Food and wine adventures in Spain: The Mugaritz and Rioja experience

Summoned by the allure of the culinary experience of a lifetime, Mugaritz, named one of the world’s 17 restaurants worth planning a trip around by Travel and Leisure, coaxed me back to San Sebastian‘s  enchanting beaches and tapas-laden streets for the second time in a year. We had tried to make a reservation at Mugaritz last September, but despite booking 5 months in advance there were no tables available. As if to rub it in, Chris’s conference treated us to a presentation by the Mugaritz head chefs on the alchemy and creative juices behind their fascinating concoctions, which only solidified my resolution that I. Must. Eat. There.  Luckily, my amazing brother Nate, who rivals my passion for food and adventures, managed to work some magic and pull off a dinner reservation!

I took a late-night flight to Bilbao and an even later bus to meet Nate in San Sebastian the evening before our reservation. This gave us a full day to explore San Sebastian and whet our appetites for the extreme meal to come. We woke up too late to snag the last of my still all-time-favorite chocolate croissants at Galparsoro, so after an espresso and fresh-squeezed OJ at the bar next door we settled on a pinxto brunch. We kicked it off with “baby eels” or elvers, which our waiter explained are now replicas made of fish put through a pasta machine because the real deal has gotten so expensive, along with deviled clams baked in their shells, solomillo (filet mignon), and roasted squid toasts, all washed down with a sweet sparkling “breakfast wine”.  From there we progressed down the street to a tavern known for pistachio-crusted croquettes and black rice goat cheese risotto.

Feeling dangerously full, we decided the safest plan to prepare ourselves for the evening was to spend the rest of the day sweating. This seemed best accomplished by hiking a section of the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a pilgrimage beginning in the Pyrenees that follows the milky way galaxy from east to west before ending at La Catedral de Santiago de Campostela in Galicia in northwest Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the Saint James are buried. The bartender generously agreed to watch our bags for the next 5 hours so we set off along the coast towards the trailhead. We quickened our pace as the sun bore down on us, in hopes of soon taking refuge on the shady trails. The path climbed steeply to the top of a lush green forested hill where we were rewarded with incredible views out over the bright green hillsides and brilliant blue water. The Spanish are as relaxed about trail signs as they are with most other aspects of life so even with a map we managed to deviate from our intended path at almost every intersection. But the trails were flat and fairly short, so within a few hours we had detoured through most of them and in a baffling trick, appeared back on the same trail we started on despite our impression that we were on the other side of the hilltop. On our way back down we encountered a very adorable family of black and brown miniature Spanish horses who looked like their mother had had an affair with a basset hound. They only vaguely threatened to bite as we pet them, but we decided to leave them in peace and make our way to the airport to pick up the only automatic rental car in the entire city, a brand new sporty black mini cooper. Feeling liberated on the empty highways winding through the fields and mountains outside the city, we started to let our excitement from the anticipation for Mugaritz, building for over a year now, really sink in – I stepped on the gas.

Nestled high in the hills, reached by a series of narrow winding mountain roads, we pulled into our accommodation for the night. We were staying in an agriturismo, or casa rural, which is a general term for a rural guesthouse, winery, local producer, or farmhouse that bridges the gap between tourism and agriculture. Casa Rural Artola also happened to be the closest BnB to Mugaritz, which lay about 4km further down the road. Opening the first door we saw, we wandered into a large eating area constructed of stone and ancient wooden beams and were delightfully surprised to find the wall to our left lined with massive oak barrels, which I recognized from our previous trip to Asturias as the home to batches of aging sidra. We were staying in a sidreria! And there was just enough time to chill a bottle before dinner. We were introduced to a gruff man clattering about in the kitchen who did not seem at all pleased that we were interupting his tortilla-making, but his manner completely changed once we explained that we would like to try the sidra but had a slight dilemma – we didn’t know how to pour it. He recognized that without proper artful carbonation, the dry, acidic sidra is not a pleasant liquid to drink and immediately took pity on us and made it his responsibility to check on the bottle in the freezer every 5 minutes until he deemed it cold enough to drink.  Commanding us to grab two sidra glasses, he led us out on the back deck to begin the pouring lesson. It seemed simple enough, just keep your eye on the glass the entire time and the liquid will follow… unfortunately my hand defied this logic and my glass ended up swimming in a puddle on the table. Nate’s pouring skills were more graceful, however, and he managed to provide us each with a sample to kick off the night.

