When most people think of food in Spain, vegetables are not usually the first items to come to mind, More typically, most people would think of the justifiably famous jamón Ibérico de bellota, a variety of other pork products including cochinillo or roast suckling pig, or perhaps their incredible bounty from the seas around the Iberian peninsula. Given the sensational nature of each, it is not difficult to understand why those items might be the ones most closely associated with Spanish gastronomy. I have heard it said that Spain would be a very difficult country to be vegetarian or especially vegan. In a certain sense that is true as meat and fish ARE very much essential components of the cuisine, and most Spaniards don’t really understand what veganism is. The mistake, however, would be to think that because meat and fish are so important, that the Spanish don’t understand or appreciate vegetables. That couldn’t be further from the truth as the Spanish grown and cook some of the very best and most delicious vegetables in the entire world. Nowhere is that more true than in the Autonomous Community of Navarra in the northeast of the country.
El Crucero is neither a vegetarian nor a vegan restaurant, but it is a restaurant in which its vegetables are front and center. Located in an older, somewhat formidable brick edifice in a small square in the small southern Navarran town of Corella, not far from Tudela, where I would be later catching a train to Barcelona.
Upon entering the restaurant, I was surprised to see a café and bar, rather than the fine dining room I was expecting. It turned out that El Crucero serves double duty as a café and a fine dining restaurant with the café located on the ground level and the restaurant a flight higher. The café is neat, clean and a happy version of its type. I could see enjoying good, hearty fare in there, but not the kind of cuisine that I was expecting.
As we were waiting for the last in our party to arrive, we enjoyed a Vermouth from the bar’s tap and a banderilla Gilda, a simple, but tasty, classic Basque pintxo of olives, pickled guindilla peppers and boquerones on a toothpick. The pintxo is said to have been inspired the curves of the actress Rita Hayworth in the 1946 movie, Gilda. This version omitted the peppers, but was verde and salado, if not piccante, nevertheless.
The banderillas, as well as other dishes in the meal, had been accented with the family’s own olive oil, under the label Condado de Martiniega. This was spectacular oil! I loved it so much that I bought a few bottles to carry home with me.
The last of our party, Carlos Aliaga, was a very important member of our group for two big, initial reasons. The first was that he had brought the wines, from his winery, Bodegas Camino del Vilar, under the label Viña Aliaga. The second was that he was going to give me a ride to Tudela to catch my train after lunch. Best yet, however, he was a thoroughly delightful dining partner.
The upstairs dining room was a lot more of what I was expecting for the meal. While not as elaborate or luxurious as one might encounter in a Michelin 3-star level restaurant, it was elegant with white tablecloths, comfortable high-backed chairs and plenty of natural light streaming in through the tall windows. It was a suitably lovely spot for the meal that was to come.
Aliaga opened the first of his wines. It was a bright, strawberry pink rosado called Lagrima de Garnacha, made from free run juice, fresh from the 2014 harvest. The wine was bright, clean, fruity and well balanced with a nice acidity It was also a perfect match for our first course.
Cardoons are rarely found in the United States, and when they are, their freshness and quality are often suspect. Not so for the local red cardoons of Corella. Cardoons typically need to be cooked, but here, to show off their immaculate freshness and quality, they were served raw in a salad with fresh escarole, pomegranate seeds and a red wine vinaigrette. This salad was a revelation of flavors and textures. The balance was impeccable with each component noticeable and enjoyable on its own and then in conjunction with the others. The dish was an impressive jumping off point for the local vegetables.
The cardoons proved versatile. Ordinarily, I might chafe at a repetition of main ingredients, but with this dish, cardoons fried tempura style, it was so completely different from the salad, that it might as well have been a distinct ingredient. Simpler in flavors than the salad, the fried cardoons still satisfied by virtue superb, greaseless technique that resulted in clean, sweet flavors.
A white was poured to accompany the fried cardoons, a fresh sauvignon Blanc with clean, fresh grassy notes that complemented the crisp cardoons.
There are roasted peppers, then there are roasted pimientos de cristal, as delicious as roasted peppers or just about anything can be. Roasted over grape-vine cuttings, beautifully plated with a deep red color and served with garlic and some of the brilliant house olive oil, these peppers had astounding flavor. Sweet, but multi-dimensional, “meaty” and complex, I had never before had roasted red peppers quite like them. If these peppers were not a testament to the quality of Navarran produce in early February, I don’t know what could be. The memory will likely haunt me until such time as I can enjoy them again.
