Wine tasting in Rioja

La Rioja

La Rioja

Say “Spanish wine” and most people will think Rioja. And until we started planning a trip there I didn’t really know more than that; renowned reds and some good whites. So. La Rioja is a northern region of Spain, just inland from the Basque country around Bilbao and overlapping with it a little. It is essentially a great big east-west valley of sun-baked soils sandwiched between two ranges of green mountains. You can easily explore the whole region from a central base like Logrono, the largest town in the area with a fine historic centre.

Rioja isn’t like France or California, where wineries range from industrial monsters down to tiny cellar-door outfits. There basically doesn’t seem to be anything at the small scale, wineries are either quite big or really big. We also found that the articles we read online were backed-up by the advice in the tourist information and at the front desk of hotels: “you have to book to visit a winery, and visits are only at certain times”.

This isn’t quite true.

Ysios

Ysios

You have to book if you want a tour of the winery, and it seems to be assumed this is what all visitors want! But if you patiently explain that you only want to taste the wine, maybe buy some, then it magically transpires that most of the large or famous wineries have a bar and shop where you can drop in at any time, and that arrangements for a tasting can be made by phone with some smaller wineries (it goes without saying that you should probably buy some bottles, unless it’s really yucky, as you may have put them out of their way).

So we visited a few of the biggies. Ysios: has the most jaw-dropping architecture, and a very corporate tasting from a nice PR girl. Marques de Murrieta: classy and traditional, with a shop and bar where you can buy various tastings from an enomatic dispenser. Baigorri: thoroughly modern hilltop winery, we took the very interesting tour & tasting but they also have a bar/shop where you can taste. Marques de Riscal: with a slick shop and bar/cafe, and a double-jaw-dropping Gehry architected hotel/winery that you’re not allowed to actually see unless you pay for a tour. Vina Tondonia: slightly bonkers modern tasting room, very reasonable price for the wines on tasting. In all of these we were looked after by very charming PR girls or bar staff.

Marques de Riscal

Marques de Riscal

And which were the best wines? Ah, that would spoil the fun, and besides everyone’s tastes vary. But I will say that these were all makers of excellent quality Rioja, both white and red. You’ll just have to come over and try for yourself. One little tip: if, like us, you are disappointed that you can’t see Gehry’s hotel at Marques de Riscal, turn immediately left out of the car park and wend your way uphill on the tiny road through the vineyards. Look back – you get a great view of the hotel and the village. ; )

Of course, it wouldn’t be a successful wine trip if we didn’t accidentally find one cool local winery with a friendly proprietor. This time the accident was a bottle of 2001 Urbina Reserva we had with our Michelin 2-star meal at Echaurren. It was bloody lovely (so was the meal). So on a whim we asked at reception whether they knew if the winery had a bar or a shop (“just for tasting, not for a visit, yes we know visits are only 11am on weekdays and cost 5 Euros, we just want to taste and maybe buy some”) and they phoned up and arranged something for 5pm-ish the next day. When we got there, we were met by an old chap with a limp and zero English who talked us through his wines. Another difference between Rioja and almost anywhere else we’ve gone wine tasting is that they keep hold of their wines for a few years before selling them, rather than flogging ’em young and telling you they’ll be better with a few years “in your cellar” (pffff!). Even so, we were staggered to find he was selling the 2001 Reserva, alongside 1997 and 1994 Gran Reservas! For 14 Euros!

So that was a nice end to a great wine trip. It helps that the villages and towns are beautiful, with medieval churches and more warm golden stone than the Cotswolds. And that the food is absolutely splendid no matter where you go or what you pay; the narrow lanes of old Logrono packed with tapas bars are particularly good fun. And if you want to splurge, I can totally recommend Echaurren!

Millan de Cogollo, edge of Rioja

Millan de Cogollo, edge of Rioja

Review: Hive Beach Cafe, Bridport

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

The Dorset coast, Chesil Beach

Hiking the South-West Coast Path could be considered quite a foodie ramble. Taking you past Ricksteinton (aka Padstow), and the home of Nathan Outlaw in Rock, along the rugged Cornish coast which boasts more and more top-notch dining, like a personal favourite of mind the Gurnard’s Head. Thence through the South Hams of Devon, with just about the greatest concentration of artisan producers in the UK and blindingly good seafood at The Oyster Shack near Bigbury, then more Michelin-starred dining at the Elephant in Torquay. Eventually you’ll reach Dorset. Although by then you’ll have been walking for five weeks or so, which means you’ll want to stop for a nice lunch.

