Northern Spain: in search of wine and food part 1

There were three ranks of smart, white taxis outside Madrid airport, perhaps twenty, maybe thirty cars and the one that we took was driven by an aspiring Jason Bourne. By the time we reached our hotel, the location of which, our Bruce Willis act-alike had absolutely no idea, we had managed enough U-turns, over-takes and last minute lane changes, to convince us that we’d earned a large glass of wine in a setting that was hopefully tranquil.

The  Hotel Quinta de los Cedros did not disappoint and in the jasmine scented garden, with Albarino to hand, my nerves settled. In the early evening, in the partial shade of trees, the temperature was perfect and dinner wasn’t bad either. The next morning we took the train, bullet shaped and bullet fast, north to Leon for the start of two weeks devoted to finding new wines and visiting restaurants that looked interesting and hopefully inspirational.

The train, which cruises at 199kph where it can’t cruise at 249kph, offered chilled mini bottles of Penedes Vino Blanco and excellent crisps cooked with herbs, olive oil and sea salt. The arid expanse of La Mancha flashed past the window and a sense of calm, which I seldom feel on a British train, washed over me. 

Familiar with Albarino from Galicia I was keen to try the wines local to Leon which are labelled Albarin without the “o”. One at 16 Euros a bottle in one restaurant and another elsewhere at 20 Euros, didn’t disappoint; both had good fruit and acidity and were better than supermarket Albarino offerings found in the U.K. that I’ve come across.

Supermarkets in Spain I found offered a decent range of wines, nearly all Spanish, and prices offered some great bargains. Don Ramon 2014 Campo de Borja, which retails in the USA at around the equivalent of £5 – £7, is on the supermarket shelves for 1.99 Euros. For a bulk wine made to such a keen price, it is ludicrously good. The supermarkets in Spain have some more unusual offerings too: I found a Xamprada 2013 Methode Champenoise from El Bierzo, near Leon that was a knockout for just 6 Euros. A fifty fifty blend of organically grown chardonnay and godello from an estate founded in 1989, the wine, aged for 18 months on the lees, had considerable elegance for its modest price tag.

The north of Spain offers numerous Michelin starred restaurants and some fabulous scenery. There are soaring mountains and salmon rivers that are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, only the mountains are far bigger. The coastline has sandy beaches and the cities are a delight to explore on foot. That the north of Spain is seemingly almost unfrequented by tourists, bewilders me, but perhaps eucalyptus forests, Glen Coe like scenery and salmon fishing, are not what most folks associate with a holiday in Spain.

We based ourselves initially in Leon in the 14th century town house hotel Posada Regia. The three storey house with an ancient and precariously sloping staircase, has its own restaurant that’s in the Michelin guide. The cooking is generally okay but like the décor it’s fairly firmly rooted in the 1970’s. We tried the Michelin starred Cocinandos in Leon but it was rather formulaic. That said the mussel stuffed, martini infused, olives and stuffed tomatoes with concasse of tongue were memorable, the paired wines were well chosen and there was nothing wrong with anything but it was just too similar to so many of the one Michelin starred restaurants I’ve eaten in, that I could have been anywhere and what I was seeking was places that had a strong local identity and a stamp of individualism.

After time in Leon we headed north through the jaw-dropping scenery of the Picas de Europa mountains to reach Arriondas, which we made our base for the next week. Arriondas has one Michelin starred restaurant in the town and there were others nearby that we wanted to try.   El Coral del Indianu restaurant, in the middle of the town, is run by a chef proprietor who, not content with one Michelin star, seems to be pushing himself to achieve two. We dined in the small garden, encircled by vast hydrangeas and found the eleven course tasting menu a highly imaginative succession of well thought out creations. There was emphasis on local ingredients and historic dishes: there was a bean stew that you could never believe could taste so good.  We drank a bottle of biodynamic Finca Calvestra Merseguera 2012 Mustiguillo, which was really good. From the first course of a bonbom of blue cabrales cheese in white chocolate with roasted apple at 1.30pm to the finale – an expression of red apple at 4pm, this was a lunch that will linger long in my memory. Food, wine, service and surroundings were all first rate and what really nailed it for me was the way that each dish led to the next and how, by the end, you’d been subtly brought back to the very start. A journey of tastes that was inventive and satisfying.