Emilio Rojo – one of Spain’s most sought after white wines.

Emilio Rojo in his vineyard.  Adapted from an article by Xurxo Lobato/Omayra Lista published by El País on July 1st 2013. I have taken a few liberties with the translation.     

“La crisis no da en el blanco” – this headline, and quite a cryptic one for El País, a Spanish newspaper, can mean two things – that the economic crisis is not hitting the target, whatever the target is, or that the economic hecatomb gripping the country for the last four years or so is not really affecting the sales of white wine, at least not the one that Emilio Rojo makes.
Emilio Rojo’s D.O. Ribeiro wine is extremely sought after around the world. Around 5,000-6,000 bottles are sold long before they’re ready to be launched onto the market. The key to this enviable success is a ‘policy of cutbacks’ wisely applied to his vines: reducing production in order to obtain an optimum quality wine. The scarcity of the wine stimulates the obsession of the high end consumer intent on getting his or her hands on a bottle or two. Loyal customers have included the arch-famous El Bulli, Arzak and the King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Emilio Rojo diehards won’t even be able to taste it this year as the 2012 vintage won’t be available for purchase till next year. Not content with making just a great, great wine, he wants it to ‘grow up’, to ‘purge itself of the sins of youth’ during its time in the cellar.
Freeing oneself from the ‘dictatorship of time’, i.e. the local consumer preference for drinking white wines young, is a serious challenge for Galician winemakers. Casting aside oak barrel ageing, ‘sur lies’ fermentation and ‘bâtonnage’ seems to be the direction Galician white wine making will take in the future. In fact, notable D.O. Rías Baixas wineries such as Pazo de Señoráns, Pazo de Fefiñanes and Martín Codax already apply this process to their wines.
‘Lies’, or lees in English, are the yeasts responsible for alcoholic fermentation. They undergo a decomposition process in the bottom of the fermentation vats. In layman’s terms, these yeast deposits have to be stirred (bâtonnage) from time to time so they release a series of compounds which will improve the characteristics of the wine. According Galician wine guru Luís Paadín, “The yeasts reduce the oxygen level, thereby preventing oxidation so the wine keeps much longer”. The goal is that the wine holds up well in the bottle and can be consumed beyond three years, at the same time improving the bouquet and achieving a wine with more body. Every ten days, Emilio stirs the lees with a chestnut wood stick so that they settle evenly and create an infusion, conveying their rich properties to the wine. “A period of sixteen months sur lies enhances the wine giving it the character of a Vino de Pago or single estate/cru wine”, Emilio Rojo explains.
It’s the finishing touch inside the winery of a ribeiro that has been pampered right from its time on the vine. On an Atlantic climate, east facing slope, Emilio Rojo’s vines are almost as scarcely populated as the nearby deserted village of Ibedo, which is just the way he likes it, low on fruit but high on flavour. With his worn, calloused hands, this former telecommunications engineer, a combination of farmer and delicate wine whisperer, thins out branches, snipping away at bunches to obtain better grapes. He could easily make 10.000 litres of standard quality wine but prefers to sacrifice quantity for quality. “I’m a perfectionist, not an elitist”, he states. The rest is an alchemic blend of native grape varietals: treixadura – around 65% – with loureiro, lado and albariño. It’s a success formula that has this ribeiro rubbing shoulders with the most famous white wines in the world. A wine that’s served not only in the best restaurants in Spain (and that’s saying a hell of a lot), but also in the finest eateries of the USA, Japan, the UK and Denmark.
Paradoxically, the combination of shrewd ‘cutbacks’ in the vineyard and a captive export market have enabled this ingenious winemaker to ride out the storm currently battering many of his compatriots.

Xurxo Lobato from Galicia is one of Spain’s premier photo-journalists. You can view his work here: http://www.xurxolobato.es
                                                                                                                                

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Restaurante Acio – Santiago de Compostela.

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Meet Iago Castrillón and Eva Pizarro, joint owners of Restaurante Acio in Santiago de Compostela, winners of the 1st prize in the “Revelation Restaurant” category at the prestigious gastro show Madrid Fusion 2013. The jury, made up of more than forty representatives from the Spanish gastronomic press, placed their votes in absolute secrecy. This year, for the first time, 2nd and 3rd prizes were awarded to Abadía Retuerta of Valladolid and Apicius of Valencia respectively. Congratulations are order.

Adrian: How did it all begin for you at Restaurante Acio?

Eva: We’ve always worked at high-end restaurants. While on holiday in Italy once, a dining experience we had one evening had a huge impact on us. The cook was working alone in the kitchen, calmly preparing dishes. Lamb was roasting slowly in the fireplace. Dinner that night was fabulous, most of all because the cook himself came out of the kitchen to serve us a few of the dishes he’d prepared.

Iago: It changed our perspective a little and we started thinking about having our own restaurant, for the both of us where we’d cook the food ourselves, provide a calm, unhurried service and actually enjoy doing something we like… away from haute cuisine where you have predetermined roles and a brutal pace of work. So this idea gradually began to take form till it became Acio, our restaurant, where little by little we’ve built a reputation for our cooking, unhurriedly, at our own pace, maintaining our philosophy.  The awards and recognition came later, which came as a real boost enabling us to keep doing what we were already doing, without going crazy in the process. 

Iago, tell us something about your experiences as a chef in Madrid and London and why they were so important to you in terms of your current success.

My time at these restaurants provided me with the basis of the cooking I’m developing today at Acio.  At each restaurant, in each city, in each place I’ve spent time in, I’ve tried to absorb trends, ways of doing things, and of course, learn from the great chefs I’ve had the privilege of being trained by.

Adrian: A lot has been said in recent years about the concept of time and space, championed by people like René Redzepi, owner of NOMA in Copenhagen, until very recently the Nº1 restaurant in the world. What’s your opinion on these particular trends?

Iago: In the last few years it seems as if every restaurant has had to identify itself with one particular trend, or alternatively differentiate itself from that trend in order to have some kind of identity. I think that as chefs each of us has his or her own vision of cooking and he or she translates that vision into a set of ideas or trends that people will either identify themselves with or not. 

Adrian: How do you select the ingredients you use in your cooking?

Eva: The essence of our cooking is based on Galician produce. Galicia is a magnificent, natural pantry of high quality food products.  Iago goes to the Plaza de Abastos every day, the great market in Santiago de Compostela, and selects the ingredients he’ll use in his kitchen, placing great emphasis on seasonal items.  

Iago: Having said that, we don’t rule out the idea of fusion so you’ll find Japanese products, for example, adapted to our dishes, rice dishes…

Adrian: How important are the local farmers when supplying your restaurant?

Iago: They’re the ones who guarantee the supply of seasonal products, the freshest ones, the ones that are in their prime.  In order to achieve that, it has to be a two-way thing. You have to tell the producer what type of product you’re looking for and get him involved in your ‘cause’ so he comes up with the goods.

Adrian: Eva, what’s your opinion on natural wines?

Eva: Natural wine is wine made from the natural grape, neither adding nor removing anything from that grape. The net result will be a true reflection of the land the wine was ‘born in’. Using that definition of natural wine as a starting point and the commitment to environmentally sound growing methods, respect for the environment itself, the grower as the ‘author’, authenticity and singularity… I believe it’s the future of wine if we want unique wines that represent the terroir that produces them. In short, if we want wines to inspire and excite us.

Adrian: Do you have any one day of the week reserved for ‘special sessions’ as in other vanguard restaurants?

Eva: We don’t set aside a specific day of the week, but we do organize wine tastings, winery presentations and wine pairing dinners. It’s something extra that our customers enjoy and appreciate.  

Adrian: Since the closure of El Bulli, the world of what some people call ‘molecular cooking’ has evolved substantially. Where does Acio situate itself amid all this change, new trends etc?

Iago:  We do what we do, our cooking, the way we like it, the one we believe in. We don’t follow any kind of trend, we simply do what we think is best in any given moment. This means that at times you do traditional recipes that happen to sit comfortably on the menu with the very latest gastronomic techniques.

Adrian: On one occasion, Ferrán Adrià was asked if he ever ate ‘normally’.  What are your favorite ‘everyday’ dishes?

Iago: I love my mother’s cooking, traditional Galician cooking, with its slowly cooked stews: el cocido gallego, with ‘all the splendor of the pig’, los callos… Traditional, home cooked food, made with all the love and affection of our mothers.  

Adrian: Do you ever get customers that simply don’t ‘get’ your cooking, however much you try to explain it to them?

Eva: Normally the people that come to Acio already know something about us and our cooking. They know it’s a safe bet, a sure thing, though a very personal one. They tend to go with the flow and allow us to show them what we can do.

Adrian: Do you see yourselves opening a restaurant outside Galicia or Spain?

Iago: You never know. Right now, it’s ‘poco a poco’, the way we always wanted it to be. Taking short steps, but positive ones.

Of Sea Lamprey, risk premiums and toxic banking…

With the opening of the Galician Sea-Lamprey Season 2013 just around the corner on January 15th, I thought it only right and fitting that I talked to Nito Calviño of Casa Calviño in As Neves (Pontevedra), one of the ‘consecrated temples’ of Sea-Lamprey cuisine on Galicia’s River Miño. I have to admit that the first time I went to Casa Calviño I wasn’t exactly sure what I was letting myself in for. I was doing some research for a gastronomic piece which was later published in Living Spain Magazine, at the time the definitive journal on Spain and all things Spanish.

The very idea of tucking into what is essentially a parasitical fish with a hideous blood-sucking mouth, cooked Bordelaise style, i.e. in its own blood, albeit with the addition of red wine and some distinctly medieval spicing, seemed a little daunting. Little did I know at the time I would be transformed overnight into a total Sea-Lamprey nut, compelled to seek her out (she’s grammatically feminine in Spanish) at least three times a season, which runs from the beginning of January to the end of April.

As Neves is a pretty little village nestling in the hills that overlook the majestic River Miño and Portugal, it was in this idyllic setting that Casa Calviño’s host Nito Calviño spared me a few minutes to talk about his passion for Petromyzon Marinus or Sea Lamprey.

Adrian McManus: What are your expectations for the coming season, taking into the critically low water levels of last season and the bleak economic situation right now in Spain?

Nito Calviño: In spite of last year’s poor catches, the prospects for the coming 2013 season are looking very good, due mainly to all the rainfall we’ve had so far this month. The ban on the extraction of sand from the river bottom, introduced in 1999, has also gone a long way in improving annual catches. Given the fact that lamprey and other species lay their eggs in the sand, dredging and extraction had a catastrophic effect on their reproduction cycles. Regarding the grim economic situation the country finds itself in, we sincerely hope our clients will grasp the opportunity to come and enjoy a dish that can only be eaten for the first four months of the year. As front of house manager of the restaurant, I can assure you we’ll rise to the occasion and strive to ensure our prices are competitive.

AM: Casa Calviño has a long history. Where did it all begin for you?

NC: Casa Calviño was founded in 1935. I actually belong to the third generation of this family business. In 1935 it was a ‘tasca’ or simple village bar where my grandfather sold the typical tapas of the day and the local Rubiós wine, which of course is very well known today and absolutely perfect for pairing with lamprey. The second generation began to specialise more exclusively in the lamprey area and during the 1980s the business really took off with the house undergoing considerable structural change, but also introducing the necessary culinary developments along the way.

AM: Apart from the classic Bordelaise style, featuring freshly caught Sea-Lamprey, how else do you serve it?

NC: Basically, we prepare lamprey in three different ways: Firstly, in the classic Bordelaise style i.e.  braising it in its own blood in an earthenware dish, served with boiled rice and crutons. Secondly, we offer stuffed and rolled lamprey, which contains good cured ham, hard-boiled egg and ‘piquillo’ peppers. Finally, there’s smoked lamprey which we grill ‘a la brasa’ or over charcoal and wood.

AM: What wines pair well with Sea-Lamprey?

NC: As I mentioned previously, the local Rubiós wine, a young, fruity red and made from a local grape variety is highly recommended as is the excellent Mencía red from the Ribeira Sacra appellation located upstream from us.

AM: Are there any other house specialities you serve if fear and loathing of ‘the beast’ gets the better of your customers?

NC: One of the most popular dishes is our ‘cabrito lechal’ or roast suckling goat which we serve either roasted or in the form of fried ribs that we call ‘costilletas’. You can also order our other house special ‘callos’, a classic, spicy stew made with tripe, chickpeas, shin of beef and homemade chorizoFor fish lovers our menu also features locally caught produce from the Galician rías or estuaries and some of the best veal and beef in Spain.  

AM: Well it goes without saying that you’ll be seeing me quite soon, so I’d just like to wish you all, and especially Doña Maruxa, the ‘jefa’ and heart and soul of the operation, a very happy Christmas and New Year. Is there anything you’d like to add?

NC: Only that the lamprey season will begin on January 1st and run through to the 30th of April and that we look forward to seeing our friends, old and new. Have a very happy Christmas and a better 2013.

 

AUTUMNAL MARISCADAS

An epiphany moment, which, after nearly twenty years of gastronomic adventures in this gorgeous corner of Spain, is an achievement in itself. That special occasion calls for a mariscada como Dios manda, as the Galicians will tell you. So what does this actually mean? Something about God ordering seafood platters? Well, yes. A seafood platter fit for God himself? Well, yes. Ask a native Galician what constitutes a mariscada como dios manda and he will invariably reply ‘patitas’, i.e. little feet.

This in local seafood speak means crustaceans, and preferably local ones. That means we have to politely reject gambas (prawns) and langostinos (bigger prawns), as they’re not native to Galician waters. No, the only thing any self-respecting Galician seafood nut will order is centollo (spider crab), percebes (goose barnacle), camarónes (shrimp), nécora (velvet swimming crab) and cigalas (norwegian lobster/dublin bay prawns/nephrops-nephrops)and, if they’re available, the very rare and much prized santiaguiño known to all and sundry by their easy to remember scientific name Scyllarus Arctus.

With this in mind, and the special occasion being the visit of my dear nephew James, we headed to Restaurante Suso in La Coruña, tucked away in the same street (C/ Angel Rebolledo, Nº 50) as that other La Coruña institution O Bebedeiro. The place is small and pleasantly unassuming, a far cry from the starched table cloths, napkins and snooty waiters you get in some marisquerías or seafood restos.

As you head upstairs you get a tantalising glimpse of the precious ‘raw material’, piled onto pristine worktops, with bubbling cauldrons overseen by the charming cooks, all beaming smiles and warm greetings. We were shown to our reserved table and within minutes the order was taken, the bread basket plonked on the table and the wine served, a delicious Pazo de Señoráns Albariño Rias Baixas, the obvious and correct choice for such a feast.

About ten minutes later our platter arrived, all freshly cooked, no cold cabinet chill in this place. We started off with the goose barnacles, uniform in size and simply exquisite. After that we moved on to the spider crab, wisps of ‘marine moss’ still on his back, a sure sign that it was locally caught. The norwegian lobsters swiftly followed and finally the velvet swimming crabs and the shrimps, a riot of different though subtle flavours and deathly silence reigned as we chomped our way through legs, sucked gleefully on heads (yes, the Brits do do this) and weedled our way into legs and claws, stoically putting into practice the old Spanish refrain, Oveja que bala, bocado que pierde, i.e. the sheepeth that bleateth doesn’t get to eateth. Wise words.

We were far too stuffed for either café or pudding, and left the place very contentiños, as the Galicians say. Restaurante Suso is a must do it experience for all marisco buffs, i.e. those that are after the pure experience, i.e. without the unwarranted ‘distraction’ of molluscs, bivalves and other lesser creatures, which are perfectly acceptable as stand-alone dishes, though not as part of a ‘proper’ mariscada fit for the Gods and the more discerning mortal.

http://www.marisqueriasuso.es/
Photo: James Harrison

Not just any old tart.


Tarta de Santiago, Galicia’s most famed dessert, was not long ago declared, in gastronomic terms, a protected species. The designation itself, known as an IGP which stands for Indicativo Geográfico Protegido, is basically a tool which affords this most Compostelan of desserts a means of protecting its image and reputation in the modern world. The declaration was greeted with satisfaction by the those in the industry, who pointed out that it was only the beginning, but that together with the authorities, real steps could now be taken to control what is sold in many establishments as Tarta de Santiago. Several months on, it’s still possible to encounter tartas labelled de Santiago but whose ingredients are not strictly in compliance with those approved under the new regulations, but cases brought before the Tart Inquisition are now thankfully few are far between. In accordance with the declaration, the authentic Tarta de Santiago must be made exclusively of almonds, sugar and eggs in exact proportions: 33% Mediterranean almonds, 33% sugar and 25% egg. Other ingredients such as grated lemon rind, sweet wine, brandy or aguardiente de orujo may be added, as long as the proportions of the basic ingredients remain unaltered. The Cruz del Apóstol Santiago or St.James’s cross that adorns the tart and makes it easily distinguishable from others is ‘drawn’ with icing sugar as the final touch. Any other added ingredients, however cool or trendy, will surely detract from the true essence of this Galician dessert par excellence and, therefore, damage an image wrought over decades of toil in the pastelería. So the next time you’re looking for Tarta de Santiago, be sure to check the list of ingredients and the all-important IGP label. It’s not just any old tart, you know.