The idea of a “tapas tour” across northern Spain held many attractions. First and foremost, the region is renowned throughout the world as an epicurean beacon and the regional cuisine is one of our favorites. When we dine out, and the opportunity presents itself, we will usually dine at the bar, so the idea of (tapas) bar-hopping from Barcelona to Santiago was most attractive. Lastly, noshing my way through a small plate menu of sausages and fresh seafood with a glass of tempranillo in hand is my idea – and fondest hope – of what heaven will be like.
The idea came to fruition when friends with a home in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, asked if we would like come for a visit. We decided to start on the other side of the country and begin our touring in Barcelona, heading northwest through the Rioja wine region, with a stay in San Sebastian, the tapas capital of the world. From San Sebastian, we continued west along the northern Spanish coast, skirting the Cantabrian Mountains of Asturias, paralleling the “Way of St James” pilgrimage to its terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. From there we hopped across the border to Porto in Portugal, because – as you might expect – after all of that food we needed a nice glass of port (and an international airport).
Barcelona is one of my favorite cities, a modern metropolis perfectly at home in its ancient history and architecture. The Spanish have a delightful way of blending old and new, ancient and modern, in their art, in their architecture, in their politics, and of course, in their cuisine. Add to that the cultural mosaic of all of the conquering hordes from Romans to Moors who left their customs, and their spices, to influence Spanish cuisine. Nowhere are these juxtapositions more apparent, or more enjoyable, than in Barcelona.
On our first day in the city we planned on taking in some of the ancient (as in Roman rule ancient) architecture in the Gothic Quarter. Our base at the Hotel Neri, a boutique hotel located in a medieval castle, also provided easy access to some of the city’s must-see destinations – the Picasso Museum, and the city’s basilicas, the Barcelona Cathedral and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. The culinary portion of the day began with a late morning tour of Barcelona’s famous marketplace, Mercado de La Boqueria, located just off of Les Rambles, the city’s major pedestrian thoroughfare.
After touring the Picasso museum in the morning, our tour guide, Christina, took us to lunch. “Tapas” are not the standard fare in Barcelona that they are in San Sebastian, but she assured us that the tavern she had selected would offer small plates of regional specialties. Christina helped prepare a dish of “tomato bread” while the owner fired up (literally) a dish of chorizo. The bar top at the tavern contained rows of small cazuelas, the classic Spanish clay pottery, each containing two links of chorizo sausage. When a customer placed an order for the sausage, he doused the sliced links with grappa and set it aflame. The blaze renders out the fat and the resulting grappa / pork fat “sauce” is spooned over the sausage. A similar dish, using tequila as the accelerant instead of grappa, is popular in Brazil. It tastes better than it sounds. Add a plate of Spanish manchego cheese, a glass of Rioja, and color me happy!
Off to Rioja! A short morning drive brought us to the town of Ezcaray, located in the southern Rioja wine region. Ezcaray will forever be etched in my memory as one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The town looked like a scene from a Disney fairy tale, with cobblestone streets all leading to the town square, each offering a selection of shops and tapas bars to entice you in.
We stayed at the Echaurren Hotel Gastronimico, which sports two – two! – Michelin-worthy restaurants, one modern, and one traditional, again – the juxtaposition of new and old. Modern molecular gastronomy was born and raised in this country, but old traditions die hard. Echaurren’s Restaurant “Tradición” still carries the torch of classical cooking and traditional regional dishes, and it was the reason that we were in town.
Unlike many other wine regions, Rioja’s wineries are not – as a general rule – open to the public for touring, as you would typically find in Napa and Sanoma. You will also not find the public tasting rooms prevalent in the wine regions of France. The local wines are readily available, however, in the local restaurants and taverns and tapas bars, and that was our plan.
The problem with our plan, as my traveling companion Mary (a/k/a @BulletPondCook) and I thought about it, were the traditional dining hours in Spain. Tapas bars typically open at 6 PM for a few hours of wine service and noshing. Dinner, as we Americans think of dinner, is served much later. 9 PM is early, 10 PM is more typical, with restaurants staying open until midnight. That was not going to work for us. Our solution, as we traveled, was to schedule a midday main meal, usually around 1 PM, and then fashion a dinner of tapas as we walked around each town on the tour. That worked perfectly.
