Ribeira Sacra Day One

The meet was at Barajas, and I took the Metro into the airport which was made facile due to the escalators at every station, and only an hour long trip.  If only the train would take you to the airport in New York City, but that plan was botched up with the Air-Tran a long time ago.

El Capitan was well rested considering the flight, and we rented a mid-sized black Peugeot, perfect for getting into small alleys and speeding on the autopistas.  After some work to get out of the airport (hours of time can be spent both getting out of an airport and returning a rental car), and with some early trepidation as to direction, we were off to Galicia.  We didn’t have Claudia or Gwyneth for our road trip, but two buddies on their first road trip have plenty to discuss, agree upon, hash-out and ultimately bond.  Strange things happen on these types of journeys.  Couples break up, people grate on each other’s nerves, and some cannot just enjoy the solitude that comes with driving a car across country.  After the Yankee updates, comes life’s status quo, followed by gossip, and laughter, tacit affirmations of friendship, and understanding that this was not just a good idea, but a long overdue great one.

We were warned that the highway patrol was on the prowl, but after all our speeding, we saw nary a flashing red light.  El Cap did the driving, and I did the navigating.  Our maps were useful.  The journey took five hours, and we stopped in a town for some tapas and a cana, just to keep the blood flow going.  Our destination was Ribeira Sacra, where El Cap was doing his first story, and as we pulled up into Monforte de Lemos, we inherently knew that this was a magical place full of history and tradition and great terroir.  The mountains canvassed great riches and Celtic overtones.

Where Madrid was raucous, Monforte was tranquil, just stars and fresh air and serenity.  We lodged at the parador, government run converted properties of antiquity, monasteries, hospitals etc., offered to the public at reasonable rates.  The parador sat atop a hill overlooking the valley and the city.  The old monastery was charming and reminded me of the Cloisters in Washington Heights, NYC.  My room yielded two balcony windows, and precious winds at night, mountain air that revitalizes.

For simplicity, we dined at the hotel restaurant, which promotes the local cuisine.  The first bottle was Amalmarga 2008, a lively, crisp godello, which paired well with the seafood pasta, and mussel amuses.  We had to try the lacon con grelos, sliced cured ham with turnip greens, which was a light intro to the carillera de cerdo, or pig cheeks, gamey and slightly tough. We had a real winner in the cochinillo de cerdo, or pig shanks with sausage and potatoes, washed down with a bottle of 2008 Guimaro, mencia from that neck of the woods.

P1000118

P1000121P1000120

The pig of note in Galicia has Celtic roots, and differs vastly from jamon iberico.  Pig is king in Galicia, most families own their own.  In addition there are town pigs and wild boars (javali) to boot, but more on the javali later.

The next morning we were picked up by Ramon, the manager for the property at Dominio do Bibei, a new winery dedicated to the terroir and the traditions of Ribeira Sacra.  The road to the Bibei river was treacherous and breathtaking, sharp windy ascents with views of the river valley and terraces of vines scattered across the façade of all the hills arranged in what seems to be impossible, impeccable fashion.  As a spectator I was distracted by its allure and science.  As a driver, to glance for more than a moment can prove perilous.  The whole drive was literally moving.  The winery, perched atop a hill overlooking the valley, evoked a monastic, Spartan feeling, flat white industrial buildings with steps leading into each other, the interior revealing winemaking and winemakers’ tools, nothing else. They employ a complex system for water control, using the rainfall of course. Atop the roof is breathtaking and awesome, indeed a spiritual calmness.Any concerns about Ramon’s nervousness were washed over by the kinetic energy of Laura, the winemaker, and the rest of the staff, Suso and Ali, who were down to earth real people.  We tasted several wines from the barrel and many were just plain delicious.  We went through, mencia, treixadura, godello, albarino and brancellao and mouraton, reds native to the area, and captivating, not normally bottled for sale. All grapes are handpicked and pressed.   It was clear that these winemakers were left to their own devices, unencumbered by pressure to produce a market driven wine.  The vines needed time to develop and that this was a long term project of cultivation.  We sampled wines at the tasting room, a vault with high ceilings and a table with the entire line of their fruits ripe for the exploration.  La Pena, Lalana, La Polar, Lacima and Sacrata from various vintages  02’ to 06’, including that brancellao that intrigued me so much.

P1000175P1000173P1000167

It was time for lunch, and on a makeshift artisan’s bench and table we were treated to the delights of the wives of the gentlemen there.  Razor clams from the can (the Galicians are master tinners), followed by chorizo from the house Celtic pig, and then an empanada Gallego, the reason Suso tells us why he married his wife.  The empanada gallego was filled with rabbit and chorizo and was divine.  I inhaled two large slabs before I slowed down and realized that I was eating as if there were no one else present.  I nodded to Suso in agreement, and asked if she had any sisters.  Then came the pulpo gallego, presented in enamel red pot, three gorgeous octopus in its boiled water.  Ramon ceremoniously prepared each wooden plate, cutting the pulpo with shears, drizzling olive oil, sea salt and pimenton.  The glory of Galicia in a simple, traditional, perfect dish.  In retrospect I should have eaten more than stomach would bare, knowing that is a taste and sensation that will be missed and impossible to duplicate back in New York.

