked workers, oompah-loompahs all in synchrony with spectacled leaders drawing, arranging and annotating a large white rub-off board full of cards and tickets. this disolves away in the luxe setting of the dining room where we are immediately under the charm of the head waiter and his staff all in black.

After being sat and poured glasses of Opus Evolution cava, we were asked to follow the head waited to the kitchen, where we were greeted by Executive Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. There must have been 50 people working meticulously on dishes and, as we found out, this is one of four kitchens at the restaurant.

We were told that at Mugaritz they would seek to give us an experience, a reaction… that we might not love all of the dishes, but that even if we hated some they would have accomplished their goal of causing a strong reaction.

Back at the table, we ordered a bottle of Clos Mogador which was an amazing and complex pairing for our meal.

Here’s what we ate:

  • Toasted legume beer, olives, beans and thyme as a tapa.
  • Starch and sugar crystal spotted with pepper praline and corals.
  • Fragrant fruit in a paper wrap.
  • Shrimp in a wheat crust.
  • Crunchy sauce with peppers.
  • Hazelnut and bean stew.
  • Fresh herbs. Mortar soup made with spices, seeds and fish broth.
  • Cured cheese in its own rind, mushrooms and coastal herbs.
  • Pork noodles with “arraitxiki” extract and toasted rice.
  • Silky bread stew, infused with pink geranium leaves covered with crabmeat.
  • Portion of hake and milky reduction of stewed turnip sprouts. Citric cream and salt grains.
  • Bonito belly grilled on its own skin. Baby green peppers and almond paste.
  • Textures of coastal fish.
  • Piece of beef, grilled steak emulsion and salt crystals.
  • Grilled lamb crust with broken sunflower and sesame seeds. Grated carob tree pods.
  • Iberian pig tails and the reduction of its own juice. Crispy sweet millet leaves.
  • Artichoke and sweetbread ragout, creamy kuzu bread.
  • Vanilla fern.
  • Sweet grain biscuit with anise and flowers.
  • Broken walnutsm toasted and salted, cool milk cream and Armagnac jelly.
  • A crisp of flax seed and whiskey parfait.
We didn’t want to take pictures of our dishes because we didn’t find it appropriate, we also agreed that this is a meal that needs to be experienced in person and not necessarily through pictures. Each dish was surprising in its own way and evoked a memory or a feeling.
Big thanks to the staff for all the work and the amazing meal.

Walking, Eating, Drinking and Driving: the Art of Barcelona

wherever you need to go here there’s a taxi, a bus, a train, or escalator to whizz you there but where’s the fun? i love the huff-a-puff along the neck-bending torsion of building top surveys, balcony comparisons, out-stretched arms in gigantic doorway poses awaits the saavy walker. the forest here has such an interesting strata of visual, textural, sonic and sensory information for the patient loper. slowpokes like myself enjoy a quick cana or cara of icy beer, then get lost on a block, then back to main drag, pause button again, duck in for bocarones, back onto treadmill, you get the picture. fuel low, cortadito time.

i do love the subways for great distances tho, clean, quick, frequent and always cooler than the other side of the pillow, and that blast when you walk out into the street, plush baby! Taxis are fun too and cheap you might need to help w/ directions but they’re mostly professional and have many more vowels in their names than NYC cabbies so you can remember them. when it all becomes too much or you really want to pause there are poche or pocket parks everywhere, benches, edicules, knee-walls, porticos, and other social-gathering devices for holding time if but for a moment, a still-shot for your scrapbook, lieux de memoire, recuerdos, these serve as a viewfinder for your place in the day. and so it is that with a little vermouth, a slow-exposure of vin tinto, low-light full-aperture feeling, take a deep breath and relax in Barcelona today.


So we keep the doggies rolling along into Cantabria where we have heard
about another little village Santillana del Mar, where cider too is king and the seaside views stunning. We have found another gem of a country inn at the Casa del Marques, rough stone walls, old oil paintings, tapestries, soft carpets, manicured garden of Almond tree, wisterias, grapevines and crunchy pea gravel, my favorite. I’ve been craving some Vermu, or dark, sweet vermouth w/ soda, Juan a Hendricks and tonic, always served, it seems in Spain, in a 24oz stemmed goblet! and so we cool off in the garden before venturing out for tapas just across the cobbled street. No matter where you go in Spain there are bars with informal spreads not reductions of fancy-food plates onto smaller plates, real finger food like morcilla sausage with piquillo peppers, tortilla espanola with wild mushrooms, anchovies on a skewer with guindilla peppers and green olives, a plate of salt-cured jamon, some local cheese with home-made membrillo. these are the true tapas and the well from which MAS springs. And not surprisingly we find almost exactly these things in a little spot filled with locals. Here you can usually help yourself then all is added up afterwards. We also had our second serving of callos or tripe in as many days served with the hearty Habas beans, a little pimento and chorizo. Food is simple and not overwhelming, or overly complex with an explanation of intentions.

