Drinking Eating Food The Chef Travel Wine

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.



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.


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.


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.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food Travel

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.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

Madrid! Madrid!

Much of what makes Madrid the capitol city appears to have remained constant.  The July heat, cañas flowing into the streets, people destined for tapas, a reward for an urban culture working more and more hours than in the recent past.  The plazas continue to serve as the backbone of the city.  People pause throughout the day to sit with friends and talk, shaded by the marriage of old and new buildings, some adorned with street signs and shuttered windows, other edifices showing an old world wear and tear that the tourists find charming.

But there is a subtle change in the population diversity, with a noticeable stream of Latin American immigrants filling into the roles of the working class, citizenship less daunting than the U.S., working through the trend of youth apathy, contributing to unemployment and a declining construction industry.

My stay in Madrid could be likened to living in Jackson Heights in relation to Manhattan, at Villa de Vallecas, way south on the blue line of the metro.  This barrio is proof positive of the immigrant wave, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Peruvians, Hondurans, etc. coexisting with native Spanish, and of course the Chinese, who have cornered the market in the alimentacion stores department.

But that is the beauty of any city metro, each stop can take you world’s away from the last place, yet still be in the same place, overall.

I didn’t mind the 35 minute trek to the Gran Via daily, save for at night when the metro stopped (24 hours in New York), having to take an expensive cab ride back (the euro, ouch) or wait it out until six in the morning when the trains were running again.  Given that on certain nights the partying goes on until eight a.m., this is not a problem.

One would think that with the incoming people brings the food, but I found no Latino expression of cuisine anywhere.  Even the Chinese restaurants that exist offered no semblance of Chinese palate.  All of it is unedible.  Even the so called sushi parlors that have started to spring up are to be avoided at all costs.

No, Spanish tapas remains strong, and homages to specific cuisines, such as Galician, Basque or Catalan, are still kings of the hill.   The Spanish are fascinated with the hamburger, but alas, they should stick to what they do best.

The first day I headed over to Casa Mingo for lunch, the specialty being a rotisserie chicken and some house cider.  I hadn’t been since 1998, and decided to test the evolution of my taste buds.  The chicken was crisp and juicy, but not fantastic.  The cider was bottled and refreshing, but they’ve got nothing on the Basque stuff.  I shared some blue cheese with a neighboring table, and chatted up an Irish fellow about the merits of Dublin, which are many, and the yearn for a pint of plain (Guinness).

Then walkabout, which is the best way to see any town, and of course tapas. I sampled as much jamon as I could.  Most of the ham was tough, a bit on the jerky side, and not enjoyable.  Who was hiding the good ham?  At Plaza Santa Ana, I tried some jamon at Cinco Jotas, a national chain with a good reputation.  The best part of the meal was the oozing torta del casar cheese and the morcon, a part of the ham not sold everywhere.  But no real deal pata negra.  I sell better stuff in NYC.  Off to some cocktail bars like Del Diego and La Bardemcilla, where a civilized Sidecar is actually served.

Wine bars existed but were sparse and disappointing.  The selections reflected a new world palate, and wine service was abysmal.  Besides, it was too hot to drink red wine under the Madrid supernova.

The next day I opted for paella at La Barraca, after a long stint at El Prado, even though everyone knows the best paella hails from Valencia and that most of the Madrid versions are veritable tourist bear traps.  But I heard good things about La Barraca, and treated myself to a plate of croquetas de jamon, arroz negro and seafood paella, all of which were actually quite good.  Washed down with a bottle of Blanc Pescador.  After a friendly chat with two American ladies, we set off to the Matisse exhibit at the Thyssen Reina Sofia, leaving me desperate for a siesta.  I threaded the seafood theme with a Galician spot at Metro Tribunal, Ribeiro do Mino, which for a Wednesday night was jammed with regulars with mounds of seafood platters called marisquerias, filled with Dungeness crab, shrimp, prawns, langoustines, and goose barnacles. The plate took me over an hour an a half to plow through. The name of the restaurant would be a good omen for things to come.  Dizzy from a seafood extravaganza, I filled the rest of my night with cañas, uncertain of when I would be able to eat again.

The girls arrived, meaning my lady friends and their respective entourage, and that meant real partying as their sub 28 ages dictate.  At one point we were in Tribunal again, where there is a proliferation of aggressive Chinese salespeople, offering beers and bocadillos from cardboard stands.  While inspecting an empty box, a Spanish woman yelled out to me, “Oye Chino, tienes Mahou?”  I pretended to look for it, and replied “I’m sold out!”  Apparently my ambiguous looks passed me for a Chinaman.  It took a while to peel my friends off the floor from laughter.