P1000164P1000165

Alas, a homemade cake, bica, was unveiled, and dizzy from the octopus carnage, I barely noticed its subtle charm.  Perhaps the wines were finally taking effect.  Pair local foods with local wines.  Nothing every farmer doesn’t already know.  At final, we took an adventurous ride in the Land Rover down to see the vines, shaking up lunch quite a bit, and reaffirming my belief in how just how crazy these people are to be growing grapes on this sloped land, in the hot sun, where safety is not considered at all.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse at the javali, the local wild boar, who has an appetite for vines, and is hunted by several wild dogs and a knife-wielding predator.  But the javali seemed to sense I was near, and never rose from its slumber.  Ali said he had tackled one once, and that they are fierce wrestlers.  Once captured, their balls must be sliced off to preserve the blood flow, lest the javali meat become too tough.  A culture that hunts their wild boars in this way is indicative of the spirit of the Galicians, giving the javali a fighting chance, but taking precaution not to get screwed in the end.   Next trip perhaps, javali, I will be back.

As for the pulpo, it must be beaten against a rock when it is alive, more than twenty times, to soften the flesh before cooking.  The recipe is quite simple.  Dunk the octopus in boiling water three times, and then boil for twenty minutes.  Afterwards, just let it sit in the pot until serving.  What is important is the Galician water.  If you take the octopus to some other place to cook without the water, you will not have the same pulpo.  At festivals, cooks bring their own water, even if it is clear across the country.  My friend chef Diego from Williamsburg told me that his grandfather used to give him the responsibility of beating the octopus.  His instructions were to beat it 25 times, and Diego, being lazy, only gave it ten smashes.  At dinner, everyone remarked at how tough the pulpo was, and the scrutiny immediately fell onto Diego.  How many times did you beat the pulpo?  Diego was caught in his lies, and suffered a Galician beating all his own.

The second half of the day was scheduled with another Ramon, nicknamed Moncho, from Do Ventura vineyards, and there wasn’t a moment remaining for siesta or reflection on the morning’s discoveries, or afternoon digestion for that matter.  It was a great start to the day however, and anticipation was at a high point.

La Crema

South of Valencia, the birthplace of paella, lay many seaside towns which have changed over the last ten years.  Commerce has crept in, taking away some of the magic that accompanies a beach environment.  But these are the Spanish, after all, and despite an effort to keep up with the Euro-mentality, certain events are sacrosanct.

As fate would have it, Paloma, Chris and I decided to visit Alicante smack in the middle of a feria de San Joan.  We had no reservations for the train or hotel, but after some Madrid-NY itinerary planning with Gaspar at Pata Negra, we scored a miraculous train ride to the beach.  The vistas were captivating, as we were treated to a good old fashioned conversation about the merits of an authentic paella and the importance of Hannah Montana by a group of mature citizens who refused to let Paloma sleep.  A couple of canas at the snack bar and we arrived in no time.

The whole city was preparing for the feast of San Juan, intricate costumes and impressive whimsically wooden statues erected with its purpose to be burned by the firemen in a finale called la crema. We got a harbor side suite at the Hotel Melia, and off we went to party in the streets. La barraca is an integral part of the celebration.   Restaurants and bars set up on the streets, and families can reserve entire plots for private merrymaking.  We feasted on sausages, fries, seafood and pork ribs while enjoying the parade of townsfolk young and old marching up and down the avenues.  Bands, disc jockeys, dancing, drinking, eating – San Joan must have been a Bacchanalian sort.  Gaspar’s pal Gustavo showed us a good time, and we whooped it up way past sunrise.

Alicante is known for its gelato like ice cream, which comes in hundreds of flavors and is often served with coffee.  This and beer keeps one cool enough to withstand the beach heat, which is serious.  The beaches aren’t crowded during the day, and just before I could get a real bronzing, Goose was shuffling us off to la bomba, which as it turned out sounded like World War III.  The Spanish just blow stuff up for twenty minutes,  creating sound so deafening and alarming that our heart rates rose, the small children clinging to their parents trousers and skirts from shock.  The finale yielded thunderous excitement and appreciatory applause from the satisfied crowd, who soon after returned to not working for the day, and preparation for more partying, again all in honor of the dear Saint John.  Rest is not an option during this festival, and the only respite we uncovered was an evening at Gaspar’s folks’ home in Noveldra, where a minor feast was prepared, washed down with local red and white wine.    Six hours of conversation and dining, and I was headed to lala land, having been hosted in such tremendously gracious fashion by the Paya family.  After a brief tour (I don’t remember a thing) of town, we were thrust into the streets of Alicante again for more mischief.  The beaches were mobbed, and the streets filled to the gills.  How could we resist?  The next day we were back on a train to Madrid for the next leg of my journey, not without feeling remorseful about sucking all the marrow out of Alicante’s vibrant bones.  Just as well, as I really needed a siesta.