Spain

There is a reason why Spanish and Italian are referred to as the romance languages.  Days in these countries have a lavish beauty that is largely free of deadlines, schedules, and the daily rush that we have come to know simply as life.  I have missed this appreciation for food and family ever since I visited Spain and Italy over four years ago.  This is not to say that, as Americans, we are not capable of what these Europeans do so very well.  But life is markedly different there. There is an attention to the things that are all too often taken for granted.  They eat with passion; they speak with passion; they live with passion.  This lifestyle, this appreciation for taking things slow, is one steeped in tradition, and thankfully, one that shows few signs of changing.

Our initial connection to Rioja’s Remelluri Estate and the Rodriguez Salis family actually has nothing to do with grapes, wine, or even food. It has to do with art. And more specifically, with Jim’s art.  A few years ago, Jim starred in Thread, a surf documentary by Patrick Trefz, a photographer who, for years, has documented Jim’s art and surfing accomplishments.  The film was shown at San Sebastian’s  ”Surf Film Festibal,” which happened to be organized by Sancho Rodriguez, the son of Remelluri founder Jamie Rodriguez Salis.  When the idea for our European tour was first broached, Patrick suggested Remelluri as a possible site.  So, one 2010 scouting trip and more than a few shared bottles of wine later, well, as they say, the rest is history…

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

24 hours was all I needed to fall head over heels in love with Remelluri.  After that much time, I seriously considered investing $500 into Rosetta Stone, going back to school for oenology, and begging the Rodriguez family to take me in as their intern.  Perhaps I was enchanted by the 10th century town that provided the base of the estate, or the staggering 275 acres of vineyards.  Yes, this was in part what grabbed my attention.  But like so many times before, the true captor of my heart was the food; and in this case, the tradition that came along with it.

The beauty of the meal went far beyond the fresh ingredients used or the masterful technique employed. The food that evening told a story of a place and its people.  It told the story of Remelluri, and more importantly, it told the story of Spain.  That night, it was not the work of one chef, but rather the collaboration of many that made it what it was.

The meal’s reception began with slices of Jamón Iberico sliced by Barcelona Chef Guillem Oliva.  Chef Oliva generously volunteered his time and traveled over 500 miles to work with us for the evening.  Enthusiastic and eager to help, Guillem even helped us set the table before expertly slicing his ham for guests to enjoy.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

After reception, guests sat down to a feast prepared by Remelluri’s estate chef, Alzira.  Using recipes that have been passed down for generations, she began the meal with a vegetable soup of Remelluri’s garden produce and housemade bread topped with local mountain truffles.  Her second course featured Terreña veal from farmer Adolfo Martinez de Santos, a man who has been recognized for his preservation of Spain’s livestock biodiversity though his honest and humane treatment of animals.  Served with Remelluri tomatoes dressed in olive oil and sea salt, the dish focused on the simplicity and integrity of the local ingredients.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

For the evening’s main course, Karlos Ibarrondo, arrived six hours before the start of the meal to begin preparations for the Manolo lamb that had come from one of the last living shepherds in San Torcuato, Spain.  Ibarrondo is known throughout Spain for his Burduntzi style of roast meat, a time-honored preparation in which a whole animal is suspended on a spit and slowly and continuously turned over burning coals for hours.  Not only did this method produce some of the most tender and flavorful lamb I have ever tasted (and as a Greek girl, I have had more than my fair share), but it was also truly enlightening to observe the process in its entirety; to see the time, labor, and attention that went into upholding such a beautiful custom.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

For all of the evening’s chefs, it was clear that cooking was about more than the food that was produced; it was a way to honor the history of Spain and its people.  It was about respecting the cooks, the butchers, and the shepherds before them.  For them, cooking was the most simple and honest showcase of respect and tradition.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

And after the cheese and dessert, the wine and digestifs; after the last of the dishes had been washed and the evidence of the dinner began to disappear, I picked up one of the evening’s menus, stunning pieces of artwork that had been handcrafted for each of the evening’s guests.  As my tired eyes read the handwritten script and felt the embossed paper between my fingers, I, perhaps out of delirious exhaustion or a bit of self-reflection, began to wax philosophical.  Before FedEx and cardstock, there were handwritten menus; before a meat distributor there was a shepherd; and before innovation there was tradition.   Yes, there is excitement and anticipation in the new, but there is also so much beauty in the old.

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The Table

Framing the estate’s tempranillo vines, the table’s location was inarguably damn near perfect…aside from the (major) fact that the terrain was unlevel enough to give the most steady of people vertigo.  But give us a couple hours and the proper tools, and we can accomplish just about anything.

Before that day, I had shimmed, I had troweled, and I had shoveled.  I had used wood, rocks, cardboard, and I had used dirt.  And on that fateful day, with Jim as my guide, I used my first pickax.  Not accustomed to the weight or the motion needed to wield the tool, I began the task somewhat cumbersomely.  But little by little, I began to get the hang of it.  Learning to follow of the momentum of the (very) heavy tool in order to successfully remove pieces of the ground, I gained momentum and discovered that I rather enjoyed it.

Trading off between pickaxes, shovels, and rakes, we toiled the morning and early afternoon hours away (stopping every once in while to snack on the ripe grapes growing on the vine) until…well, until it looked like darn near perfect.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

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The Cider

On our first night in Rioja, I was faced with the very beverage that I had avoided for months: Basque cider.  I became first acquainted with this drink when I began serving at San Francisco’s NOPA restaurant last fall.  Basque cider, which is briny and vegetal in flavor (completely unlike the sweet beverage that many are familiar with) requires a particular serving technique: one must hold the bottle a good two feet above the glass and begin to pour in an even, steady manner.  Then, one must raise the bottle even higher to increase the cider’s carbonation in the glass.  Needless to say, I dreaded when someone ordered the Isastegi cider on our menu.  And let me tell you, when you’re weeded on a Friday night (translation: in the shits), the very last thing you want to do is perform this cider ritual in front of the transfixed guest.

Well, apparently all I needed to get over my fear was a night out in Spain.  With Sancho as our guide, we had our first Spanish meal of the trip, a traditional late-night meal of tapas at a small local restaurant. After a brief discussion between Sancho and the restaurant owner, bowls of salad, plates of grilled sardines, and bottles of Basque cider began arriving at our table.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Fenske

The first glasses of cider were perfectly poured by Sancho’s friend Lydia, never spilling a drop as she made her way around the table.  And later, after a bit of beverage-induced courage, the rest of us tried our respective hands at it.  Perhaps it was watching the example of an expert, or simply by sheer practice, but I got the hang of it.  And by the time Katie, Caleb, and I joined a few of the locals for a bit of after-dinner cider, well, I had become pretty darn good at it.