Tag Archive for: Spain

Grandes Pagos de Espana is a prestige association of single estate Spanish wineries. A broad church indeed as I discovered at a recent public tasting at Manchester’s hub of all things Iberian, the Instituto Cervantes. The seven bottles we sampled ranged from a new wave richer-style Txakoli white from the Basque Country to a minimal intervention Mencia-led old vines field blend from Leon. I particularly liked the 100 per cent Garnacha Secastilla from the Somontano region.

Unsurprisingly though it was a trio of reds from a different but very familar grape that finished proceedings, culminating in the Pago Negralada from Abadia Retuerta. 

Wines from this estate are regularly supplied to winemaking schools as benchmark examples of Tempranillo, Spain’s most widely planted premium varietal. That information came from Miguel Gavita, who had guided through the Pagos tasting. No false modesty here – Miguel works for Abadia – but he can be forgiven. I know first hand, in situ, how good their wines can be. Perhaps the wonderful setting influenced my judgement when I stayed there one glorious late spring. It’s all coming back.

My planned visit to this luxury hotel with its own winery two hours north of Madrid had been nipped in the bud when a journalists’ press trip was cancelled. Then I ran into the Abadia head honcho at a Relais & Chateaux bash in Cheshire and he said: go on, we’ll host you solo. Le Domaine lodging project was still a work in progress when I arrived

Heavenly Retreat Among Spain’s Great Vineyards

Storks and cranes, the skyline of an abbey fortress surrounded by vineyard. The storks are nesting busily in the 12th century belltower; the cranes, the giant mechanical sort, are at rest. This is a Spanish bank holiday and work will resume tomorrow on turning former monks’ dwellings and stables into eight new guest rooms and the Sanctuario spa/pool complex. To complete the transformation into one of Spain’s finest hotels. 

Welcome to Abadia Retuerta, westernmost of the wineries producing some of Spain’s greatest reds along the River Duero’s Golden Mile. Le Domaine, is the place to stay around here with just 22 rooms and a cuisine curated by one of the country’s Michelin-starred greats.

I’ve only just arrived and barely settled in my room, pausing open to fling open the shuttered windows for an eyeful of vines before I am out among them for a pre-prandial stroll. The view back is equally enchanting – pale, honeyed stone cunningly renovated, harmonising Romanesque and Baroque.

Such evenings of mellow sun and blue skies have been rare this spring. At 800m above sea-level here they expect nights to be cold, but it has been uncommonly wet, too, bad for the grapes planted across 700 hectares upon which Abadia’s fortunes are built.

In 2005 their flagship wine, the Seleccion Especial conquered all at the International Wine Challenge, capping a remarkable fast track rise for an operation only begun in 1995 on land previously part of the legendary Vega Sicilia estate. 

The winning  wine was from the 2001 vintage. I never expected to be served a bottle from that year with my dinner in the Refectorio, but there it was, still vigorous yet elegant, the quintessence of Tempranillo (with the support of some Cabernet Sauvignon).

The Refectorio was where the monks ate (and occasionally kept their livestock). Now these soaring white stone vaults are home to Le Domaine’s fine dining restaurant. For the holy men’s simple gruel, root veg and pond fish substitute sauteed cuttlefish with a reduction of its own juice, cod cheeks whitened with gelatine with a honey emulsion, market fish with seasonal ragout and its toasted bone juice, then crispy baby lamb with quinoa.

(Abadia owners Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis originally enlisted Andoni Luis Aduriz of Michelin-starred Mugaritz to launch the kitchen operation. It retains a star to this day plus one of those sustainability-savvy green stars. Similarly, the winery was designed by Bordeaux legend Pascal Delbeck, the man who revived Chateau Ausone.)

The estate is actually just outside the borders of the official Ribera del Duero wine denominacion, meaning the wines bear the name of the nearest town, Sardon del Duero.

This actually gives the winery more flexibility in the vines it plants and a portal for innovation. Alongside, Abadia Retuerta really feels like the cradle of winemaking in the region.

