Iconic Dishes on the Wine Roads of Spain

Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes ©2008

Over 30 years of traveling, writing about and photographing along the wine roads of Spain, I have encountered and delighted in probably hundreds of the country’s most iconic dishes. To recount all these experiences would require a book, but until I find the time to write one, this brief food and wine journey around Spain will at least offer an introduction to what might await the wine and food traveler in Spain.

Galician shellfishGalician shellfish
Beginning in the northwestern corner of Spain, few culinary and wine experiences can be more memorable than a shellfish lunch in the Rías Baixas area along the spectacular rías (fjords) of maritime Galicia. Here can be found some of the world’s best crustaceans—crabs, cigalas (Dublin Bay prawns), camarones (small succulent shrimp), fresh briny oysters; tender mussels, both fresh and tinned in paprika sauce; plump vieiras (scallops, the image adopted by pilgrims on the historic route to Santiago de Compostela and the origin of the dish coquille St. Jacques—vieras Santiago); and tiny baby scallops called zamburiñas, and divine small lobster-like creatures scalled santiaguiños—so-called because markings on their tails look like the sword of the military/religious order of Santiago. If you are lucky enough to be taken captive by the producers of such superlative fine dry Albariños as Do Ferreiro, Pazo de Señorans or Palacio de Fefiñanes and any number of others, you may not surface for four to five hours, but you will have experienced one of not just Spain’s, but the world’s, greatest food and wine combinations.

Scallop empanada and Ribeiro wineScallop empanada and Ribeiro wine
Not far inland from Rías Baixas is the rapidly emerging white wine region of Ribeiro, where the wines are based on native treixadura grapes, usually blended with loureiro, albariño and/or godello. Ribeiros are crisply acidic, fruity without being unctuous, mercifully are usually unoaked and often have a steely mineral finish, which makes them wonderful companions to food. Paired with a plate of grilled or steamed cigalas (Dublin Bay prawns), zamburiñas, or with a buttery Galician cow’s milk cheese such as tetilla, these Ribeiro whites are delightful. They are particularly good when drunk alongside an empanada, the all-purpose Galician savory snack-pie made with a buttery unyeasted dough and stuffed with flakes of tuna, and other ingredients.

Further east, but still in Galicia, brings us to the region of Ribeira Sacra, which produces lovely, fresh, distinctly mineral-laced red wines, usually un-oaked (but, that unfortunately is changing rapidly), that is based on the native mencia grape. These wines are great matches with such popular regional dishes as succulent grilled octopus—sprinkled with olive oil, paprika and sea salt, empanadas and the deservedly renowned, thick Galician beef steaks. In neighboring Valdeorras, in easternmost Galicia, compellingly delicious whites are made from godello grapes, potentially among the world’s greatest white wine grapes. These wines are another near-perfect match with shellfish, clams, seafood empanadas, steamed octopus, wood-fire grilled fish and merluza a la gallega (hake with paprika, olive oil, and peas), and a variety of other dishes.

Oak-aged Mencias from highly regarded Bierzo, a region that borders Galicia just to the east in Castilla y León, marry well with steaks, local roast lamb and octopus from the north coast.
Lamb chops grilled over grape vine cuttingsLamb chops grilled over grape vine cuttings
Ranging further east, still on the Atlantic Coast, the green, rainy Basque Country is probably best known for cider (sidra) and the increasingly well regarded Txacoli, a green, spritzy, high acid, low alcohol wine that begs comparisons with French muscadet and is a fine palate-cleansing match with anchovies cured in olive oil, line-caught baby squid in its own ink, Idiazabal ewe’s milk cheese, and the vast array of pintxos (tapas) available in the tascas of San Sebastián and the gastronomically rich region around it.

Most people don't realize that the Basques also produce some of the finest red wines in Spain in La Rioja Alavesa, that small but important portion of Rioja just north of the Ebro River. Historically, typical Rioja Alavesa wines were rich, intensely fruity cosechero (grower-producer) wines made for near-term consumption, but the region has also long been home to a number of wineries regularly ranked among the best in Spain and now many of the cosechero producers are also making single estate wines worthy of ageing. I love to pair Rioja Alavesa wines with steaks or even better with lamb chops grilled over grapevine cuttings, along with hearty, rustic bean dishes of the region, such as alubias con almejas (white beans with clams).

Patatas al la RiojanaPatatas al la Riojana
La Rioja itself, a separate political region to the south of Alava, also produces some of the greatest red wines in Spain. Famous for long oak-aging, balanced style, and elegance, Rioja red wines until just recently were the undisputed kings of Spanish wine (now they are challenged by Ribera del Duero and Priorat); many think that because of their balance and versatility they can be served with any great dish that might call for a Bordeaux or Burgundy. Well-aged Rioja reservas and gran reservas, some of the most elegant wines in the world, are nonetheless perfectly at home with the rustic, country food of La Rioja: patatas a la Riojana (potatoes cooked with paprika-laced chorizo sausage), bean dishes with chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) and lamb chops grilled over vine cuttings, for which these wines are particularly well suited.

But rioja reds are also surprisingly good with fish dishes like grilled rodaballo (turbot), besugo (sea bream), and merluza (hake), served in one of the legendary restaurants of Getaria, a fishing port on the Cantabrian coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao. (Spaniards have long paired elegant, balanced Rioja reds with fish dishes).

Navarra is one of the most versatile wine regions in Spain, producing first-rate chardonnays, garnacha rosados, fine red wines and excellent moscatel-based dessert wines. I especially love one of Navarra’s bright, cherry-red garnacha rosados with a substantial dish like local pochas (plump white beans) cooked with quail and chorizo sausage, or alubias de Tolosa (shiny black beans often cooked with cabbage, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and served with piquant, green guindilla peppers). Other regional favorites include truchas a la Navarra (trout with a slice of jamon serrano tucked in its belly), or sweet red piquillo peppers filled with minced meat, crab or a salt-cod brandade.

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