Visions of impossibly constructed morsels began dancing through our minds as we sipped our sidra, signalling that it was time to head out for our epic dining adventure. The road to Mugaritz was narrow,  wide enough for only one car, and lined on each side with tall wheat grass thinning out into farms stretching on into the distance. The only traffic turned out to be tractors pulling hay bales, and after a short delay behind one of them we arrived at Mugaritz, an old converted farmhouse covered in ivy. A towering iron owl greeted us in the parking lot, part of the “ESCULPIENDO SUEÑOS EN HIERRO”exhibit taking place this month. Dusk was just beginning to descend upon us as we walked into the restaurant, but the air was warm and the sky was clear so we were seated out on the lovely patio to savor the weather until the warmth faded.

A glass of exceptional vintage prosecco was instantly whisked into our hands, and each of us was given a warm towel in a dish by our glass. Thinking this was to wash our hands before dinner, we  wiped them clean with the warm cloth, but shortly afterwards a waitress explained to us that at Mugaritz the goal is to experience each sensory aspect of the meal in full, so we would be eating most of the upcoming 25 courses with our fingers and would thus need these cloths to clean up between dishes. Seconds later, our first course appeared: “licorice bread with sardine butter”. This was an airy puff of bread about the size of a peach with just the faintest hint of anise at the beginning and end of each bite, accompanied by a salty but barely fishy spread that had an almost lard-like consistency without clinging to the roof of your mouth afterwards. We grinned at each other and concluded that we had no idea how either one of these things could possibly have been created but the tone had been appropriately set for the courses to follow. The first four courses were served outdoors, including one of our favorite dishes of the evening and of our lives – anchovy in live noodle. My first thought when I saw it was of a razor clam- an opaque casing over a grey middle – but it turned out to be a marinated anchovy wrapped in a thin “noodle” sheath, made out of a mysterious plant and topped with a spice and sauce combination that melded into one of the most intricate flavor combinations I have ever experienced.

The sun set and we were guided inside by a line of wait staff. However, instead of being seated immediately, we were taken directly back to the kitchen to see for ourselves how the food is prepared. The space was immaculate, the 40 chefs working in tandem in an astoundingly coordinated rhythm to prepare and send each dish out at precisely the right moment. We were introduced to an American chef who gave us a quick rundown of her experience there and simultaneously offered us a piece of crispy chicken skin dipped in a brown sauce to study while we listened. Though very friendly, she was clearly used to moving at a very fast face and we were soon escorted to our table at the other side of the dining room. There were about 30 diners in the restaurant that evening, each seated at tables spaced far enough apart that we could make out the accents of each visitor but weren’t distracted by our neighbors’ conversation.

Our waiter expertly chose a bottle of white wine for us from the french part of Basque Country, an area only recently discovered for their wine, that went exceptionally well with everything. Dinner took over 4 hours and in that time we were served the 25 courses described in the beginning plus an additional 8 surprise courses that were not on the menu. We noticed that whenever possible, the serving dishes were created out of unique materials other than glass or ceramic – things like river rocks or tree bark, and these were either heated or cooled to add another layer to the sensory effect. The emphasis on playing with texture came through in almost every dish, a particularly memorable one being a piece of light crispy pork skin topped by a piece of fish with the skin on that had somehow been cooked to melt with no resistance as soon as we took a bite of it. At first taste, these two unlikely  ingredients paired in a combination of soft and crunchy, but then immediately they both dissolved in our mouthsinto a whirl of melted flavors.  Some other stand-outs were a drinkable soup that somehow invoked strong flavors almond, radish and a salt, a piece of “meat” created by layering uncountable numbers of swiss chard leaves paired with a piece of sharp aged parmesan, and a think crispy chicken skin with marshmallow and lime dessert. There were also interactive dishes, such as a fire-roasted charred kol rabe to be gutted and immersed in a tangy red sauce, or half of an entire head of roasted garlic that must be dissected and spread on toast.

It is wonderful to be so taken with a meal that conversation revolves almost entirely around the food. Occasionally we would take a break to gaze around the room and try to guess what the custom dishes being brought to each table were and to enjoy the juxtaposition of diners in their fancy suits scraping the last drops of sauce from their plates with their fingers before licking them clean. We were left wondering how almost every dish was created and how many days it must have taken, along with a strong curiosity for what else the kitchen was capable of – perhaps enough to entice us to return and find out. At 1am the kitchen finally shut its doors for the night and we made our way through the dark to the car, Mugaritz cookbook in hand.