The Santa Maria de Retuerta abbey was originally founded in 1145, by Doña Mayor, wealthy daughter of Count Ansúrez, Lord of Valladolid – one of many fortified religious houses built during the Christian “Re- conquest” of Castile from the Moors. The Ansurez family left “terras et vineas” (land and vines) to the French-based order of St Norbert, which was the beginning of the estate’s long history of producing wine. 

The abbey, though, after splendid additional building work during the Baroque era, fell into a steep decline until the current sensitive renovation that marries light-filled chic interiors (lots of marble, linen and luxury fittings) in the bedrooms in the Baroque half with the miraculously preserved original church and sacristy. 

Off the utterly calm cloisters you’ll find an even calmer yoga room, hi-tech meeting rooms and the Vinoteca casual dining space new and old stone all seamlessly joined… while high above the resident stork family keep a beady eye on guests.

Most of these come with wine in mind, sampling first at the Abadia Retuerta’s own tasting room in the winery and then visiting rival establishments along the route to “wine capital” Penafiel. Le Domaine offers a unique personal butler service that can sort out all arrangements for you. Hot air balloon trip, helicopter tour or, closer to the soil a horseback ride? Just ask.

My butler Juan ferried me east to Penafiel to see the remarkable, elongated white castle on the hill and the Richard Rogers-designed Protos winery. It’s a workaday place, as wine towns often are, but with lots of attractive tapas haunts and an astonishing enclosed medieval square called the Plaza del Coso. Folk hire the balconies of its private houses when bullfights are held there. On our visit the shutters were closed, a couple of cats snoozed and it shimmered in the sun like the epitome of Old Castile.

Delightful, too, my last walk before departure at Le Domaine – along a raised path between the Duero Canal and the river proper. The birdlife is abundant and the spring flowers are glorious. The estate pays the same meticulous attention to stewarding the environment as it does to producing proper wine and pampering luxury guests. 

Mummy stork suddenly takes wing and flaps across the vineyards under a cloudless sky. A final glass of Seleccion Especial awaits me in my cool room. I think I’ve gone to heaven.

Abadia Retuerta, Carretera Nacional, 47340 Sardon de Duero, Spain. 

Regionality is a foodie buzz word. Yet increasingly dishes in vogue transcend their locality. Take the dosa, fermented lentil and rice crepe of South India. Such is its popularity you’ll now find it across the whole of the Sub-continent and in many a street food spot in the UK (though I notice it is absent from the revamped Bundobust menu). Well, I always, felt I wasn’t getting the full masala dosa experience there with their mini-version. I like mine to be huge crispy, stuffed scrolls.

Which brings us, by a roundabout route, to the previous insularity of Spanish regional cuisines. Tapas and Pintxos may be Iberian cousins but  Andalucian and Basque culture and food stem from separate bedrocks. I recall an Eighties Spanish road trip when in some Castilian cantina I ordered a Manzanilla. Expecting a chilled glass of saline dry sherry from Sanlucar de Barrameida in the south, I was rewarded with a glass of chamomile (‘little apple’) tea. That confusion wouldn’t happen nowadays. Ditto on a Seville wine list you might easily find a Galician Albarino alongside sherries and local drops.

All corners of Spain retain distinctive cuisines of their own alongside the tourist staples of paella and sangria, but some very specific dishes named for their place of origin are also now ubiquitous in markets and on bar counters.

The Plaza Major is the glorious architectural centrepiece of Almagro

Take Berenjenas Almagro, pickled aubergine speciality from the sleepy La Mancha town of Almagro. Think a less complicated cousin of the Sicilian Caponata. Tastier maybe. I’d like to say I first came across the dish, which is eaten cold, in situ or even in Bilbao or Seville but it was in Paul Richardson’s revelatory 2007 culinary travelogue, A Late Dinner: Discovering The Food of Spain. More recently I found a workable recipe on Page 202 of Rick Stein’s Spain, spin-off from one of his more informed BBC series. Home prepared, though, it never tastes as good as in Spain.

