Cooking in La Rioja. Traditional recipes are always top of the menu

La Rioja
Preparing the cooking session.
La Rioja
The delicious pork fried with milk.

There was a seat for all of us…us being 6 cheery colleagues looking forward to cooking a meal made up of local food from traditional recipes of La Rioja, Spain area.

Although known mainly as a wine region, the food is usually prepared from produce of the area and it only makes good sense to match the wine with the meal.

In the middle of a small town with a large square in Ezcaray, there’s a one star rate Michelin Guide restaurant, Portal de Eschaurren where we had eaten the night before. Eschaurren is not only a beautiful area but the décor of the ultra modern lobby is so startling compared with the faux mint colored stone wall papering, floral draping brushing the floor and a huge antique fire place. This mix of décor is much like the unique modern cooking with some of mama’s recipes thrown in to the menu of the well deserved star restaurant.

This was a precursor to this morning’s cooking class held at Winery Ontanon. Walking to the second floor room it gave us time to view the bright space of the winery cum art exhibit relating to the wine industry and these sculptures, canvases, tiles many dating back a century or two. When we reach our ‘cooking area’, (a large room usually used for conferences, there’s a display table which had all the ingredients for the first course – a local soup.

La Rioja
Pilar checking the food
La Rioja
All doing our share in the kitchen

Our instructor and restaurant owner, Pilar Fernandez, a stunning Spaniard, was to be our cooking instructor for the next few hours. Pilar owns a restaurant, Meson San Anton in Ventosa, small town of where she prepares meals for the pilgrims who pass through on the long walk, often starting in France.

We were all expected to take part in the preparations. Chop chop for some, others stirring over the hot flames of the gas stove. Pilar’s traditional style was a hit for us hard core scribes. The Spanish use hot spices and herbs. They also eat very late and one wonders how they manage their meal that often goes until midnight then make it to work the next day.

Since chistorra (a spicy small sausage) seems to be part of every meal in one way or another, we started off with a soup with potatoes and fried chistorra. Pilar taught us a few very interesting facts. For instance, when dicing any potato, don’t cut right to the end but crack it off, thus giving more flavor to the spud and also acting as an agent for richer sauces. And one way for this recipe, Patatas a la Riojana (potatoes Riojan style) to know when the soup is ready was to see if one of the cubes when pressed against the pot mashes easily. So with that as a start, we added a lot of water, (no measurements for Pilar!) paprika after we had fried the ever present chistsorra in olive oil. Again with no set temperature. Some garlic, red and green pepper, bay leave and basil were added. Add the water but first remove the sausage then add the potatoes and when they are ready add the chistorra, stir, add parsley, paprika for color.

La Rioja
Traditional soup La Rioja style
La Rioja
A meal to remember for Spain

The second course was splendid. Pork loin in fried milk. It’s not an overly expensive meat but certainly made an impact when we finally dug into this delicious preparation. But first, Pilar had the butcher cut and prepare the pork lions as thin as veal scaloppini. Yes, she told me, veal can be used with this recipe.

So we all got busy. Salt (sea salt or kosher salt, a bit of an irony on pork but what the heck, this was a food not religion session!) Dip pork in the best olive oil and then into fine bread crumbs. This was done at the table in the large room. A few of us pushed into the small kitchen while the others watched from the doorway as Pilar added nutmeg. My chore was to turn the pork in the pan after about 4 minutes each side. That done, she then covered entire contents with whole milk for about 3 minutes. Her idea is to pre prepare meals the day before and heat just before guests arrive. And voila, this [mixture created a splendid sauce and the most tasty, tender meat meal which could be served on rice.

Dessert was equally easy especially since peaches were in season. A few took the sharp knives and cut the peaches into small pieces. Using a young wine about 1/2/ cup, we then added a long cinnamon stick, ½ cup sugar and cooked until soft but not mushy. All this could be prepared the day before.

We were delighted as we had our lunch with the wine of her choice from the Winery Ontanon. Pilar was pleased that she had such willing students. We were delighted that all our senses were well fulfilled.