After a food coma-induced sleep, we woke up late the next morning and ate a quick breakfast on the patio while taking in the inspiring view over the mountains and valleys surrounding San Sebastian, then set out for the Rioja wine region about 1.5 hours south-east of us. Rioja wines are primarily made from Tempranillo grapes, with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo mixed in and the region is split into three main subregions, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja which each produce their own unique expression of Rioja wine.

Muga, one of the famous bodegas of the Rioja Alta, in the town of Haro, was the first stop on our journey. From Casa Artola we wound through small villages, mountain tunnels, and fields of flowers as we got closer and closer to Rioja, but there was no sign of vineyards. We had no expectations for what the area might look like but as we drew nearer each tunnel held the promise of a world magically transformed on the other side into green landscapes of vineyards. Finally, with only 5 km left to go, the last mountain spat us out into a strange desert-like landscape of scorched earth filled with vineyards, and shortly after we rounded a corner into the tasting room-lined streets of Haro. I was instantly overwhelmed with that internal glow that comes from a purposeful lack of expectations for fear of being disappointed and the subsequent realization that the reality is so much better than what you ever could have imagined. The soft beauty of the pink stone cellars that lined the streets of Haro immediately captivated us, as if enveloping us in a warm and inviting hug.

Most of the cellars in Rioja charge a nominal tasting fee ranging from 50 cents for a taste to $5 for a full glass of some of the more prestigious wines. The wines in Haro were good, but none of them blew us away and we left empty-handed. We had a reservation at the stunning Marques de Riscal winery in the nearby town of Elciego and were short on time when we stopped for what was meant to be a quick bite at a recommended restaurant, Los Agustinos, in a converted monastery in the downtown Haro area. To the astonishment and obvious dismay of our waitress, we did not order wine with lunch, instead choosing only an interesting assortment of tapas – fried mussels in their shells (the deep-frying makes the shells edible, but black calcium is still not that appetizing), calamari,  and surprisingly, one of the best dishes of our entire trip: cuttlefish squid ink croquettes which were perfectly moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside and bursting with a complex mix of delicate flavors of the sea. We left after little more than an hour, such a fast meal apparently a great offense to the restaurant, but Marques de Riscal was calling to us.

The winery (which also houses a spa, hotel and Michelin star restaurant) was built by Frank Gehry, the same architect responsible for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and it seems to have had a similar effect here, attracting visitors from all over the world to its whimsical display. The structure stands out like a gleaming beacon of light in the center of Elciego and yet somehow manages to fit in perfectly with the ambience of the town and surrounding vineyards. We toured the grounds and the cellar which were similar to most other wineries, but there was one noteable exception that for me was the highlight – a cellar where bottles of Gran Reserva wine from every year ever produced by the winery are slowly aging in anticipation of a celebratory occasion special enough to open one. For example, when Frank Gehry visited to sign his contract, a bottle from his birth year, 1929, was opened.

The wines here were more complex and full-bodied than the ones we had tasted earlier. Nate took a risk and bought 3 bottles of their highest rated wine, a 2002 Barón de Chirel, which was not available for tasting but seemed like a promising investment. We loaded our purchases into the car and set out in search of dinner before a short night and early flight home for Nate in the morning. A quick tromp around the ancient streets of Elciego revealed that 8pm is very early for dinner in Spain and nothing was open yet. Instead, we found our way to Beethoven, a local hotspot back in Haro, arriving just as seating was beginning at 8:30pm.  The meal was authentic but not particularly memorable so we got the check and drove towards Bilbao to our hotel where we planned to close out the remainder of the evening researching the wine Nate had bought.

With bated breath we poured the first sip and sighed in relief when Nate’s instincts were spot-on…the wine was incredible. The night went by way too fast as we sat on the patio in the company of the owner and fellow guests, exclaiming after each marvelous sip of wine, watching fireworks light up the shadow of a nearby mountain in celebration of the first day of summer, and plotting our future European adventures. With a final cheers to an incredible week and more to come, we retired for a few hours of sleep before saying goobye to Nate and continuing the adventure in the Pyrenees.

One thought on “Food and wine adventures in Spain: The Mugaritz and Rioja experience

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  1. You have a great concept with this blog! I am particularly drawn to your article on the trip to Spain as it duplicates my recent trip very closely. I was there for my cousin’s wedding (I am dual citizen of US and Spain) in Bilbao, and we took a side trip to Rioja. I’m one of those people that does not like Geary’s work in Bilbao or Elciego at Marques de Riscal, but my wife says it’s because I have no taste. When not in Spain we take short trips around California trying as many wines as we can. Check out our wine country blog and follow us if you like what you see:

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