Written by: Sabina Baladzhaeva
A country with enormous culinary tradition; mouthwatering tapas at the bars in the North, and huge paellas with golden rice in the South, Spain is surprisingly quiet on Christmas evening.
Christmas is sacred to the Spanish families. The restaurants are closed, and the real magic is happening behind the kitchen doors in Spanish households. This has always been this way, and it has not changed a bit over the course of time.
Shortly after I have moved to Spain, I was lucky enough to witness this centuries-old tradition – and even better: for a few hours I have actually become a part of that magic.
We were visiting my stepfather’s family in La Rioja – tiny region on the far north of the country; it is in fact the wine capital of Spain. But not only the wine, but also its cuisine makes La Rioja well worth the excitement.
Typical Christmas menu highlights rich and abundant local produce: vegetable garden – huerta riojana – provides some of the best harvests in the country; meats, especially lamb and offal, are also extremely popular in La Rioja, outside the city limits small households still sell and produce artisan cured meats and sausages.
We have arrived in Logroño – La Rioja´s capital, small but vibrant city – on Christmas day; it was already past noon, and the preparations for the festive dinner were in full swing. I was anxious to help. Sliced vegetables were being thrown into the frying pan, sizzling and emitting delicious scents; large saucepan with compota navideña, sweet stew of dried fruit spiced with cinnamon and orange zest, was bubbling and steaming on the stove next to it. There was still a lot of work to be done, and hardly anyone had argued whether I should join in, or no.
As soon as I entered the kitchen, I have noticed large paper bag with some leafy green, which could easily be celery’s distant relative – the stems had the same shape, although they were larger, prickled and purplish. One of the women working in the kitchen noticed my puzzled stare and held me out a pair of gloves, “Put them on. Otherwise, you’d get bruised”.
She clearly knew what she was talking about. Cardoon – plant I saw in the bag – features in numerous regional recipes; the art of its preparation in La Rioja is mastered to perfection. Cardo Navideño – a mouthwatering dish which combines delicate flavor of cardoons, fine béchamel sauce and salted marcona almonds – is a staple on Christmas table.
Fish is rare, but bacalao – salt cod –is hugely beloved by riojanos. Bacalao a la riojana marries distinctive flavor of cod fish, with rich tomato sauce and local subtly sweet pimientos asados (fire-roasted pappers).
While cod is simmering in bright tomato sauce, the real thing is still cordero asado – roasted suckling lamb. And when it finally comes out of the oven – with golden crust, filling the air with fragrant scents of rosemary and garlic – family is already seated at the table, sipping delicious Rioja wine. And as the laughter grows louder, those hours spent in the kitchen start seeming like a distant dream.