Archive for March, 2009

Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Jon and I had to turn in our passports this month to change our visa status (just in case either of us gets fired, we don’t want to be deported), so for all of March, we couldn’t leave the country. As consolation for not being able to travel (and taking advantage of the recent good fortune of sunny weekends), we decided it was high time to visit the Cotswolds. Sure we’ve been to Bath a few times, but a true Cotswolds getaway seems to involve an old country pile somewhere. And that’s where the Barnsley House comes in.

Generally when Jon and I travel on holiday, we don’t stay in luxe accommodations, figuring it’s a waste of money because we’re out and about so much. But when Jon mentioned Barnsley House’s fabulous spa facilities, tasty-sounding restaurant, and a current promotion of weekend rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay), I didn’t need to be asked twice.

We arrived on Friday night, after a 1.5-hour train ride from Paddington, followed by a 20-minute taxi ride from Kemble station.

house champers and truffles upon arrival

house champers and truffles upon arrival

Upon arrival, a receptionist immediately walked us up to our room, showed Jon how all the Bose and Bang & Olufson equipment worked while I filled out credit card details on a simple form, and then left us to relax over a free bottle of house champers. We could’ve been arriving at a friend’s house, rather than checking into a hotel. A strong start.

ooh and ahh-worthy bathroom

Part of the reason we decided to spend the weekend at Barnsley House instead of at nearby competitor Cowley Manor is because we’d read excellent things about the food. So after loafing around in our enormous room and oohing and ahhing like hicks over our stupendous bathroom, we walked downstairs for dinner.

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

Dinner at the Barnsley House is prix fixe only. 3 courses for £42.50 or 4 for £49.50. There’s lots to choose from, and having eaten in the resto both nights of our stay, I was interested in how the kitchen managed to evolve the menu from one day to the next. What was pork loin one day was pork belly and crackling the next. I’d like to imagine that over the next few days, you’d see pork shoulder, pork head, pork trotter . . . .

Much of the veg on the menu is grown in the house gardens, and all the meat comes from local producers.

Did you know Liz Hurley raises pigs? I didn’t. It does seem a bit ironic, don’t you think? But her country getaway lies just behind the Barnsley House, and how could I resist the “organic Hurley loin of pork with red onions and honeyed tiger prawns”? It was good meat – juicy and rich, with a crisp, delicate, salty crackling. A thing of beauty. The tiger prawn was besides the point (and by the way, there was only one prawn, so why the menu said “tiger prawns” is beyond me).

Jon tried out the signature vincisgrassi, which the menu described as “baked pasta with Parma ham, porcini and truffles.” It was tasty, but to our perhaps-slightly-unappreciative eye, it looked and tasted like lasagna. A really creamy, good lasagna, but still, lasagna.

a view of the garden from the restaurant

a view of the garden from the restaurant

While the food is pretty ambitious and well-executed, it’s not destination dining, and the food shares the spotlight with the dining room, which overlooks the House’s famous Rosemary Verey gardens. The room looked its best in the morning, when the sun brightened and warmed the generously-spaced tables. (You really can pretend like you have full run of the place – the Barnsley House is about the luxury of privacy and space).

pot roast chicken with parma ham at the Village Pub

pot roast chicken drumstick with parma ham at the Village Pub (£16)

For a change of scenery, we walked 100 yards down the street from Barnsley House for lunch at the Village Pub, which is also owned and operated by the Barnsley House. While we did recognize a few other Barnsley House guests there at lunchtime, the place seemed to be popular with locals, too. The food, though, was hit-or-miss, and Jon’s mediocre £16 chicken drumstick was pretty ridiculous. Service was also an issue – we waited over half an hour for our starters, which were a curried parsnip soup and a potted pork. Not exactly stuff that needed intensive effort before serving. It was hard to believe the Village Pub and the Barnsley House were related at all.

Overall, we had a delicious, relaxing weekend at the Barnsley House. It’s one of those places where all the components (service, decor, food, spa facilities), each taken alone, are at a high level, and combined, are unforgettable. We saw our final tab double the promotion price once we factored in wines at dinner, lunches, and (really wonderful) spa treatments. Incredibly enough, though, I thought our weekend was worth every penny.

As stated above, Jon and I took advantage of a promotion for rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay).  However, on the Barnsley House website, it says if you stay on a weeknight, the price is reduced to £185 a night. Worth taking a day off from work, I tell you.

