Our students had invited us to lunch at a restaurant called Vista Alegre, the Cheerful View, in the village of Villamediana, Rioja, Spain. It was bright, roomy, and very tastefully decorated. The dining area’s wooden beams matched the tables. I didn’t look at the menu; I had learned to let our hosts order. The Spanish eat two courses at every meal; the first vegetables and the second meat or fish. I found this a bit disconcerting at first, but after a year in Madrid, I had got used to it. It is one of the many healthy elements about the Mediterranean Diet as it aids the digestion.
Inevitably, we had a communal salad, but this one came encased in white asparagus spears, criss-crossed like wooden roof beams. They were wonderful and a local specialty of La Rioja and next-door Navarra. Another local specialty was my first dish Pimientos del Piquillo. Piquillo peppers: the local red pepper, resemble a large chilli rather than a bell pepper, and come to a definite point – el piquillo and were bathed in olive oil and garlic. They too were wonderful- hot enough to caress but not to burn the roof of your mouth.
‘These are magnificent,’ I exclaimed, ‘absolutely everything I have eaten since I arrived in La Rioja has not only tasted superb but the textures have all been right as well. I love cooking and texture is so important. How do they get the peppers like this?’ I asked.
‘They are roasted, then peeled when cool and they are frozen or conserved in jars. Home grown, homemade conserving is very popular here. The restaurant will probably do all their own conserves or have a contract with somebody locally,’ explained my student.
I was amazed and to think only two weeks ago I hadn’t even known this place existed. Miniature lamb chops chuletillas were my second course. Portions were big in Spain, seemed to be bigger in La Rioja but even I did not expect a plateful of a dozen chops. They were laid out in a spiral like a wheel, each one leaning on its partner; it made a fantastic visual display. As delighted as I was with the presentation, I found myself facing a dilemma. Attractive as the dish was, there didn’t seem any room for manoeuvres with a knife and fork. I quickly looked round to see if I could work out the local approach but to my horror the only other people I could see where using their fingers. I took a deep breath, envisaging that the first chop would go flying of the plate. No sooner had I reached for my knife and fork when our students and hosts burst out in unison,
‘NO, NO, NO! Chops in La Rioja MUST be eaten with your fingers.’
I picked up my first chop with my fingers, definitely more practical but going against everything, I had been brought up to think as good table manners. Needless to say, they were perfect, enough salt, (I had already learnt in Madrid that to add free salt to your food is an insult to the cook in Spain,) mouth-watering, mouth melting and bursting with flavour. Lamb in all forms is the speciality meat in La Rioja.
‘You must have Mil Hojas for dessert. It is a typical Riojan dessert,’ said Concha.
‘What are Mil Hojas?’ I asked
‘Wait and find out,’ replied Victor
I waited and I found out. Milhojas are vanilla slices. The thousand slices refers to the flaky pastry. They’re filled with vanilla custard and whipped fresh cream; they can be eaten hot or cold. When hot they have an egg yolk sauce coating crisped with sugar. It was like eating a vanilla slice crème bruleé fusion. I already knew I had arrived in a gastronomic heaven after visiting the Elephant Walk, the area of the Tapas bars in the city. This meal had just confirmed every opinion I had formed about the food in this magical place. And the wine, the name Rioja speaks for itself.
This is an extract from my book on Rioja, I went to teach there one summer and I returned the following year then stayed another twenty.