An evening in La Rioja - If I ruled the world....

…at some point I would sit in La Rioja eating Joselito and drinking El Conjuro. And that's what I was doing. Had someone died and left me in charge ? Just to be sure I made them turn off the guff rock so the only sound was mastication and I ordered another plate of Jamon.

Behold a beautiful spiral galaxy of pork.  Not as good as the first plate but still epic and much appreciated after a topsy turvy 24 hours. I had left the bright sunshine of Manchester for the rain and darkness of Bilbao (in your face climate deniers). Dinner consisted of OK octopus, good clams and fine mushrooms washed down with Albarino and finished with flan. I like flan, a lot, because it transports me back to childhood; it’s the first bitter flavour I remember having savoured. I awoke and Bilbao was under quite a lot of snow, the ploughs were out and we spent the day driving cautiously through a peculiar Basque (mock-Swiss?) snowscape.


Factory was visited and local lunch taken (with minimal meat as I was full to the throat and red faced with chorizo) Alcegas con Jamon, a nice soupy chard dish with a little meat followed by a regional speciality, the bizarrely named Ajoarriero (literally “mule drivers garlic”), which turned out to be a cod potato stew. And flan. More snow and I was graciously deposited in the middle of nowhere as the only guest in a small and empty (so quite eerie) hotel. The manager offered me a dinner trinity (cheese, wine, bread) and form nowhere suggested also a plate a Jamon. I asked if it was good and he said it was far beyond. A platter duly arrived and I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first slight, slight greasy with rancid notes. Taking great care to clean each subsequent slice on my napkin to remove any trace of the covering fat which sometimes smears and causes less desirable flavours I became increasingly enamoured with the Jamon and abandoned the bread then the cheese (and even the wine).
Next morning they wished me luck on the journey and after seeing Tortilla production and some hours of sliding precariously along the motorway through vineyards and olive groves we made foodfall at Azurmendi. Lots has been written recently about this p(a)lace of gastronomy and the hilltop glass cube has been awarded a 3rd Michelin star but I have an inbuilt distaste of food frivolity with foam and fancy, little teensy tasting plates of micro whimsy blah blah. Maybe because I went to the Fat Duck and mistakenly ate a dessertspoon of salt? or perhaps I’m just a food peasant. Anyway we were in the reasonably priced (€35) Pret-a-Porter banqueting hall and were served a succession of little dishes; the first smaller than my fifth metacarpal bone was a miniscule Jamon nibble.

the diametric opposite of Gnocco fritto (now THAT is food!). Then came a reasonable vegetable garden but with raw mushroom. Why would anyone eat squeaky teething mouth repelling raw mushroom ? (I once asked for my shaved porcini to go back to a kitchen to be fried in butter much to the displeasure of the waiters and the cook). The usual low temperature egg in mushroom soup was easily forgotten as the star of the show arrived; perfectly cooked hake with caramelised onions. Delicious flaky dreamy soft and long remembered.

A bizarre ‘cow-tail’ meatball stew which tasted almost identical to a wet vegetable Manchurian and a chocolate dessert (no flan!) from a glass cabinet rounded up lunch, lubricated with their own Txakoli. 10 minutes to the airport, a queasy flight and I was back basking in the warm Manchester sunshine (prompting another momentary omnipotence delusion).