Barnsley House, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EE; 01285 740000; closest rail station: Kemble (from London Paddington), followed by a 20-minute, £20 taxi ride.

The Village Pub, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EF; 01285 740421.

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Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

A month ago, Jon and I had dinner at Maze. Because it was Jon’s choice, I didn’t get a say in the matter, or else I’m pretty sure I would’ve nixed the suggestion (though hindsight is 20/20, I know).

First, although Maze has its own entrance off of Grosvenor Square (and wow, the US Embassy in London really *is* as ugly as everyone says it is), it’s also connected to a Marriott Hotel. And I have a major bias against restaurants located in chain hotels, especially mid-range hotels.

Second, upon stepping into the dining room, we couldn’t miss the glass case displaying owner Gordon Ramsay’s cookbooks. Classy.

Third, and most substantively, the service we had at Maze ruined our quiet evening out. “Indifferent” would be the charitable description of our server.

I don’t want or need fawning armies of servers. But at a 1-Michelin star restaurant, I want someone to hand me the menu, not put it on the table and shove it towards me. I want someone who graciously accepts that I don’t want bottled water, instead of making a show of taking away the “fancy” water glasses (presumably reserved for rarefied water that comes out of a glass bottle) and replacing them with other, different (presumably lesser) glasses filled with tap water. Or how about this – a server who aks me if I’m ready to order, instead of sidling up to my table, shifting all weight to one leg (classic teenager-slouch style) and asking me “you OK now?” The only thing missing from the tableau was some gum snapping.

I should’ve just walked out then. It’s a Wednesday night. I’m tired. I just want a quiet dinner with my husband. I don’t need to feel uncool and unwanted. And definitely not at these prices.

Looking back, I can see why service was sloppy at Maze. Jon and I were seated at a table surrounded by multiple groups of what appeared to be work colleagues (perhaps traveling together and staying at the Marriott hotel). If I were there having drinks and nibbles with coworkers, I’d probably care a lot less about servers pushing menus towards me and talking to me in casual-teen-lingo when taking my order

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I was in such a bad mood that it was inevitable I’d be annoyed with the service. Well, the food didn’t exactly improve things. I’m usually pretty tolerant of high prices and so-so service as long as the food delivers.

But at Maze, the high prices for small portions of occasionally-gimmicky food left me seriously (*very* seriously) wondering how this place has a Michelin star. Our experience at Maze was nowhere near the meals we’ve had at, for example, the Ledbury or Hibiscus (where, by the way, the servers are helpful and gracious without being overly-formal).

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Maze’s chef, James Atherton, gets a lot of press for his “assiette of sandwiches,” for example, and the BLT in the martini glass would be charming if food-in-a-martini glass didn’t seem so distinctly trendy (circa 1990s), and if I thought drinking lettuce soup with bacon bits was worth £9. To be fair, there was a sliver of buttery ham-and-cheese sandwich (the croque monsieur), too.

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Above, you’ll find a photo of the lamb chop dish we ordered (photos courtesy of this blogger) to illustrate the plate sizes at Maze. It’s no exaggeration to say you’re supposed to order at least four plates per person to make a meal at Maze, so while the menu prices (£9-13 a plate) don’t look high, your bill tallies up quickly if you’re at Maze for anything other than a quick snack.

The food wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t memorable. When you factor in our disgruntled server (whose pouting would be more at home at a McDonald’s than at a Gordon Ramsay resto in Mayfair), you’re left wondering why anyone goes to Maze. I’d go back for drinks with coworkers if they were staying at the attached Marriott, or maybe I’d go again if I had to get my passport renewed at the nearby US Embassy. But outside of those two unlikely scenarios, no thanks.

Maze Restaurant, 10-13 Grosvenor Square, W1K 6JP, 0207 107 0000; closest tube station: Bond Street
Maze on Urbanspoon

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morcillo sausage lasagne at Fuenta de la Acena restaurant

morcillo sausage lasagne at Fuenta de la Acena restaurant

For this post, my last on the Ribera del Duero wine region, I wanted to talk about restaurants. There are lots of places in the region that serve traditional food (i.e., roast suckling pig and roast suckling lamb), but in hopes of something more updated, we tried two more upscale places I’d read about: the restaurant at Posada Fuenta de la Acena, and El Molino de Palacios.

