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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Upgraded to Five Dalí Watches: El Crucero in Corella (Navarra), Lunch with the Wines of Aliaga at One of the Great Restaurants of Navarra's Ribera Baja Wine-growing Region, Also Home to One of Spain's Finest Vegetable Growing Regions and Some of Navarra's Little-known, But Best Country Restaurants.

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 Gerry Dawes's Persistence of Memory* (Salvador Dalí)  Melting Watch Awards.
Five Watches to Nabor Jiménez's El Crucero Restaurant in Corella (Navarra)

Updated to FIVE WATCHES after highly enthusiastic reports from Chef Michael Chiarello, Chef Susan Spicer and Debragga Meats CEO George Faison and his wife, publicist Stephane Crane Faison and my own extensive experiences in almost a dozen visits over several years.  

Also see: Another Exceptional Lunch at El Crucero in Corella (Navarra) with the Wines of Carlos Aliaga, Jan. 28, 2013

Cardos con semillas de granada (fresh cardoon salad with pomegranate seeds and the restaurant's own extra virgin olive oil), El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

Long legendary for their quality, the vegetables of La Ribera de Navarra region-fat white esparragos, green asparagus, pimientos de piquillo, artichokes, beans (pochas [fat white, cranberry bean-like and delectable), vainas [green beans], alubias [smaller white beans] and habitas, [tender young fabas]), cardos (cardoons), ajetes (green garlic shoots), etc.  

Esparragos Blancos de Navarra, Denominación de Origen protected, just like wines.

Some of the top vegetable canneries--such as Camporel in Cintruenigo (see slide show above)--in Spain are located in this region.  

The classic vegetable dish from this area is menestra, a melange of vegetables (vainas, peas, asparagus, carrots, cardoons, etc. cooked together, sometimes with ham)–are some of the best in Spain.  Menestra, when the vegetables, especially young spring vegetables, are cooked al diente is one of the great vegetable dishes of Spain.  However, in the past, menestra and other vegetables were overcooked, which ruined the dishes.  

Menestra, San Ignacio Restaurante, Pamplona.

Now, with advent of the well-trained chefs of the Ferran Adriá era, the overcooking vegetables--while still not a thing of the past–is much less frequently encountered.  Chefs like Enrique Martínez of Maher in Cintruenigo, Atxen Jiménez of Tubal (Tafalla), Casa García (one of the underground legends of great vegetable cooking in Navarra;  frequented by Juan Mari Arzak, Juan Suárez and other food luminaries, in Cascante, and Nabor Jiménez are doing justice to the mother lode of vegetables available in southern Navarra (and neighboring southeastern Rioja, the Rioja Baja wine growing region, also known as Rioja Oriental).

Slide show of top restaurants in La Ribera Baja region of Navarra.

If you happen to visit Corella, in the Navarra Ribera Baja wine growing region, don’t miss having lunch at El Crucero in the center of town, where Nabor Jiménez is doing some great food based on the products of this famous vegetable growing region of the Ebro Valley, the Ribera de Navarra, where Corella is located.  

Nabor Jiménez, Chef-owner of El Crucero, Corella.

I have had the good luck to have had lunch at El Crucero, twice this year, once with Carlos Fernández Aliaga, English wine merchant Anthony Sargeant and Basilio Izquierdo.  Izquierdo was the winemaker at CVNE for thirty years (until 2006) and now the winemaker owner of the tiny Rioja Alavesa bodega, Aguila Real, where he makes B. de Basilio wines (a garnacha blanca-based white that is one of the best Rioja whites I have ever tasted and a spectacular red that is reminiscent of the great CVNE Viña Real Oro wines of years past.  

Gerry Dawes, Basilio Izquierdo, Carlos Fernández Aliaga and 
English wine merchant-importer Anthony Sargeant, lunch at El Crucero.

In January, Sargeant, Izquierdo and I drove down to Corella to see Carlos and taste his wines, since Sargeant was looking for new properties for his English wine importing business.  Carlos put us in Nabor Jiménez’s capable hands and asked him to do a tasting menu for us to accompany a lineup of his wines.  First off, this being January, you may be wondering what vegetables are available in the middle of winter.  The Navarrese are masters at cooking winter vegetables such as cardoons, borrage and cabbage; making dishes with the region’s bounty of tinned and glass jarred vegetables; and turning dried beans into something magical.  

Slide show of Navarran vegetable dishes.

Our luncheon began with Viña Aliaga’s superb, cherry-red Garnacha Rosado de Lágrima 2009 (see Spanish Rosados: Among Spain's Most Delightful Wines), a brilliant, delicious rosé with good acidity, rich fruit and full-bodied (13.9%; weighty, but not over-the-top), then we sampled a 2009 Verdejo, a nice white wine with the oak, fruit and acid in harmony (and perhaps a touch of Viognier in the blend to spice it up). 