More tapas at Metro La Latina,  specifically on the strip Calle Cava Baja, headed by the famous Casa Luzio and its new taverna, where rotos (shredded eggs on fries) became popularized, along with a better set of wine bars.  Innovative tapas at Txakoli, and good selection of wines at Tempranillo, where incidentally I finally stumbled upon a great plate of ham.  The owner sliced it from the legs hanging on the wall, and a gorgeous plate of purple cecina (air-dried and salted meat from the hind legs of a cow or horse) to boot.  Wines are served in three ounce pours, a perfect size for sampling.  Emerging from such a dizzying tapas run, my body ached for a siesta.

Sure as a bull’s horns, the that night I was invited out near Metro Cuzco, by a hospitable gentleman named Antonio, who has an appetite for Cuban cigars and fine food.  We had sterling clams and prawns, followed by the glory of Galicia, pulpo gallego (octopus), and other fish fancies in sea salt.  A couple of bottle of Marques de Riscal sauvignon blanc from Rueda was the accompaniment, followed by a balcony vista, aged rum, and more cigars.  All in all, a civilized evening.  The next day we were heading to Alicante for beach time, and in desperate need of some beauty rest (it was a mere 2 am).

Alicante, located just in the south east, was a whole other whirling dervish.

Drinking Eating Experiences The Chef Travel


As promised, the next few blogs will be about my trip to Spain. I’ve let memories marinate for some time while in New York, and admit that I am having a hard time adjusting (the whole work thing), but am glad to be home at Pata Negra – I hope you visited while I was away.

My trip can be broken into three parts. Part one was to check out the tapas scene. Part two was a trip to wine country with my friend El Capitan, acting as a sort of translator/travel companion, and part three was to visit some of my old pals.

The only thing that could stave off the heat in Madrid was beer, and lots of it. No thoughts about wine, just cañas, perfectly poured tiny glasses of cold, frothed refreshment. This is the true Spanish way of life. Hit the post office. Reward yourself with a caña. Errands to run? How many cañas can you schedule along the way? This is the tapeo tradition. Stop at a bar, drink, say hi, consume a tapa, and hit the next spot. This is the culture that is so Spanish. And the reward is a plate of something good to nibble on. Some ham or cheese, or pork rinds, or meatballs. It is really up to the bar. Chef Jorge Arola of Gastro told me that the art of pouring a perfect cana is indeed Spanish and a pivotal part of society. I’ll go for one right now!

Eating Food The Chef Travel

When in Philly…

Many U.S. cities take culinary pride in a specific dish, Chicago the deep dish pizza, New Orleans the po’ boy, New York the ideal slice and so on. In Philly for the weekend to see my friend GG compete in his 52nd triathlon, the debate over where the best Philly cheesesteak was a hot topic. Located across the street from one another, Pat’s and Geno’s do battle every day, 24 hours a day, for the title of best cheesesteak. The rivalry is fierce, and residents take sides as they do in New York over the best pizza pie, Grimaldi’s or Lombardi’s.

While many other establishments make their own versions of cheesesteaks and hoagies, the mere mention of eating a cheesesteak any where else is considered sheer blasphemy. After a late nite house party, I headed down with a new friend, Julian, to a raucous stomping ground of hungry patrons. It was almost four am, yet there was a formidable line at Pat’s. Looking over at Geno’s, there was much ado about nothing. “That’s because Pat’s is the best, and Pat’s was here first,” a native chimed in.

Geno’s looked like it belonged on Coney Island with the bright lights and big glitz of Vegas. Pat’s was more subdued, sporting an aluminum diner façade and steely cool vibe. The excitement could not be contained. The line was electric, tongues were salivating. “You have to know how to order,” my line mate declared, her enthusiasm unabashed. Cynthia was her name, a pretty Italian woman who had just had a night on the town with her friend Anna. “You have to say wiz with of wiz without,” Cynthia instructed. The “wiz” being cheese wiz, of course, and the “with” signifying onions. I had my moment, ordered and received my hero of gold.

There was a scramble for a table, but my new friends saved us seats. There really was no speaking from that point on, just incredulous looks of glee and satisfaction. Cynthia and I basically inhaled our sandwiches. I almost went for number two, if not for the line. We chatted about travel and told stories, and enjoyed the starry night. All walks of life were in queue, all races and classes represented, all united by the hunger of Philly’s best. The city of brotherly love was manifest, all over a cheesesteak.

I could not imagine Geno’s being better, but I decided to give it a try the next day. Without going into too much detail, in fact I can’t really put my finger on it, the slight edge goes to Pat’s, maybe because it was my first love, or perhaps because as Cynthia opined, “The bread is just much fresher.” I found the bread to be of similar quality. The differences are in the cut and flavor the meats. At Geno’s the meat is sliced thin. At Pat’s the meat is served in chunks. At Geno’s I found the sauce to be a little watery. At Pat’s everything was just right. You can’t argue taste. Those who love Geno’s are just as correct as those who love Pat’s. For me it’s Pat’s and that’s all she wrote.

Back in New York, I am savoring a cheesesteak, and the joints that sell it here don’t really cut it. I’ll try to make my own, but until the next time, I’ll be dreaming of Pat’s.