The nuances of the peppers were picked up by the wine a Cuvée of 85% Tempranillo with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, that actually saw some limited time (6 months) in new American and French oak barrels. It possessed good levels of acid and a manageably low level of alcohol at 13%.
As the pimientos de cristal are to regular roasted red peppers, pochas are to ordinary dried white beans. These had been stewed to a remarkable consistency, creamy and soft, but fully intact. The flavors were hearty and delicious with the savoriness massaged with the brightening addition of pickled green chiles. I have no idea if any meat products had been used in the cooking of this dish, but if they were, they were not obvious. To this point of the meal, meat had not been apparent, and any actual roles played by animal proteins, fats or minerals were squarely as supporting elements, if present at all.
The pochas were rich enough to carry a full bodied red and that is what they received. The 2000 Gran Selección was the reverse of the 2012 Cuvée in that it had a preponderance of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) with a minority of Tempranillo (30%). It too, had been extremely well chosen for its accompanying dish.
To this point of the meal, vegetables ruled, but Spain, being Spain, even in the heart of vegetable country, made had to make an appearance and I’m very glad that it did. Chef/owner Nabor Jiménez brought out roast kid, shearing it apart into manageable pieces at the table.
The meat was supremely tender, succulent and sublimely delicious, the essence of carnality. We selected our own pieces with plenty to go around. I tasted ribs, loin and leg with each magnificent, yet subtly different. The cooking was spot on and the seasoning the same. The flavors were of the animal with minimal adornment, which was precisely as something so inherently perfect should have been. Roasted potatoes lay underneath, a marvelous vehicle for soaking up the young beast’s magnificently rendered juices. This restaurant astounded with the quality of its vegetable cooking, but meat played no second fiddle.
Washing down the sweet succulence was a tag-team effort of three seductively delicious and rich red wines. One was a Garnacha from the 2010 vintage made from old vines, that unfortunately had to be removed after this wine was made, making it the last vintage of its kind for this winery. Another was a Tempranillo and Cab combo from the 2001 vintage and the last was a Garnacha based bomb from 2002. While Aliaga makes wines in a predominantly old style, the latter two employed a fair amount of wood that softened over time. While I have opined against big “Parker”-style wines in the past, it is not because I never enjoy them. While these wines were still relatively restrained compared to real Parker behemoths, they were higher in alcohol and wood than most of the wines we had tasted on this trip. Aliaga managed to do it with finesse, however, and never lost sight of the underlying greatness and flavors of his grapes. In short, he didn’t overdo it. This simple dish of roast cabrito proved the perfect foil for these lush wines.
The final savory course returned to the central nature of vegetables within the context of this meal, but not totally. Fabulous local artichokes were fried and paired with seared foie gras, an unusual and decadent combination. The sweetness of the artichokes melded superbly with the creamy foie, without cloying, as so often happens with sweet pairings for foie. The artichokes added depth as a savory component in addition to its restrained sugar content.
Additional sugar was added with the wine pairing a 2012 late harvest Moscatel, but this, as all great dessert wines do, added as much fat cutting acidity as sugar to completely balance the equation.
The Moscatel was kept through dessert, a purely Spanish turrón ice cream with a masterful, torrijas, a superior Spanish version of French toast made with brioche. I have come to shy away from desserts that are only about sugar, but I did not need to shy away from this. While sweet, it wasn’t overly so and was well balanced with salty and acidic components.
This meal brought to a close a spectacular wine and food foray across a wide breadth of Spain, as I accompanied my friend and guide, Gerry Dawes, later joined by the CEO of the Spanish Artisan Wine and Spirits Group – Gerry Dawes Selections, Bill Sciambi. It was a fitting way to end this portion of the trip, but my trip was not yet over.
I was heading back to Barcelona to finish my trip and tie up a few loose ends. In the meantime, Carlos Aliaga, was gracious enough to drive me to his home town of Tudela so that I could catch my train to Barcelona. Before he did, though, we had just enough time to visit his nearby vineyards, where he explained to me how they utilize the advantage of old vines and espalera style trellising to create their unique wines. I made my train with a few minutes to spare, sitting down with a big sigh. A great trip was now over. Had I been heading anywhere but Barcelona, I would have wanted to be heading home, but Barcelona feels like a second home to me. I was happy to be returning, even if only for just a few more days.