Which is handy, because the Hive Beach Cafe on Burton Bradstock beach near Bridport is right on route. It’s a proper beach cafe; the mish-mash of wooden buildings and pavilion tents look like they’d blow away in a

Crab sarnies

Crab sarnies

strong gale and if the day is anything less than freezing or pouring then the eager customers quickly spill out onto the various old wooden picnic tables on the terraces outside. Service looks chaotic but manages to somehow work wonders with such a rambling collection of tables. It certainly helps that the sun is shining and everything that comes out of the kitchen is brilliant.

This is where to come for spankingly fresh, generous and well-treated seafood. Much of it landed within ten miles, the rest just a few miles further down the coast in Devon. Maureen went for crab sandwiches. Properly served on brown bread, with a really beautiful mixture of white and brown meat generously stuffed between the slices. The side salad was well-dressed and worth eating (I have a real bugbear for this – so few side salads are actually good for anything but presentation).

Mackerel

Mackerel

My dish was a proper lunch; mackerel. What I actually got were two really large and handsome mackerel, grilled to perfection. It was one of those plates of food that makes you grin even before it’s been put down in front of you, because it’s so obviously generous and so obviously good. The fish didn’t disappoint, beautifully cooked to toothsome perfection. But there’s more! It was set on a vast bed of salad, broad beans and peas and fennel and tiny local prawns. Dozens of them. All delicious. The salad would have been a great lunch. And then! On the side was a great big dollop of smoked mackerel whizzed up with mayonnaise, and when this was combined with the rest what you have is one of the best plates of food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

It’s lovely country, is the Dorset coast. But the Hive Beach Cafe really is worth a special trip. My dish was £17 but if I transported it to any of the finest fish restaurants in the country it wouldn’t look out of place. They’ve got a full wine list, and their own labelled lager is amazingly good and full-flavoured for a sunny day.

Hey, and while I’m at it: shout out to The Abbey House in Abbotsbury for a great cream tea at the end of the day, in a beautiful garden in an eye-wateringly pretty village.

Abbotsbury tea!

Abbotsbury tea!

Review: The Bottle of Sauce, Cheltenham

The Piggy Smalls

The Piggy Smalls

The Bottle of Sauce is a great big, new, modern pub tucked a short stroll away from Cheltenham High Street. It’s the new partner to a couple of successful pubs in Oxford, The Rickety Press and the The Rusty Bicycle. They’ve hit on a really excellent formula, pared back furnishing, bright colours, bare wood, good beer and a rambling collection of rooms and outside courtyard. Really good beer, actually. I don’t know if they brew their own or just get it badged up, but I was honestly startled at the depth of flavour and funky floral notes in their Dodo Lager.

Yeah, I drank a lager and I liked it.

But as usual we’re here for the food. They’ve got a separate canteen room, but in effect it just had more tables than the rest of the place; food is ordered at the main bar and served wherever you’ve found to sit. Interestingly, back in Oxford they experimented with life as a gastropub and reached the heady heights of a Bib Gourmand, before deciding that they really and truly just wanted to run a brilliant pub with food on the side. And so the menu is a mixture of burgers and pizzas. But let me tell you, their burgers are friggin’ excellent.

I ordered the Piggy Smalls, an April special but they’d be nuts not to repeat it (with variations). Massive helping of spicy pulled pork, moist and delicious, with the exceedingly black and splendid BBQ sauce of the house. Stabs of pickle mixed in there too, and the bun was fine and just about held together around the glorious mess. Maureen’s burger was just a splendid piece of beef. Cooked medium, no pink left (hey, no gastro!) but still very moist and – most winningly – tasting very richly of powerful beef. Good chips. Phew, that’s enough adjectives. I’m spent.

So, the food is filthy and good. But this was a pub on Thursday night, the music was loud, the crowd was too, and we had to shout at each other over the table to discuss the deliciousness of the burgers. Just so you know. We’ll definitely find our way there for lunch some day, brunch too probably, but only of an evening if we’re really in the mood. Hey, no gastro.

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

No gastro at the Bottle of Sauce

Review: Jolly Nice, nr Stroud

Jolly Nice

Jolly Nice

We found Jolly Nice three years ago. Someone had bought a defunct petrol station on the A419 and turned it into a bit of a farm shop. Only it was a surprising little farm shop because they made a really good flat white, astonishingly gorgeous salted caramel milkshakes with their own ice cream, and sold burgers from an old airstream parked to one side.