Oddly, both are housed in former water mills, but the former served modernized traditional dishes, and the latter (disappointingly) turned out traditional dishes at higher prices than you’d find at the rustic local joints serving the same dishes.

On the day we visited Vina Mayor and Arzuaga Navarro (i.e., the western end of the Ribera region where you’ll find the famed Vega Sicilia winery), we drove over to Quintanilla de Onesimo for a 2 pm lunch reservation at Fuente de la Acena.

It was a good thing we’d made a lunch reservation, or else the kitchen probably wouldn’t have opened that day: this pretty-but-sleek restaurant was completely empty. The dining room is spread over two floors and the sunny top floor overlooks the Duero river, meaning the place is big and it felt *really* empty. Luckily, our party of four was all the party we needed.

Although Fuente de la Acena offered a 34 euro prix fixe menu, the prix fixe choices sounded uninteresting, so we stuck with a la carte options.

Overall, starters were much stronger than mains (more creative and delicious), and the richness and large portions meant that at 8-10 euros a starter, you could have a fine, economic lunch comprised entirely of starters.

Standout starters included Jon’s lasagna of morcillo, the region’s traditional blood sausage. I have to confess that as much as I love a bloody steak, I have issues eating congealed blood stuffed into a sausage casing. But I suppose if you sneak *anything* into familiar and appealing lasagne sheets, I’m all over it (see photo at the top of this post). This rendition of blood sausage was sweet and creamy – no steely blood tang, as I feared. While I’m unlikely to start craving morcillo anytime soon, I’d eat it again.

pickled foie gras at Fuente de la Acena restaurant

pickled foie gras at Fuente de la Acena restaurant

Pickled foie gras didn’t sound attractive (because unless it’s accompanying Vietnamese food, pickled veg ranks very low on my list of favorite foods – probably down where blood sausage normally dwells), but at my friend Colleen’s encouragement, I gave it a try. And hey – it was excellent. In fact, it hardly tasted pickled. No pucker-your-lips vinegar sourness at all. The foie was characteristically rich and meaty with a hint of sweet pepper flavor. Served cold and spread on toast, the pickled foie gras was basically the best pate of your life.

pulpo y gnocchi at Fuente de la Acena

pulpo y gnocchi at Fuente de la Acena

And what’s a trip to Spain without pulpo (octopus)? Gnocchi with pulpo, which really tasted like bacon somehow, was served with a rich, tangy, creamy cheese. Meat, carb and dairy in one – easily a delicious, filling meal on its own.

But why would we stop after just four starters? We continued on to four main courses (most at 20 euros), two desserts and several bottles of wine. The resto serves an up-to-date-styled version of cochinillo, which was good but no better than in the traditional, inexpensive places we ate. And the fancier cuts of meat (such as roast Iberico pork tenderloin) were disappointingly bland – nothing at all like the almost honeyed-sweet-nuttiness of the version I still remember having at Mugaritz. Mugaritz’s version remains the pinnacle of my pork loin experience. (I know – how insane was that last sentence?)

Fuente de la Acena’s wine list covers all the region’s wonderful reds with surprisingly little markup. Because we were able to try a variety of wines at lunch, we tried (and fell in love with) the 2001 Vina Mayor “el Secreto,” which vineyard was luckily just a 2-minute drive away.

I wouldn’t call Fuente de la Acena a destination restaurant, but if you’re already in the Ribera and want a little more creativity and modernity, Fuente’s worth a visit. At 65 euros per person for a ton of food and good wines, I thought our lunch was good value, and in warmer weather, sitting outside by the river would be unbeatable.

lamb chops at El Molino de Palacios

lamb chops at El Molino de Palacios

Now, as for the “other” converted mill restaurant . . . we’d read about El Molino de Palacios (in Penafiel, Spain) in this April 2006 Travel + Leisure article and this Gerry Dawes blog post also mentioned it as a place worth visiting. The restaurant is, of course, very pretty on the outside – all quaint stone walls and prime waterside location. But once inside, like several other restaurants in the region, El Molino de Palacios looked like its last facelift was in the late 60s, which isn’t exactly the decade you want to freeze in time.

In the end, I should have noticed that this more-recent-than-2006 (August 2007) L.A. Times article was unimpressed with the food at El Molino de Palacios, but hey, live and learn.