Perched in the south of the vast meseta that is the Castilian heartland, Don Quixote country, Almagro (pronounced alˈmayɾo) is made for telly. Notably its Plaza Mayor and 16th century theatre, both products of the wealth generated by mercury mining, though it is the lacemaking introduced by Flemish families in that period that is the major legacy today. Oh and for hundreds of years before and after a particular aubergine recipe has been a constant.

Of Indian origin, the aubergine arrived in Spain via the Berbers. You see the name adapt to its new territories – the Persian badingan to the Arab badinjan to the Spanish berenjena, eventually to the French aubergine. Along the way it conquered a bad press, which had it responsible for piles, cancer, leprosy, poisoning and insanity. Indeed, the Italian name, melanzane, comes from the Latin mala insana or ‘mad apple’.

Aubergines or eggplants come in varied sizes and colours

Still it became a fundamental part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Not always as the ample purple specimen that dominates our shelves. Often it was white or green striped and the size of an egg, hence its American name, the eggplant. 

It’s this variant that the folk of Almagro took to their hearts and their pickling vats. If you attempt to recreate it at home seek out Thai aubergines or at a pinch the mini dark varieties in Asian stores. It’s hard to find any canned Berenjenas Almagro in the UK.

Rick Stein’s Pickled Aubergine Almagro Style

1.25kg small aubergines

3 large roasted red peppers

500ml red wine vinegar

120ml olive oil

3tbsp caster sugar

½tsp crushed dried red chilli flakes

2tsp pimentón dulce

25g garlic cloves crushed

2tsp freshly ground cumin seeds

½tsp dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil. Make a small slit lengthwise in each aubergine down to within 1cm of the stalk. Drop them into the water for five minutes or until just tender, yet crunchy. Drain, leave to cool. 

Meanwhile split open the red peppers, discard the stalks and seeds and cut the flesh into 5mm wide strips. Push a couple of strips into each aubergine slit and then pack them tightly into two sterilised one-litre Kilner jars.

In a pan mix the remaining ingredients with 300ml water, 1tbsp salt and ½tsp pepper. Bring to the boil, pour over the aubergines, so they are completely covered, put on the lid and refrigerate. They are ready to eat within 24 hours and will keep for up to three weeks. 

From Rick Stein’s Spain (BBC Books, hb £25)


If there’s one book in English that captures the sheer ‘Duende’ of Spanish regional food it is A Late Dinner, companion piece to the earlier Our Lady of the Sewers, Richardson’s quest for the old, dark Spain. Both are highly recommended. The author has lived in Spain  since 1990, latterly, self-sufficiently with his husband on a remote Extremaduran farm. How he came there is the central theme of a recent When In Spain Podcast.

He has shared many discoveries about his adopted country. A pickled aubergine is not too humble to acknowledge. For A Late Dinner after encountering Maria del Carmen Sanchez Serrano, a berenjerena or ‘one who occupies herself with aubergine’ since she was eight year old, he visits the family pickling works, born out of extreme hardship following the Civil War. The key elements are the aubergines the size of a small fist grown in the richer soils of nearby Aldea del Rey and getting the boiling time exactly right before curing.

“I said goodbye before she stomped off to load up the van; tomorrow she had a delivery. We shook hands. Her arms were stained orange with pimentón – the permanent tan of the aubergine maker. ‘Berenjerenos, berenjerenos, that’s what we are. And it’s too late to be anything else,’ she said with a smile of resignation, tiredness and satisfaction.”

For tourism information on Amalgro and the Ciudad Real region visit this link.

The philosopher Julian Baggini, considering rules in the kitchen, proposes a category of dishes called SIVs (Simple but Infinitely Variable) for various cuisines. The English exemplar is the Roast Dinner. Meat joint, root veg, roasties, Yorkies, gravy, condiments. There are only so many ways you can assemble this Sunday centrepiece and yet… nothing beats everybody’s Mum’s. Or if you’re into culinary dereliction, the congealing hotplate offering in your pub carvery.

I’ve written recently about the Sunday roast route for restaurants and its perils as a paradigm of Englishness. Imagine my surprise then when out of leftfield came a decision by Canto in Ancoats decision to push, alongside its Mediterranean tapas menu, a classic Sabbath selection of half roast chicken, beef sirloin or pork belly. 

