eat: three Champiñones & one little shrimp @ La Cueva de Floren
For now I’m calling Logroño home. My husband and I visited the capital of La Rioja on our honeymoon last December and we were both smitten by the small city. The wine, obviously, is amazing here—the terrain is ideal and the history long. But beyond the lush tempranillos and garnachas, I was allured by the quiet yet impressive river (after which the entire peninsula is named), the astounding red rock, and the laid-back vibe of los riojanos y los logroñes. After living in the desert for the past six years, there is something really satisfying about the oasis-like river bed parks and the reliable coming of four seasons. And it’s easy to understand why everyone is usually in such a good mood: I’m a better person anywhere I can buy a roast chicken with sliced potatoes resting in its fatty juices for 5 euro. Gracias, Carniceria Daniel.
As I learned in December, the typical way to enjoy the culinary extravagance of Logroño is to go tapeando. While on the tapas trail, you’re to try each spot’s advertised specialty. I promise you that a big reason I agreed to move here is the Calamari sandwich they make at Bar Torres. It’s perfect. But if you’re going to visit Logroño and you’re going to try one dish, I’m a bit better informed now; while I still stand by Umm Tapas (and Torres, obviously), I’d send you to La Cueva de Floren.
Here they serve a shining example of typical Riojana cuisine: a stack of very delicious mushrooms in an aliño casera or house dressing. Y’all: I don’t even like mushrooms, but these are exquisite. They have a more fleshy meat and their texture is less… sponge-like. A stack of three of them gets topped by a tasty tiny shrimp, and all of it is doused in the dressing that is so suspiciously delicious I suspect it contains butter and garlic. Our friend Abby brought us to this typical tapas bar, where napkins littered the ground (thanks, Abby!). As the saying goes: the dirtier the floor, the better the food. You might be able to sample a few other things, but you go to La Cueva de Floren for the mushrooms. There are at least three restaurants in the area in fierce competition to make this exact same dish the best, which in the end means you’re guaranteed a tasty bite— if also entry into a heated local debate.
drink Julian Madrid @ Bodegas Casa Primicia
There is plenty of delicious wine in Logroño for 1.50-2.60 € a glass. You don’t have to leave the city to visit a bodega, either; you can get to Franco Españoles by taking a pleasant stroll on the city’s pedestrian bridge. But the trip to nearby Laguardia, País Vasco (the capital of the rioja altavesa wine region) merece la pena— is totally worth it. The journey from Logroño will take you through a valley dotted with vineyards and the Cantabrian mountains looming in the distance.
Laguardia is a sleepy medieval town, originally built for strategic military defense. In fact, many modern families now have cellars in what previously served the town as subterranean escape routes. We visited Casa Primicia at the invitation of yet another new friend, a fellow English teacher who grew up near Alicante. We learned the hard way that you are not supposed to drive on those cobblestone streets— two tiny yet insistent chicos informed us as much. Even historically, it turns out, carriages were prohibited in the old town: They spelled bad news for the large quantities of wine stored in the cellars below. Since medieval times, the town’s dwellers have produced, drank, paid taxes with and traded with wine.
Casa Primicia has a really unique story: It’s the oldest building in the town still standing, and it was originally used by the church to collect taxes (or tithes, hence primicia). While wine had been stored and fermented there, the original building long ago fell into disuse. Read the story of Julian Madrid and the family vine-growers who rescued the fifteenth century tithe house from disrepair here.
But for now, let us move on to the wine. Casa Primicia’s vineyards are located in the Carravalseca valley, noted for its somewhat salty soil— which lends the wines a mineral quality I tend to like. We sampled many wines, all of them good and some of them organic. The star of the afternoon was the blend named after the Bodega’s creator: the Julian Madrid. Though it’s on the down-low, Casa Primicia still grows some of the region’s only Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Julian Madrid blend consists of 80% tempranillo grapes (these are the pride and joy of La Rioja winemakers) and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.
I know about this because Mikel, pictured below, told us. Because of regulations which strictly stipulate that winemakers plant no new non-native grapes, the 20% cab cannot be listed on the bottle. In the U.S., no grapes are listed at all on the blend (in addition to confronting even more regulations, the truth is that no American wants a bottle of wine made with 20% “other” grapes). So you should just… know. Get a bottle of this and drink it.
This combination brings out the best of both grapes. The style (if not the palate) reminds me of some of the best Super Tuscans I’ve had. The 2009 reserva is a medium-bodied red with complexity: I get hints of cherry and vanilla. Try it, and see what you taste! And while searching for those words (I find describing hard surprisingly hard, considering I’m a poet), read…
Gonzalo de Berceo is the first Spanish-language poet remembered by name. He was born in La Rioja circa 1197, and he learned to write poetry while at one of the famous monasteries in the region.
While I’m waiting on the book of translations to arrive (they are unusually hard to find in English), I’ve been reading some of his poems in their original medieval Spanish. Very slowly. I won’t make you do that. Instead, I’m going to recommend you read just one poem.
Here you will find excerpted verses that have a more pastoral than devotional leaning, though I guess such schools of poetry often go hand in hand. This ode to spring-time glory has been translated by H.W. Longfellow, who lends the poem an appropriately heroic quality:
There soft reclining in the shade, all cares beside me flung,
I heard the soft and mellow notes that through the woodland rung;
Ear never listened to a strain, for instrument or tongue,
So mellow and harmonious as the songs above me sung.
I like this translation, though it definitely rings melodramatic to a contemporary poet’s ear. I like it because it doesn’t show any restraint whatsoever in enjoying the simple pleasures of the area’s landscape, which has so much varied beauty. It gives you those good-kind-of-shivers to know someone eight-hundred years ago experienced joy in a similar way.
Even more of that varied beauty:
for more eating, drinking, & reading, see:
- The above poem, excerpted from a longer work, in its original Castellano.
- Previous entry on Logroño @ Pintxos y Libros (including bookstores and tapas finds)… update: they were definitely pig ears, though the dish was named after a pony.
- More on Laguardia & why you should go there.
- Visit San Millan de la Cogolla, where the first words of the Castillan language were written (& Gonzalo de Berceo studied).
- El Camino de la Lengua (The Spanish Language Route)
- “Mi tierra es La Rioja… ¡Logroño es mi pueblo! — the city’s hymn, which has been playing over and over again during the wine festival called San Mateo.
*Thanks to Abby, Hannah, Carmen, and Marisa for showing us some of the many joys to be found in La Rioja & Navarra. They’ve helped to ensure that “No one in Logroño feels like a foreigner.”