Friday, April 17, 2009

Best Food – Logroño Tapas

Eighty-four days of walking means a lot of opportunity to eat regional food. I like to eat. While I’m hiking in early winter, I can’t really devote too many of the daylight hours to doing much else than walk, or I’d make little progress. For that reason, lunches during December and January are on the go – maybe a flaky roll from a boulangerie or some fresh-made cheese from a fromagerie, but mostly just some handfuls of ‘pocketfood’ like raisins, nuts, or the odd Clementine or apple. I usually carry a bar of dark chocolate with hazelnuts to satisfy mid-hike munchies. Simple, filling food I can eat on the go.

Dinners in Belgium and France were the main way not only to get the nutrients to offset the 5,000+ kcals of expended energy, but also to enjoy a delectable part of the local culture. To be sure, though, not every evening meal proved to be a gourmet’s delight. I ate a whole lot of potage, thickly puréed vegetable soup sometimes orange if heavy on the pumpkin, sometimes green if rich in spinach or kale, sometimes pale if loaded with cellared cabbage. I learned early on that this is the mainstay of country cuisine offered at private houses, monasteries, and country inns. What it lacks in excitement, it easily makes up for in nutrition, heartiness, and comfy-ness. Not outstanding, but who can complain?

It’s commonly understood that Europeans use far more of an animal than do Americans on the table, a fact that’s clearly revealed in the homemade andouille often proffered – all sorts of unmentionable organ meats loosely encased in intestines that tumble out odiferously when pierced. When hungry enough, and when served with enough wine, I can say it's not bad. I ate all of the pig’s cheeks and pig’s feet put in front of me, and credit some chopped unknown bits of the animal to impart a strong pigginess and depth to a simple potato casserole. As a break from pork, I learned that I prefer hare to rabbit if given the choice, though they seem to be equally common in winter stews throughout all the regions where I walked. This is the country fare of Belgium and France.

As I headed further south and west and closer toward spring so the days grew long enough that I wasn’t occupying every dawn-to-dusk hour with an uninterrupted pace, I was able to ease into the Spanish custom of eating a substantial bit midday and a lighter bit late in the evening. More time could be devoted to enjoying the essence of eating rather than just absorbing the calories and nutrients. Although I certainly enjoyed the foods I ate in Belgium and France, the foods of Spain really stand out in my memories. The trail I walked along in Spain crosses through six distinct gastronomic regions (Navarra (Basque), Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, León, Galicia), each with different specialties. Yum.

Of all of the food that I tried and enjoyed and tried to enjoy, what stood out as the most outstanding meal of my pilgrimage was in Logroño, the capital of Rioja situated just steps over the border from the Basque land of Navarra. It’s an old city with a mix of cuisine that comes from long being situated on the pilgrim trail. I benefited greatly from being in Logroño with two pilgrims: a Basque and a Mallorcan – Spaniards from different regions who have insider’s perspectives on how to get a good, inexpensive meal. It’s not too difficult to get a great meal in northern Spain, but with the greatest density of Michélin-starred restaurants in the world, working within my pilgrim’s budget and timetable was an added challenge.

The city-center pilgrim house in Logroño has a sadly early curfew of 9:30 – the restaurants don’t really open until 9 pm. Conveniently, as early as 7:30, the otherwise quiet narrow pedestrian streets began to come alive with the gradual unfolding of countless shot-gun bars, with shop fronts only as wide as the width of a door and a window; tall wine barrels rolled on edge to the alley to serve as table tops for the overspill patrons in the tiny places.

I would never have figured out, had it not been for my native companions, that each bar specializes in a particular item for their tapas-hungry crowds, though they all serve a broad menu of other items. One is known for mushrooms, another for squid; one for chorizo, another for shrimp… To ask the hard-working proprietor of one where to go for octopus, he gladly gave up a name an

d where to find it. Apparently, the specialties vary with the season and market, so every day's a new gastronomical day.

At each bar, local table wine was served in small jelly glasses for about 70¢ apiece and a tapa to share was had for $2 to $3. The three of us passed through the small streets right up until lock-down at the pilgrim house satisfying our appetites and palates for the going rate for the hearty 3-course ‘pilgrim’s menu’ at most restaurants.

What a fabulous custom of strolling through the lively alleys to have a little bite at several little establishments. In addition to the quality and taste of the food, it was the companionship of knowledgeable pilgrims, the pleasantness of Logroño as a city small enough to walk around yet large enough to offer a variety of foods, the din of the happy crowds, all the fun we had – everything came together that evening to make it the most enjoyable meal of the pilgrimage.

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