Spanish winemaker Maria Martinez and her husband Pedro, a chef, are as passionate about sourcing the best ingredients as they are about cooking them. Fiona beckett visits the couple in the Riojan hills for a cookery lesson and supper under the stars.
Shopping with Maria Martinez is like rediscovering a lost art. She picks critically through the new season’s artichokes at the central food market in the Riojan town of Logroño. She insists that the stallholder select her the best mushrooms: ‘all the same size and shape, otherwise they won’t cook evenly’. She embraces the assistant at the butcher’s like an old friend (which, of course, she is. She’s been shopping there for 20 years, even though she has to cross town to go there). She jokes with the man in the spice shop about the aphrodisiac qualities of vanilla.
We are preparing a meal – appropriately enough, for Decanter’s 30th anniversary, to go with a 1975 magnum of Montecillo Gran Reserva Especial, Martinez’s top cuvée. She herself reaches her 30th anniversary as a winemaker next year. And the bodega recently celebrated its 130th anniversary. Much cause for celebration, then.
The menu is to be lamb cutlets cooked over vine cuttings (we are in Spain after all); pears in Rioja, her husband Pedro’s favourite dessert; and – at my insistence – menestra, the famous and fabulously delicious Basque vegetable stew. It is the menestra that is causing the problems on our shopping trip. Martinez is not happy. The artichokes are poor due to the unseasonally cold spring weather, the beans are not local and have come from the south of Spain. She resists. I persist. She graciously gives in. We buy the artichokes and beans, together with white chard and borraja, a stalky, delicately sweet vegetable that Spanish food writer María José Sevilla later tells me is a member of the cardoon and artichoke family.
Menestra is one of those dishes, like cassoulet or bouillabaisse, about which huge arguments rage. Basically it can be made with any green vegetables, ‘from two up to 20’ as Martinez puts it, but the ideal time of year to prepare it is in spring when artichokes and spring vegetables such as peas and beans are in season. There are, apparently, certain ground rules. You mustn’t use dried beans or other pulses or peppers (too slimey). Jars of vegetables are permissible but should not be mixed with fresh ones. Spinach is fine if added at the end. Opinions differ as to whether you should use onions, garlic and herbs; whether the vegetables should be cooked together or separately; and whether hard-boiled egg should be added. The consistency should be more of a potage than a soup, although some cooks like to make it more liquid.
On the way back to the Martinez house we stop off at the bodega to collect our bottle. Martinez proudly shows us round the cellars, which date back to 1874. They have just been extensively renovated. ‘You are the first people to see them for 20 years,’ she tells us.
It must have been quite a struggle to become a winemaker back in 1976? ‘Oh yes,’ says Martinez with feeling. ‘My parents thoug ht I was crazy. My father had pulled out of farming and set up a transportation business, and couldn’t understand why I wanted to do it. But I was born in Logroño and I love the land.’
She also went out on a limb in her approach to winemaking. She sold off the bodega’s vineyards (‘you get much better grapes if you pick and choose than if you have to use the ones you are stuck with’). She is one of the few winemakers in the region to age her wines in French oak. She has her own in-house cooperage and insists on barrels twice the thickness of the average commercial barrel (‘I want my wines to age very slowly’). She won’t release her top cuvées in a year she considers substandard and, unlike the Consulador (the regulatory body for the region), is freely prepared to admit that some vintages are poor.
We sneak a taste of the current release of the bodega’s top wine, a 1981 Gran Reserva Especial, a seductively complex cocktail of dark cherries, damsons, prunes, tea roses, saddle soap, old leather and liquorice. ‘More Haut-Médoc than Rioja,’ comments Martinez. ‘The wines I am making are absolutely out of fashion. Most 1981s from this region died years ago.’ She triumphantly pulls out a bottle of 1929 to compare it with, the bottom of the still-intact cork studded with glittering crystals. The rim is as colourless as water but the flavours still true and surprisingly fresh. ‘You can see they are brothers but each one has its own personality.’
