Olite castle in Navarra, Spain.
Text by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ©2008
Pushed up against the westernmost Pyrenees, land-locked Navarra is another of Spain’s historic Basque regions, never fully conquered by the Arabs or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, despite hoary myths, it was Basques, not Moors, who defeated Charlemagne at the famous Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) when the chivalric hero Roland lost his life protecting the French king. The Pyrenean pass of Roncesvalles is also the beginning of the Spanish portion of the road to Santiago de Compostela, one of Europe’s most ancient pilgrim trails, traversed by pilgrims and hikers to this day.
This is Hemingway country—Pamplona (Iruña in Basque), home of the San Fermin bullfights and the running of the bulls, and the dramatically steep, northern valleys of Navarra with their legendary trout streams were places the American writer loved and featured in his first, and some say finest, novel, The Sun Also Rises. Navarra’s varied terrain, from the forested slopes of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the north, full of wild game, mushrooms, and trout streams, to the market gardens of the Ebro’s broad, sunny banks in the south of the region, gives it an extremely varied cuisine and viticulture. Wine writer Gerry Dawes once predicted Navarra would become “the next great chapter” in Spanish wine; while that may not yet have come to pass, nonetheless, Navarra continues to be exciting terrain for wine enthusiasts, especially for its lovely rosados (rosés), many made from native old-vine garnacha grapes.
But vegetables are really Navarra’s forte, with several varieties renowned enough for their own controlled denominations of origin, among them pimientos de piquillo from Lodosa on the banks of the Ebro, fleshy, sweet red peppers that are roasted, peeled, and then bottled or canned and the remarkable fat blanched white asparagus from the same region. Artichokes from Tudela are equally highly valued. All these vegetables, along with others from the fertile region, chard, peas, fava (broad) beans, and so on, play a role in the deliciously healthy menestra de verduras, a simple but popular combination of seasonal vegetables with shreds of jamón serrano to provide salty flavor.
Iconic Dishes and Products of Navarra
Esparragos blancos: fat, white, blanched asparagus, a regional specialty, often served with home-made mayonnaise.
Truchas a la navarrese: trout from rapid-running mountain streams, cooked with a slice of jamón serrano tucked inside.
Pimientos de piquillo: small, fleshy, sweet red peppers from Lodosa. These are almost always canned whole. Widely used, they are often stuffed with a puree of bacalao or salt-cod.
Cogollos de Tudela: crisp, tender hearts of lettuces raised in the rich bottom-land of the Ebro valley.
Bacalao al ajoarriero: a teamster’s dish (arriero=teamster), made of salt cod fried with medium-hot choricero peppers, then finished with a sauce of tomatoes-onions-garlic, and fried potatoes.
Menestra de verduras: the magnificent vegetables grown in the Ebro valley and elsewhere in the Region, cooked together in this tasty dish.
Pochas (beans): Not just any beans, these are pale greenish-white shucked beans, eaten in their fresh stage and not dried. They are served on their own, cooked with a little tomato and onion, or as an accompaniment to braised quail.
Cordero al chilindrón: a rich, hearty lamb stew made with fresh and dried red peppers. Both sweet and hot, this is the signature dish of Navarra.
Pacharán/patxarán: a digestif made by steeping sloe berries (from European blackthorn bushes, a relative of plums) in spirits. A traditional after-dinner drink in Navarra, this has become popular all over Spain.
Cheeses: Navarra does not produce a great variety of cheeses, but two are especially important:
Roncal: Made in the Valle de Roncal in northeastern Navarra from the milk of Lacha and Aragonesa sheep grazing in high mountain pastures, this is a cheese with an ancient pedigree. Aged at least four months, it has a sweetly grassy flavor from the wild pastures.
Idiazábal: The milk of Lacha sheep also goes into this cheese which is a firm, lightly smoked, shepherd’s cheese. Often associated with the Basque Country, Idiazábal is also made in Navarra.