You won’t find roasts at Simon Shaw’s sister restaurants, El Gato Negro (Spanish) and Habas (Middle Eastern), but then Canto has alway felt slight hybrid since the initial concept as a homage to  Portuguese food was ditched. Shame on the Manchester public for not buying into this distinctive Iberian cuisine.

The coup for Canto was installing Carlos Gomes as head chef. Porto-born, as it happens, he’s a former head chef at the original Barrafina in Soho, which gained a Michelin star for its Spanish small plates. His Canto menu is basically that too, the only remaining nod to Portugal a few wines, an octopus dish and the irresistible pastel de nata custard tarts.

An image I was sent of the Sunday pork belly almost convinced me to drop my prejudice against trad roasts, but the rest of the gallery had me salivating towards the Carlos’s new autumn/winter menu, launched at the same time. I didn’t regret it. Sampled early evening as a deluge sent the Cutting Room Square crowd scuttling for cover, it was the best array of dishes we’ve eaten at Canto and a couple were a real knock-out. If comfort food can count as a knock-out?

In showbiz you save the star turn till last; so it was with the braised ox cheek, crispy pancetta, celeriac and horseradish puree with kale (£11), a slow-cooked master work to blow any simple roast out of the oven. 

A similar intensity of flavour was present in one of the ‘warm-up’ acts. Jamon croquetas are my gooey crumbed balls of choice, but a swirl of black garlic mayo elevated a mushroom-filled version to umami heights (£6).

Not far behind were griddled cod with a black olive crust and confit potatoes (£9) and caramelised cauliflower in tomato and harissa spiced bean stew (£5.50), both soothing and seasonal in feel.

Octopus is a staple of North West Spain (pulpo) and Northern Portugal (polvo). Here for  £10, a substantial tentacle was served Portuguese lagareiro style, baked with spuds. Not subtle but cephalopod dishes rarely are.

Canto is dog-friendly and trying tiny chunks of octopus was a first for our chihuahua, Captain Smidge. He loved it almost as much as the Italian meatballs in an almondy tomato sauce with parmesan shavings (£8) we ordered with him in mind, but he snubbed the roasted beetroot with ajo blanco sauce (£5.50). Watching his waistline, we were frugal with our contributions of carrot cake and pastel de nata.

We ordered my favourite red on the wine list, from Dao in Portugal (where else?). The Quinta do Correio Tinto 2018 offers a riot of dark berry fruit, herbs and a beguiling smokiness. It’s a bargain at £37 a bottle (also available by the glass). Come to think of it, it would be a perfect partner for a Sunday roast.

Canto, Cutting Room Square, Blossom Street, Manchester M4 5DH.

Now open Wednesday and Thursday 5pm-11pm, Friday and Saturday 12pm-12am and Sunday 12pm-11pm.  The Sunday Roast menu offers two courses for £23 and three for £27, while on Saturdays ‘Tipsy Tapas’, provides great value, with three select dishes and unlimited Cava, Bellinis or house wine for 90 minutes at £35pp. It’s available from 12pm to 3pm until November 8, when the restaurant’s festive offer will officially launch. To make a reservation contact reservations@cantorestaurant.com or call 0161 870 5904.

Chewing the fat, not literally, on a dinner date with a fellow food critic (her review bosses were paying) we inevitably strayed into the territory of ‘What’s been your most memorable meal?’, knowing on both sides of the table there had been plenty of contenders over the  years.

Memorable can mean many things, of course, not all of them positive, but we’ll pass on the shockers. And when we are just seeking superlatives, there is so much to factor in – setting, service, food and wine obviously, company, though if you are reviewing professionally that shouldn’t be taken into account. 

So when I say ‘boning’ clinched it for me I am not being naughty about my all-time favourite. I was swept off my feet by the whole ceremony of separating a turbot from its skeleton. Not just any turbot but the legendary wood-grilled rodaballo (wild turbot) of Getaria on the Basque coast. Elkano was the shrine we sought, arguably Spain’s finest fish restaurant. Unique for a Michelin starred establishment with its cast iron grills glowing intensely outside the front door.

There are several wood grill rivals in this working fishing village but all will doff their berets to this prow-like restaurant way back from the harbour where the legend was born 50 years ago. Founder Pedro Arregui’s magic formula – the fish sprayed with his own oil and vinegar elixir and then grilled for a precise 12 minutes.

Of late the rodaballo dish has travelled far. It’s the calling card of Brat in London, where chef Tomos Parry readily acknowledges its Basque origins; up north it’s a speciality of Joe Botham’s Baratxuri in Ramsbottom and Manchester’s Escape To Freight Island, while a steady stream of 4kg turbot are shipped up from Cornwall to the mighty Pennine grill of the Moorcock at Norland

All quite rewarding but in situ? Accept no substitutes. We had managed to get an Elkano lunch booking on a Monday. It was for 2.30pm, giving us plenty of time for a limbering up hike along the wild sea front to Zarautz and back through vine-clad hills producing the seafood-friendly, tart local white, Tzakoli.

Settling into the comfort of Elkano, we asked Pedro’s son and keeper of the flame Aitor to pick a Tzakoli for us from a dozen on the list, all at very affordable prices. He  recommended one particular example, whispering “it’s the only one not from the Getaria area. You’ll love it.” We did and it was a perfect match.

We did. It went well with an unforgettable ‘warm-up’ parade of seafood – notably txangurro (spider crab meat, sautéed with leeks and garlic, spiked with brandy, put back in the shell and browned) and the classic Basque treat, kokotxas (hake throats in a salsa verde). “Just tip them down your throat – it’s all about texture,” said our mentor. 

Yet, of course, this was just the supporting cast for our Wild Turbot to share. It had arrived on the quay at 8am with the rest of the catch. If it had been landed a few hours earlier it wouldn’t have made the cut. Elkano only sticks the freshest fish on its embers. 

Did our rodaballo rock? You bet. We were introduced to the fish by our server before it was salted, sprayed and grilled

Encountering the result on the plate was magical. Aitor, who now runs today’s more stylish restaurant, gave us a masterclass in the various constituents of the fish as he carved them – from the delicate fillets and dark fatty back sections, ribs from which he leached the gelatin with his knife and the succulence of the cheeks. The simple accompaniment just the sweetest of roasted red peppers. 

At dusk we walked off the long lunch around the San Anton headland, known as Getaria’s Mouse because of its shape. It protects the working harbour, once a famous whaling port,  from the Biscay swell. 

Our lodging was the Pension Katrapona. We had arrived the previous evening via a 50-mile shuttle from Bilbao Airport. Equidistant is San Sebastian. The Getaria grills greeted us. At nightcap time the wood smoke from two floors below forced us to retreat indoors from our balcony with its great view of the harbour. We found supper refuge at Jatatxea Iriba in the old town where we devoured a supper of house-cured anchovies, then langoustines and monkfish – from the outside grill naturally.

How did Elkano get its name? From one of Getaria’s two great sons. Balenciaga and Juan Sebastian Elcano make an unlikely pairing. One, the gay son of a sailor and a seamstress who rose to be Paris’s 20th century king of couture, the other an iron man mariner, who after Magellan’s death completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth with a skeleton crew. 

Born 400 years apart, both men are honoured in the town. Balenciaga with a vast modern museum housing 3,000 of his creations, attached incongruously to a palace once home to his aristocratic mentors. Elcano with two statues, the more impressive crowning an old bastion overlooking the port, and his name on the restaurant shrine to the blessed rodaballo.

He’s buried in a less secular place of worship, Getaria’s fortress-like seafront church, San Salvador, which dates from the 14th century and slopes oddly as if it’s about to launch like some fantastic Gothic galleon. How appropriate.


Neil flew from Manchester to Bilbao with easyJet. Below, nearer home, a ‘wildharbour’ turbot at the Moorcock and expert carving at Baratxuri.