Saturday, October 28, 2006

Live From Rioja!

Mark's Travel Notes

Last week, Jennifer reported from The Piemonte region of Italy, where she attended the truffle festival. Well, this week, I am visiting the wine region of Rioja in Northern Spain, where I'm tasting the Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Reservas of this famed wine region.

The harvest is over, and most bodegas are in the fermentation process, making the whole area redolent with the sweet, rich yeasty scent of fermenting wine. The tempranillo vines themselves are a mix of orange, red and the purplish tinto of the wines, which makes the valleys look like the gods spilled their wine here!

So far, the culinary highlight has been El Portal de Echaurren, Francis Paniego's award winning restaurant in the small mountain town of Ezcarray, where Chef Paniego plays with the local ingredients to create unique interpretations of classic Riojana cuisine. We had the degustation menu there for lunch today, and after a progession of 14 small courses, I felt decadently satisfied. I spoke with Chef Paniego, who is charmingly modest despite the reknown his Michelin star has brought him. When I asked him about his Food Philosophy, he shrugged that he had none, just the desire to make good food with honest ingredients. He then spent several minutes detailing his love of local wild mushrooms (cetas), truffles, piquillo peppers, and suckling lamb. He told me about his influences and culinary ambitions, and then without missing a beat, repeated that he doesn't really have a philosophy of food! I'll write further about our meal, with highlights of the menu, and I'll have audio of Chef Paniego for the podcast.

In the next update I'll tell you about the many bodegas I've seen while in Rioja.

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