Each of the tapas bars in the towns we visited served local Riojas, in its younger iteration – the “Crianza”, which spends just a year in oak and one year in the bottle, as opposed to the older Reservas and Grand Reservas which are aged longer, and are more expensive. The younger wines, typically made with the popular tempranillo grape exclusively or as part of the blend, are vibrant, and fruity, and fresh, and the perfect “food friendly” companion for tapas. They are also ridiculously inexpensive. In two weeks of touring tapas bars, we never spent more than $3 for a glass of wine. You read that right. The average price was 2 euros, which converts to $2.22 USD at this writing.
On the day that we drove north from the Rioja to the Basque Region, we first stopped outside of San Sebastian in the little seaside town of Gataria. The reason for the stop was to have lunch at Elkano, which Thomas Keller suggests has a kitchen that produces seafood from heaven. I read that somewhere on the internet so it must be true. What I do know to be true is that the Spanish, and the Basques in particular, take their seafood seriously – very seriously. I once witnessed a restaurant patron scolding a server because he knew – he knew – that the fish on his plate was not from this village. It was from another village and was, therefore, inferior. The seafood served in Elkano is from this village. I saw it coming off the boat in the harbor, and I watched the chef cooking my fish outside on a charcoal grill, adding nothing but a spritz of sea salt. The waiter presented the sole filleted and arranged on the plate with the bones that had been removed. He also informed us that the reason the bones were on the plate was because we would want to suck the meat off the bones when we were finished with the filets. He was right, and Thomas Keller was right, even if he never said it.
The tapas in San Sebastian, or pintxos as they are called in the Basque region, were also a surprise. Most travel guides suggest that tapas are no more than a taste, a bite, maybe two, perhaps a few olives skewered on a toothpick with an anchovy. That was most definitely not our experience, especially in San Sebastian. Two tapas are enough for lunch. Three or four served as dinner. We had a room at the Hotel Maria Christina, where we asked for some recommendations for tapas. We were given a list of a dozen “traditional” tapas bars, and over the next two days we tried most of them. Some of our favorites were La Viña Restaurant, Bar La Cepa, Restaurant Gandarias, Casa Urola, and Gambara.
A typical bar has literally dozens of platters of tapas – ranging from small baguettes with local cured ham, or small plates of fish – anchovies, or sardines, or in some places poached hake roe, which was in season when we were there. Platters of freshly foraged mushrooms were offered, often with a fried egg on top.
One place had a plate of the largest black truffles I have ever seen posing next to a pile of chanterelles. A local delicacy I look forward to eating in Spain is percebes – gooseneck barnacles – sweet briny little morsels that I have not seen anywhere else.
We continued our journey west along the coast, stopping for a night in Llanes, in Asturias, at the Arredondo Hotel Rural. Rural it was, and also a working farm. Asturias is a picturesque region along the coast, east of Galicia. The area is bordered by Cantabrian Mountains on the south, dotted with windmills, and a windswept rocky coast line to the north, reminiscent of the Gaspe in Quebec. We were the only ones at the farm, except for the cows, and our host Anna. All were charming, especially Anna, who gave us a tour of her cider mill, and also offered a demonstration on the proper way to wake up the bubbles in the effervescent cider.
Santiago de Compostela has been a destination for many millions of pilgrims that have journeyed along the “Way of St. James” to the cathedral. As the capital of Galicia, it is also home to a number of wonderful hotels and restaurants, the most famous being the local Parador, the group of luxury Spanish lodges that were repurposed from ancient castles and monasteries and other historic structures around the country. The Parador at Santiago, the Parador de Sos del Rey Catolico, was originally built as a medieval hospital to care for the thousands of ailing devotees who hiked hundreds of miles to the cathedral just across the plaza.
The restaurant at the Parador was also top notch, with Galician seafood entrees front and center. In addition to the seasonal hake roe that we had seen in San Sebastian, the Santiago Parador offered a nightly special of lamprey, which is also harvested in the spring. Razor clams are also readily available in Galicia, just broiled briefly with a dash of local olive oil. I count them among my favorite dishes.
No trip to Spain – and Galicia in particular – is complete without sampling the local octopus, with a glass of the local white wine, Albarino. All tapas bars have a platter of octopus out on the bar. Michelin-starred destination restaurants will also feature it. I suppose there is something about the water surrounding Galicia, and nearby Portugal, that accounts for the area’s primacy in the production of octopus for restaurants all over the world. Along with its cousins – cuttlefish and squid – it is the centerpiece of most Galician menus. As it should be. The traditional service is exquisitely simple. Poach your cephalopod until tender (in stock or olive oil, depending on your grandmother’s recipe, and traditionally in a copper pot.) When ready to serve, grill briefly, or spritz with olive oil and paprika. Nothing else. Nothing is needed. Behold: