Nacho León is a visionary. His Demencia de Autor wine is fast gaining devotees around the world, yet the guy works out of a rented warehouse near Villafranca del Bierzo. People have been making wine here in El Bierzo since Roman times and more or less continually since the 9th century. It’s the last stop before the Camino de Santiago climbs tortuously into the Galician mountains. Ailing, weather beaten, God-fearing pilgrims passed through the 12th century ‘Pardoning Gate’ here in order to receive absolution from the local priest before continuing on the most arduous stage of the journey, conscious of the fact that between Villafranca and Compostela, death, either from exposure to the elements, wolves or brigands, could come tracking them down at any moment. I’m convinced the telluric energy and power of the land, coupled with its ancient traditions, are transmitted through the earth and into the vines here. I’m digressing. A visit to Demencia de Autor a couple of weeks back fulfilled a dream and this man is a dream seller, a wine whisperer even, according to my friend Shannon. Pyjama, he told me, was the stuff of dreams… the way we walk around the house in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, those intimate family moments, not a care in the world, very typical of the people round here, El Bierzo. An intimate wine you’d love to share with the family, that’s the concept behind it, he mused. Who could possibly disagree? Alzeimer, a solidarity wine launched a month or so ago, is a fabulous gesture. At 20.00EUR a bottle, the proceeds go to the Asociación de Familiares de Alzeimer, a Spanish charity set up to help families cope with this devastating condition. And finally, Demencia de Autor. Why the name? Nacho believes the word Demencia is associated with the improbable, a slight mental disorder, but full of ingenuity and brilliance. That’s what our wine is about, he enthuses. It’s a young project, created and developed by young people who have one thing in common, they all love wine madly. We’re all demented then. I’ll be going back to El Bierzo in July, with or without my pyjamas and dressing gown.
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 chorizo. For 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.
Winemaking in Galicia has long been associated with the tart, fruity white wines from the Ribeiro, Valdeorras and Rias Baixas appellations. Until very recently, Spanish and foreign tourists alike could be seen ordering classic Spanish reds such as Rioja in the region’s bars and restaurants, whilst snootily turning their noses up when recommended a Galician red. Thankfully, situations like this are now being consigned to the past, largely due to the heroic efforts of a number of pioneering individuals from the Ribeira Sacra, a wine producing area situated near the small agricultural town of Chantada, known as the Heart of Galicia.
VERTIGO TO GO
Loosely translated, Ribeira Sacra means something like sacred shore or sacred river bank. The River Miño, as it winds its way east from Ourense, cuts an ever deepening
gorge into the countryside. Oak, pine and chestnut forested slopes, dotted with precariously perched dwellings and the odd Romanesque church, plunge right down to the water line, and it’s on these vertigo-inducing slopes, on tiny granite terraces known as bancadas, that the local grape variety and flagship of the appellation Mencía is grown. In places the vertiente, or slope, is so steep that the only way to ‘evacuate’ the grapes was by boat, traditionally a flat bottomed, rectangular wooden vessel. Today that work is done by conveyor belts.
The area has long been synonymous with the grape. During Roman times, wines from Amandi, today one of the appellation’s five sub-zones, were regularly shipped to Rome to be served at the emperor’s table, along with that other great Miño delicacy, Slamprey. By the middle ages, the upper Miño began to attract monastic communities who carried on the tradition of planting vines and producing wines to be sold to the inns and hospices along the nearby Camino de Santiago.
FISH FARM PUMPS
After breakfast, we were met by the Deputy Mayor of the town of Chantada, Ildefonso Piñeiro, a dead-ringer for Robert de Niro. As our first port of call, he took us to a small vineyard belonging to his father-in-law. This was where we were able to catch the first of many stunning panoramic views of the Ribeira Sacra. Along the route he told us of the friendly rivalry that had always existed between the ribeiraos, vineyard owners, on both sides of the river. Tongue-in-cheek insults would fly between paperos, or papists on the Chantada side and rabudos (rabbis) on the Saviñao side. A typical case of back-breaking work made a little more bearble with a some cross-river verbal jousting, he confided.
After a few minutes meandering up and down twisting lanes, we pulled up at the gates of Adegas Vía Romana, a beautiful stone building dating back to the 16th century. The owner-director José Luís Méndez Rojo warmly greeted us, ushering us inside for a tour of the grape reception area, fermentation tanks, labelling and bottling facility, and the wonderful salon with its jaw-dropping views of the Miño. Juan Luis’s approach to wine making is firmly rooted in the pursuit of quality
over quantity, a constant of all the wineries I was to visit throughout the trip. This guarantee of quality is achieved by an exhaustive poda en verde, or pruning of the fruit before it reaches maturity, manual selection of the grapes and,
somewhat bizarrely, the use of fish-farm pumps to protect the seeds during fermentation. Damaged or bruised seeds can cause an unwanted, mouth-puckering astringency in the wine, so fish-farm pumps were evidently a wise investment for this innovative wine maker. The rest, he told us, was down to the six months of
absolute peace and tranquility the wine spends in a strictly controlled environment. About 10%of his production of Via Romana Mencía and Via Romana Selección Añada 1999 goes abroad, mainly to the USA, but more recently to Japan and Russia, with new markets being explored all the time.