Aliaga Rosado de Lágrima de Garnacha at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

With these wines, Nabor Jiménez served us a salad of cardos con semillas de granada, a superb, refreshing dish of cardoons with pomegranate seeds and a lovely extra virgin arbequina olive oil produced by the chef's brother-in-law.  

Cardos con semillas de granada (cardoons with pomegranate seeds) at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

The next dish was bright green steamed borrajas (borrage)--a stalk vegetable that is believed to have originally come from north Africa, where in Arabic its name is abu rash-- dressed with Jiménez’s own Condado de Martinega aceite de oliva virgen, olive oil.  

Borrajas, borage, at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

Nabor Jiménez with his own Condado de Martinega aceite de oliva arbequina virgen.

He followed that with slightly picante pimientos de cristal (red peppers not to be confused with the famous local piquillo peppers), which were served with a minced black olive-infused oil.  

 Pimientos de cristal at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

Next up, with a Viña Aliaga Tinto 2007 (supposedly Tempranillo, but probably with 25% Syrah in the blend) came one of my favorite of all Navarran dishes, pochas, this with verduras (veggies: pimientos rojos y verdes, zanahorias, tomate and cebolletas, scallions) for which I put five *****, my stars.  These beans were buttery, heavenly and the soft, smooth Aliaga 2007 that came next was the right wine with which to finish this stellar dish. 

Pochas at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

The region’s wonderful alcachofas, artichokes, tender young hearts of artichoke at El Crucero, came with foie gras and just the right squirt of the normally dreaded balsamic vinegar. 

For me, it was a four-star dish, but the combination of artichoke and balsamic vinegar royally screwed up the flavor of the Garnacha Vieja 2007, one of Aliaga's best wines.   I would later come to learn that the best wine for this dish marries with both the foie-gras and the artichoke is Aliaga's Vendimia Tardia Late Harvest Moscatel, which has 11% alcohol and a lovely, light, haunting sweetness.  Improbably, this is one of the great wine and food matches in Spain, at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

Then Nabor sent out a exceptionally flavorful dish of caracoles (snails) cooked with Ibérico ham, codorniz (quail), ajos morados asados (roasted purple garlic cloves) and pimientos de cristal.  

El Crucero's Snail dish at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

The purple garlic cloves reminded me of Las Pedroneras (Castilla-La Mancha) in the province of Cuenca, which is the ajo morado capital of Spain (read Gilroy, California, the U. S. garlic capital) and has a festival to celebrate the bulb every year.  The town is also home to arguably the best restaurant in that region, Las Rejas, where the great chef of La Mancha, my friend Manuel de la Osa cooks.  Nabor Jiménez brought out a plate of the big purplish cloves to show us.  “Ajo morado is much finer garlic than the kind we have here in Corella,” Jiménez said.  

Ajos morados (purple garlic) at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

To accompany this dish, we had an Aliaga Cuveé Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon that was well-balanced, smooth and elegant despite its 14% alcohol and with the patorillo, practically embryonic baby, baby lamb parts (the feet, tripe and and bones; all tender, but  this was not the all-time favorite lamb dish on my lamb pleasure meter).

 Patorillo at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra)..

With the patorillo, we also had the dark, silky Aliaga Reserva de la Familia, a blend of 85% tempranillo, 10% cabernet sauvignon and a 5% hit of “other,” which I guessed may be the dastardly outlawed (not permitted in Navarra) grape, Syrah.  The wine was rich at just under 14% and had sweet cherry and black raspberry flavors with a hint of clove and a bit of oak bite in the finish.  

Aliaga Cuveé at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

With a fine cabrito asado, roast kid with a wonderful crackling skin, we drank the Aliaga Colección Privada 2007, another well-made, silky wine with moderate alcohol (for southern Navarra) at 13.7% and more sweet cherry and blackberry flavors.  

 Cabrito asado at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

The Colección Privada 2007 was made from 80% tempranillo, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 5% of the ubiquitous “other.”  It was aged for 13 meses in 60%  French Allier oak and 40% American oak, mercifully none of which was new oak (the barrels are 3-4 years old); instead the wine was well-rounded without the raspy new oak curtain that one finds marring the finish of many so-called “modern” wines.

We finished up this superb luncheon with helado de turrón de Jijona, a rich, nutty, delicious almond turrón ice cream, which was accompanied by the exceptional Viña Aliaga Moscatel Vendimia Tardía (Late Harvest) 2008, a deep green-gold, beautifully fresh, perfumed wine with only 11% alcohol and great acid levels to carry the lovely sweet, but never cloying, honeysuckle flavors that made it taste like a fresh moscatel grape trapped in a bottle. 