You wouldn’t recognise it today. There’s still a farm shop, but it has grown. And the coffee has moved across the forecourt to a dedicated coffee bar. There’s also a dedicated kitchen for turning out the burgers, a separate butchery counter, two yurts full of tables and chairs, a fenced off pasture with picnic seating for summer days, and just this season a little homewares shop has slotted in alongside the butcher. So… is this a sad tale of sell-out and rampant commercialisation? Well, the homeware nook did make me twitch, just a little. But this is a million miles from Daylesford Organics, purveyors of mightily marked-up produce to the Chipping Campden set.

Burgers

Burgers

For starters, the seating is mostly bistro chairs and old benches. And you can’t get your burger on a plate, it comes in a little cardboard box whether you’re taking it away or “eating in”. And if you stand back and squint, you can still see the old petrol station forecourt hidden under what feels like organic and natural growth. Just a year ago there was only one yurt! Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bargain farm shop such as you might find in a lonely corner of Shropshire. They’re selling produce from small and artisan producers, it’s priced appropriately but not eye-wateringly.

Their burgers are grrrrrreat though! Cooked pink (don’t tell the flippin’ inspectors!) with a bit of cheddar and smokey bacon on top, in a good brioche bun with an appropriate bit o’ lettuce and mayo, it’s really splendid meat from their own shorthorn herd and juicy enough to have the bun dissolving in your fingers if you linger too long. And under a tenner. I also need to give a good shout-out to another of their staples: the KFP. Kentucky Fried Pheasant in a bun, that is. What a brilliant idea. Delicious too, the strong meat really succulent in seasoned breadcrumb.

I can’t really say more than this: given we live 30 minutes away in Cheltenham, it’s ridiculous the number of times we manage to find an excuse to wind up pulling into Jolly Nice, for a burger or maybe just a coffee and a cake.

Farm Shop

Farm Shop

Review: Koj, Cheltenham

KFC

KFC

I feel the need to ‘splain this up front. We were lucky enough to visit Japan just over a year ago, and as well as some convoluted kaiseki feasts and high-end tempura temples, we also ate tons and tons of delicious casual Japanese cooking – tonkatsu restaurants, okonomiyaki places, and smoky bars serving yakitori and beer to the after-work crowd of men in suits. So we enjoyed the real deal, at ridiculous prices (only in Japan can you enjoy a fantastic meal for under a tenner and then struggle to find a basic hotel for under a hundred!).

So I was going to need to employ some Zen and empty my mind before dining at the new casual Japanese street food-inspired, no-sushi restaurant opening in Cheltenham. Koj, the Kickstarter-backed dream of Andrew Kojima. It’s a friendly place, although it seems to be a little unsure of whether it’s chic or laid-back; colourful hand-painted Japanese logos and icons on the wall, cool black-and-grey furniture. The staff were friendly and enthusiastic. It would be a good place to stop for a pre-theatre bite to eat, which is exactly what we did.

Pork hirata bun

Pork hirata bun

It’s all small plates, and we went through half-a-dozen with a couple of sides. KFC (Koj Fried Chicken) were satisfyingly random-shaped dollops of deep-fried goodness, light and flavourful batter, juicy chicken, tasty sesame mayo dip. More deep-fried goodies, this time panko-crusted shitake mushroom chunks, absolutely nowt wrong with them. We also picked out a couple of hirata buns. The buns themselves were nice puffy teeth-sticking sweet dough. Mine was filled with pale and soft pulled pork and some finely shredded pickled veggies at the back, a good combination though I like my street food with more oomph. Maureen’s soft-shell crab bun was nice too, a decently crispy soft-shell crab with a mayo blob. I’m not going to pull out any stronger adjective than “nice” though, because surely the purpose of street food is to leave you saying “oh wow, let’s order another one! Or maybe three!” and we weren’t quite saying that.

The other dish we had was the squid okonomiyaki, and it was the same sorta thing. Okonomiyaki is a filthy, starchy, flavourful, jumble of gubbins. That’s the whole point. If you refine it and take the “street” out of the street food then it’s just… food. Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly tasty and if you’ve never had okonomiyaki then it’s a nice intro, kinda like your first bike with the training wheels on.

So that’s where I end up. Uncertain whether I’ve been impartial enough, or whether I’ve let my very real delight in the actual food of Japan set my expectations far too high? Dishes are £4-8 so you’d be spending £20 each for a light meal. Their entry level sake was £10 for a small 125ml flask (it was jolly good though). It’s really good to have another Japanese option in Cheltenham, and I’m gonna go back, but I guess I’m hoping the menu gets a bit more “street” in it!

UPDATE: Been back since, enjoyed it again, definitely a good place for a casual bite in Cheltenham – just not quite oh-wow-tell-all-your-friends great.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

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