A RIGHTFUL PLACE
Next on the route was Bodega Pincelo. Though the family has been making wine since the 1840s, in 1985 Bodega Pincelo became the first legally constituted winery in the province of Lugo, a crucial step in the 1993 founding of the appellation D.O. Ribeira Sacra. The owner Alfonso Regal Teijeiro said that there was still some way to go on the road to D.O. Ribeira Sacra earning its rightful place among the prime movers of the Spanish wine scene. Statistics still show that many of his paisanos or countrymen in Galicia, when ordering red wine, order Rioja instead of Ribeira Sacra Mencía. Alfonso specialises in Viño Artesano, or artisanal wine, and Pincelo, Viña Portotide and the oak-aged Pincelo 1985 are three fine examples of the genre. With an ever keen eye on the future, Bodega Pincelo is now dedicating around six hectares of its vines to the experimental production of Viños Ecolóxicos, or organic red and white wines.
QUAFFING AND NIBBLING
It was soon time to move on again and the next stop was Adegas Lareu, another family winery run by the eminently hospitable Primitivo Lareu. To describe his place as lovely would be to do it a gross injustice. The setting for this charming winery is a beautiful 18th century granite farmhouse, surrounded by huge, gnarled chestnut trees and lush fields. Our genial host showed us into the traditional Adega de Garda or storage winery, now a wine-museum, with its trodden earth floor and doors oriented to the east and tiny aperture on the west wall allowing for ventilation and a shaft of light. An ancient wooden estruxadora or wine press sat on one side, and two or three huge cubas or storage casks on the other. A couple of pellexos or animals skins, used centuries ago to transport wine, completed the display. The rest of the evening was spent quaffing his excellent Sabatelius Branco white, Sabatelius Mencía and Sabatelius Carballo , an oak-aged red, whilst nibbling away on some memorable home-made smoked chorizo. Unfortunately, all good things must to come to an end, and after some fond farewells, we set out for our last but definitely not least port of call, Adegas Moure on the enigmatically named Cabo do Mundo or Cape of the World.
THE SACRED RIVER SHORE
Cabo do Mundo means the Edge of the World. The course of the Miño here takes a dramatic 180º turn and Adegas Moure, clearly defying the laws of gravity, surveys all this awe-inspiring beauty, totally confident in the knowledge that there must be very few vineyards on this Earth that can compete with them in terms of the sheer drama of the setting. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also sweeping up award after award on the international wine circuit, with medal-snatching vinos like Abadía da Cova, Mencía Barrica, Fuga and an excellent Albariño that recently scored an impressive 90 points in Wine & Spirit Magazine, putting the wind up Rías Baixas, no doubt.
TIME HONOURED TRADITION AND INNOVATION
Evaristo Rodríguez López, Vice-President of the D.O. Ribeira Sacra and our contact at Adegas Moure echoed the words of the other wine makers we met along this most sacred of river shores. He said, “Our vineyards that descend so steeply along the Ribeira Sacra, are hundreds of years old. We’re absolutely determined to preserve our time-honoured traditions, all the things that make our wine unique, but at the same time we’re looking forward, constantly striving for the highest possible quality, investing in the latest technology and innovation and of course, focusing our efforts exclusively on improving our wine with each new vintage.” If seeing and tasting is believing, then this appellation has every reason to be justifiably proud of its wines, so the next time you’re in Spain, make sure it’s a Ribeira Sacra Mencía, you’ll be instantly smitten.
Highly recommenable tailor-made itineraries in Galicia, visiting Albariño wineries in jaw-dropping locations covering all five sub-zones of the Rías Baixas appellation: Val do Salnés, Val do Ulla, O Rosal, Sotomaior and Condado do Tea. Another excellent wine making region included in this tour is the stunningly beautiful Ribeira Sacra in Lugo, where wine-lovers will have the opportunity to taste wines made from the red Mencía grape and other native to Galicia varieties such Brancellao and Merenzao. For white wine there’s Godello in its mono-varietal form and some innovative blends of Godello, Treixadura, Torrontés, Loureira and Doña Branca. In 2013 GrapeHop Tours plan to make an incursion into the neighbouring Bierzo region, internationally much talked about due to the Parker Guide 90+ ratings for mencías from splendid artisan vineyards such as Tilenus, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Pittacum, Altos de Losada and more. The gastronomy of both regions, seafood in Galicia, botillo, goat’s cheese, roasted red bierzo peppers, empanada de patacas in El Bierzo are good enough reasons for an extended stay in the region, whatever the time of year, though GrapeHop Tours offers you the chance of visiting in late spring or early autumn, when the north-west of the Iberian peninsula is at its most captivating.