Helado de turrón de Jijona, almond nougat ice cream, at El Crucero, Corella (Navarra).

(Also see Food in Navarra, Navarra's Country Cuisine [Stay tuned for an updated version.])

Recommended Restaurants in La Ribera Baja region of Southern Navarra:  

El Crucero, calle Mayor 1, 31591 Corella (Navarra).  Tel: 948 78 16 83
(Exit 16 off AP-68, Corella-Cintruenigo exit, drive 3 kms.  to center of Corella, straight ahead beyond the stoplight. Parking in streets around and behind the restaurant.)  Moderate.

Maher Restaurante-Hotel, Ribera 19, 31592 Cintruénigo (Navarra)
Tel. 948 81 11 50 . Fax 948 81 27 76

The one-star Michelin restaurant of maestro Enrique Martínez and his brothers, Martínez Hermanos, thus Maher.  Offers a fine combination of modern Spanish dishes and beautifully prepared Navarrese classics, including vegetable dishes from La Ribera de Navarra. Reasonably priced for the quality of the dishes served.  (Located in the same town as Bodegas Julián Chivite.)

Casa García, Mayor 93, 31521 Murchante (Navarra). 948 838 052

An underground legend of great vegetable cooking in Navarra, frequented by Juan Mari Arzak, Juan Suárez and other food luminaries, in Cascante (Navarra).  Not expensive.

Tubal, Plaza de Navarra 2, Tafalla.  948 79 08 52  70 12 96.
Owned and run by Atxen Jiménez, a woman with the highest standards for cuisine and service, and her son, Chef Nicolas, Michelin one-star Tubal is one of the top-ranked and most elegant restaurants in Navarra. It offers first-rate, sophisticated nueva cocina and artfully prepared renditions of Navarrese classics, always based on the best, freshest ingredients. Tubal has an excellent wine list.  Expensive.

Restaurante Hotel Casa Zanito, Rua Mayor 16, Olite.  948 74.00.02

This restaurant serves nueva cocina dishes such as hake-filled crêpes with clam sauce and classics such as brick oven-roasted shoulder of goat.  Moderately expensive.  Has two lovely hotels in Olite. 

Mesón El Chapitel, Mirapies 8, 31390 Olite (Navarra); Tel.:  948 71 22 50

This is a fun restaurante on an interior street in the old village of Olite.  For those who want a break for all those veggies in southern Navarra (all the restaurants have fish and meat dishes on their menus), you can really get off the wagon here.  El Chapitel serves excellent steaks of a wood-fired grill (my friend Michael Whiteman, the ex-jefe of Windows on the World and President of the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Company, says Chapitel's steak was "one of the best I have ever eaten."  Chapitel also serves grilled rabbit, lamb and veggies, including good salads, for which you would be wise to tell them to hold the balsamic vinegar, and you can even get a good pizza here.

Bodega Chateau-Hotel Pago de Cirsus de Iñaki Nuñez, Ablitas, (Navarra) (5 kms. from Tudela).

The title alone gives you the idea.  This hotel-restaurante-winery is crowned by a glaring white faux castle keep of very recent construction.  It is the property of film magnate Iñaki Nuñez’s and looks like what a film maker magnate might imagine a castle-winery to be.  The hotel is comfortable and the restaurant is good.  I did not like the wines.

Recommended lodging in La Ribera Baja region of Southern Navarra (and nearby La Rioja Baja): 

AC Ciudad De Tudela, Misericordia S/N, 31500 Tudela (Navarra). Tel: 948 40 24 40; Fax: 948 40 24 41;

Best Western Hotel Hospederia Nuestra Señora del Villar, NA-161 km 2.5, 31591 Corella (Navarra). Tel: 34 948 78 21 97;Fax: 34 948 40 40 32

Hotel-Restaurante Palacios, Ctra Zaragoza s/n 26540 Alfaro (La Rioja). 866-538-0187 (reservations).A good restaurante and wine museum in a hotel owned by the family of internationally renowned winemaker, Alvaro Palacios of Priorat L'Ermita, Clos Dofi, Les Terrasses fame. The family winery, located in Alfaro is Bodegas Palacios Remondo.

Parador de Turismo Principe de Viana, Plaza Teobaldos 2, 31390 Olite (Navarra). Tel: 34 948 74 00 00; Fax: 00 34 948 74 02 01;

A storybook parador alongside a XVth century castle in the magical village of Olite.


About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

1 comment:

  1. Just had some awesome white asparagus from Navarra with our all Spanish dinner, bought at Despagna Brand Foods in Soho. Next best thing to a trip to Spain. Will report on it in my next blog." Sent on Facebook by Helen Studley.


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