IN THE KITCHEN
Back at the Martinez house in the hilltop village of Sorzano we meet her husband Pedro. ‘Madre mia!’ he exclaims when he sees our shopping. A former chef, he quickly puts us to work. First the pears need to go on, then the vegetables have to be prepared for the menestra. He shows me how to peel the fibrous strips off the borraja to leave the mild, sweet stalks and how to get to the sweet inner heart of the artichokes. He throws in some wild asparagus which he has picked from the nearby hedgerows, so fresh that you can simply snap it between your fingers. While the vegetables are cooking he cuts up the pancetta, ham and some fabulous wild boar chorizo. It was made from the beast whose grizzled head adorns the kitchen wall, a trophy from one of his regular hunting expeditions.
Next the cutlets, which come from local milk-fed lamb. Pedro puts an armful of vine cuttings on the brick barbecue outside – not the current year’s, which are too green, but well-dried twigs from 2003. Within 10 minutes they blaze up and burn down to a smouldering white ash, hot enough to cook the meat without burning it.
Pedro deftly arranges the cutlets on a double-sided barbecue rack which he puts straight on the coals. A deliciously fragrant smoke rises up. Finally, he anoints the mushrooms with a rich olive oil, garlic and parsley paste, and grills them on a hot plate. At last we’re ready to eat!
We sit at the table in the garden overlooking the green rolling hills round the house. Pedro has binoculars so we can look at the wild deer. The 1975 is uncorked, slightly more faded and delicate than the 1981, but still full of soft, seductive damson fruit. Breaking all the rules of food and wine matching, it goes amazingly well with the artichoke- and asparagus-infused menestra – though whether that’s due to the long cooking, the soft tannins or the smoky notes of the chorizo we can’t decide. We nibble the cutlets in our fingers, glorying in crisp fat and sweet meat and agree, with no pretence at objectivity, that Rioja is the perfect wine for cooking pears. We stay out chatting, listening to the birds, until the sun goes down. ‘At night you can see the lights of seven villages right across to Logrono,’ says María. We feel like real Riojanos.
Montecillo wines are available at Harrods, Partridges and www.everywine.co.uk.
Maria and Pedro’s Menestra
María and Pedro’s version is made with ingredients that were available in the market but you can easily substitute other seasonal vegetables (see main text).
10–12 baby artichokes
2 heads of borraja
1/2 large head of acelga (chard)
250g asparagus, trimmed
250g green beans
3–4 potatoes, diced into small cubes
125g thickly cut pancetta (streaky bacon), diced
A thick slice of dry-cured Spanish ham (about 100g)
About 75g chorizo, diced
4–5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Olive or corn oil
Salt and pepper
Trim the artichoke bottoms and strip off the outer leaves until you are right down to the yellow leaves at the inner heart. Trim off the very top of the remaining leaves, then cut the hearts in half and drop them into a pan of acidulated water (water with lemon juice added to stop them discolouring).
Cut the top and bottom off each stalk of borraja and peel away the fibrous strips. Remove the green part of the chard leaves and chop the white stalks.
Trim and chop the asparagus and roughly slice the beans. Tip all the vegetables into a large pan of boiling, lightly salted water and cook until tender – about 30–40 minutes. (Some cooks cook each vegetable separately.)
Fry the potato and cook until tender, then add the pancetta. Once the fat starts to run, add the diced ham, chorizo and garlic. Drain the vegetables and tip the fried potatoes and ham into the pan. Mix well, season and serve.
Handling artichokes can stain your hands black so you may want to use plastic or rubber gloves for this.
Pears in Rioja (peras al vino)
An incredibly easy, classic Riojan dessert
6 medium to large large conference pears
1 75cl bottle of Rioja
1 stick of cinnamon
Peel the pears carefully with a sharp knife, keeping them whole and leaving the stalk intact. Pour the bottle of wine and an equal quantity of water into a large pan, then add the sugar, stir and place the pears in the pan with a stick of cinnamon.
Bring to the boil and simmer the pears until they are thoroughly cooked (about 45–60 minutes, depending on the size of the pears). Remove the pears and cinnamon, and set aside. Carry on reducing the liquid until it has reduced by about two thirds and is a thick pouring consistency. Pour over the pears and serve warm.