Photo: Californian winemaker Richard Longoria tasting Albariño with winemaker Paula Fandiño at Mar de Frades winery.
Lamprey was widely eaten by the upper classes in mediaeval England, especially during fasting periods, as the flavour and texture of lamprey is more akin to meat than fish. Largely forgotten about in England today, except in the upper reaches of the River Severn, the lamprey’s last gastronomic foothold in Europe is on the French Atlantic coast, in Bordeaux, and on the Spanish and Portuguese sides of the River Miño in north-west Spain.
A bizarre creature, half parasite-half predator, it has remained largely unchanged for at least the last 360 million years. The lamprey has no scales, a cartilaginous backbone, a ‘nostril’ on its head, port-holes for gills and a hideously ugly mouth armed with razor sharp teeth. It uses this formidable set of chops to clamp itself onto its prey. Favourite targets include migratory Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout. They secrete an anti-coagulant which enables them to carry on feeding until they’ve had enough or until the unfortunate host croaks it. The lamprey is also a migratory species like salmon and eel and can be found in fresh water, lakes and the open sea, growing up to about 36” in length.
From January to April, the Galician villages of Arbo and As Neves on the River Miño draw gourmets from all over Spain. They come in droves to feast on lamprea and delicious angulas, or elvers, which enter the Miño from the Atlantic Ocean at the same time as the lamprey. Angulas are probably Spain’s most expensive dish, at around 60 euros for just a hundred gram serving. They are pan fried with garlic and whole cayenne pepper and served in a small earthenware dish, always with a wooden fork.
Lamprey can be served bordelaise style, stuffed or smoked. Casa Calviño in As Neves, is one of the known ‘temples’ on the River Miño to try this most typical of Galician dishes. While there I was invited to watch the complete process from beginning to end. I was taken to a vivero or fish tank, the size of a chest freezer, in the garage of the restaurant. Here I was cheerily greeted by the owner’s granddaughter, armed with a broom handle, and busy stirring the water in the tank. The lamprey were going bonkers, swimming around in circles and up and down the sides of the tank. I was told that this was vital; the lamprey had to be antagonised in order to reach the kitchen stressed out, thereby ensuring optimum results in the kitchen. To add insult to injury, these animalitos are also deprived of sustenance for a few days, which adds to their general grumpy disposition when they leave the vivero.
Preparing lamprey bordelaise style entails cooking the creature in its own blood, and mixing that blood with a good rioja, or a nice spicy red mencía from the banks of the Miño and perhaps a dash of bacardí for good measure. It’s believed locally that this stress factor has something to do with a chemical reaction in the blood, which is still ‘warm’ when mixed with the rest of the ingredients. But the lamprey is a fish, and fish don’t have warm blood, you might argue? Well the locals insist that the lamprey is not actually fish, but a bicho raro, or strange beast and end of story. Who would argue with them?
Meanwhile back in the garage, the granddaughter stood poised over the tank waiting for a lamprey to foolishly approach the surface; at this point she bravely plunged her hand into the seething mass of water, grabbed the writhing lamprey and dropped it into a white bucket. She then ran quickly up the stairs and handed the bucket to a lady, cook’s knife in hand, waiting at the sink. This half snake-half eel thing was then plunged live into boiling water for a few seconds and the first layer of its mottled greyish-brown skin was scraped away. With a couple of swift nicks, she deftly removed the still flinching head, central nerve and guts, taking great care to pour the precious blood into a pre-warmed earthenware dish. After a thorough rinsing under cold running water, it was then passed to another lady who made eight deep incisions along the length of its body. It was at this point that I was asked to turn my back. The cook was presumably mixing together, in just the right proportions, the all important ingredients of blood, wine, olive oil, vinegar, bacardí, bay leaf, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, finely chopped cured ham, garlic and onion for the final stage of the cooking process.
That part over and done with, I headed back downstairs to rejoin my hosts who were stood gathered round a table having an aperitivo. Thirty minutes later, the call came for me to head back upstairs again. I was ushered into the kitchen, glass of mencía in hand, to see the glorious end result – ten neatly stacked dishes of the exquisite lamprea a la bordelesa. After the customary team photo, we took our seats at a table upstairs for a fabulous four hour lunch where we were served both of the lamprey house specialities, the bordelaise and the stuffed, accompanied by a wonderful salpicón of finely chopped semi-hard boiled egg and strips of pimientos de piquillo, the famous roasted red peppers from northern Spain. Pudding was the local requesón, a riotously rich and creamy cheese curd made from cow’s milk and drizzled with the local honey.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the lamprey was hideous creature, it most certainly is, but it also has to be said that there’s nothing quite like it, gastronomically speaking. So if you’re Galicia bound early next year, reserve a table at the lamprey temple Casa Calvino for a truly memorable culinary experience.