A tour of the beaches revealed pristine coves, mocha colored sands and impossible cliff-side house, tender-shelters, goat herder huts, all clinging to the rock walls over crashing surges and swirling gulls. The waters are rich here but of late have been plundered the Spanish say by the French, the EU say the Spanish, either way, they are too important to allow them to be damaged by poor controls and I hope they figure it out. Anchovies alone fuel most of the world’s fish stocks and drive the salmon, sardine, and tuna markets. It would be disastrous to lose it. The serenity of this sparsely populated coastline is fantastic although in summer’s heat I’m sure it is packed with people from the cities on holiday. It’s now time to think about Pais Vasco, San Sebastian, Getaria and the inland valleys where sidra or cider too is king, Txakoli, the tart almost effervescent white wine its queen.

Tapas Reset

This journey is not about hitting guidebook hot-spots or bragging rights to travel nirvana. I am not concerned about whether i was seen at the market in the morning eating truffles or out at night at a crazy club. This journey is about resetting our clock back to the beginning as a way of re-emphasizing what is important in this world, not just Spain. This should not viewed as a romantic view of the world although many story-book settings exist here in Spain, too many to document.
As we have seen recently, caring people are in the streets, on their scooters, postering, sitting, peacefully protesting in the face of fascism, they’re online on their computers, organizing, and asking and demanding answers for life-changing issues. This journey is part of an ongoing search in the archaeology of the heart of our people, culture, and world. We resist the tariffs for non-conformity by the powers that be and demand that none of us be punished for seeking basic living standards, education, healthcare, security of our homes. What i have seen this journey are families struggling in the face of drought, uncertain economic times, hoping to survive the cruel calculus of government policies which reward waste and mediocrity and punish innovation, frugality, sustainability excellence and tradition.
By contrast this journey seems almost devil-may-care. but there’s a difference. A continuing force that drove me to take this and other trips to Spain is the hunger – the hunger for good food, new ideas, new sources, new producers and contacts, and new experiences with real people, not sales reps with samples from factory Solyent Green facilities and stockyards, delivered on tractor trailers, wrapped in plastic and on palettes. For every place we have met many people open to our plan and happy to assist us in enjoying and unlocking the beauty of the Spanish pantry. From Mamma Gomez’ stuffed piquillos and fried pig ears for our morning-after sluggishness, to the incredible visit to an apple cider maker’s house and dinner after, people have opened their hearts, homes, bodegas to us and we are humbly grateful. Amidst the nightlife and lights of Barcelona nothing shines brighter than the crescent moon over fields of vines on a chilly night in La Rioja, or the misty mountains out our windows in Asturias.
We want you, our friends to understand and learn alongside us, why the work is so important for the winemakers and their families, why the jamon producers takes such care and are so selective, why cheesemakers hand-select the sheep or cows or goats their cheeses are made with, and why these small plots of land, or hand-hewn caves and cellars passed down from generation to generation mean so much to those still using them, why the precioso character, quality and traditions must be preserved in the face of incredible economic and social pressures to change. Modern vineyards rip out old, 100 year-old vines because they produce less, small producers like Epifanio Rivera or Pasenau or Agricola Labastida save them, cherish them for their small but most precioso wines. Coastal developers prefer vacation homes to peaceful inlets and fjords that offer habitat and access to the plentiful ocean, governments regulate and constrain innovation in the name of process and bureaucracy or treaty considerations.
The price and scarcity of much of what we sell at MAS, whether Spanish in origin or local like Caromont Farm’s excellent goat and cow’s milk cheeses, is not a gimmick but a reflection of all of the tradition of hand-made, crafted and sustainable practices passed on sometimes verbally, from generation to generation. the values are not set on world markets but by the very humans which use them and validate their worth. The toteboard of commodities might be like this: instead of a stock portfolio it might be a vineyard, instead of a vacation home it might be a grassy knoll perfect for grazing sheep and cows, instead of a car collection it might be 100 rare cured Iberico Jamon. We love you all and want nothing more than for you to enjoy the fruits of these labors simply promise us that you won’t forget who and why it is here in the first place.