On the plus side, the chef herself took our lunch order. We were going to go with more roast baby lamb, but we were told that if we’d wanted lechazo, we had to book it at the time we made our reservation. So we made do with some so-so choices – hare stew that would’ve been great if not for the stringiness of the meat. Lamb chops were small but tasty enough that I wondered what the roast suckling lamb would’ve tasted like. And the hake grilled a la plancha was juicy and moist and really the sleeper hit of or lunch.

Our tab came to 45 euros per person, including a bottle of tasty Hacienda Monasterios crianza. Lunch was good, not great, but the true beauties of Penafiel were still to come:

views of Penafiel from the Penafiel castle

views of Penafiel from the Penafiel castle

For 6 euros, you have the privilege of going on a Spanish-language tour of the Castle (mandatory if you want to see it), and admission to the region’s wine museum. The castle, though, is so dramatic that I didn’t mind not following anything the guide was saying. Penafiel Castle felt very lonely and windy, and so it was surely a warrior’s fortress, rather than an entertainment/living center.

El Rastrillo wine (and antiques!?!) shop in Penafiel, Spain

El Rastrillo wine (and antiques!?!) shop in Penafiel, Spain

The other treat in Penafiel was an antiques shop, Rastrillo, that, surprisingly, also had a charming and well-edited wine shop in the basement.

Rastrillo’s owner insisted we try glasses of Bodegas Mauro wine, as well as sample his local pecorino-style cheese and gorgeous, sweet, crunchy marcona almonds. The Mauro was so good that we bought a bottle despite already having exceeded our luggage allowance for the return trip to London.

Rastrillo sold everything from the Vega Sicilia Unico to less-expensive (but quality) wines like those by Pingus, Emilio Moro and other winemakers in the area. Looking back, we really should have started our explorations of the Ribera del Duero at a shop like Rastrillo. It would have given us a clearer idea of which vineyards were worth visiting. But I’m glad we found the place.

marcona almonds

marcona almonds with your wine at Rastrillo

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Barrel room at bodegas Cepa 21 in Castrillo de Duero, Spain

Barrel room at bodegas Cepa 21 in Castrillo de Duero, Spain

Rioja is everywhere. But where-oh-where can you buy or drink Ribera del Duero wines?

After spending a few days exploring the vineyards around the towns of Castrillo de Duero, Pesquera de Duero, Quintanilla de Onesimo and Penafiel, I think it’s a both a shame and a benefit that the Ribera hasn’t made the same maketing push that Rioja has: the shame is that a region making such powerful, full-bodied (read: super good) reds isn’t getting a lot more publicity and fame than it does. The benefit, though, is that I got a steal on some fantastic wines that I Jon was happy to schlepp back to London.

Before you go, though, I’d recommend reading Gerry Dawes’s detailed blog post about Ribera wines and restaurants, which was invaluable for a non-Spanish-speaker like me. The smattering of Chowhound posts I found were about the bigger towns in the region (like Valladolid), and otherwise, the Internet turned up surprisingly-few English-language results beyond this August 2007 LA Times article. (Think about how *long* it’s been since google failed to turn up a gazillion results for a particular search). Also helpful were a couple of wine shops (including the Sampler) we emailed for vineyard recs.

Wine tasting of joven, crianza and reserva wines at Bodegas Emilio Moro

Wine tasting of joven, crianza and reserva wines at Bodegas Emilio Moro (Pesquera de Duero, Spain)

Rather than detail every wine we tried (there were many), I’ll list a few pros and cons of visiting the Ribera, geneally. Overall, the Ribera was so easy to reach (i.e., a 90-minutes drive northwest of Madrid) that it’s lame Jon and I hadn’t been there before now.

First, my least favorite parts of our trip to the Ribera del Duero:

  1. As I briefly mentioned in my previous post (and which Gourmet Chick immediately picked up on as a bummer), the vineyards in the Ribera required us to schedule an appointment to visit. It could be that this sort of thing is an off-season practice (right now, the vineyards are busy pruning vines, and not many tourists – Spanish or otherwise – are around), but it was annoying. Give me Napa-style “drop by anytime during opening hours” any day of the week, and huge kudos to my friend Colleen for handling all the back-and-forth and jigsaw-style planning to create a wine-tasting itinerary.
  2. The Ribera vineyards also required us to take a tour before tasting anything. Prices for the “tour and tasting” generally fell in the range of 10-15 euros per person, so not only did we have to plan on visiting a vineyard for at least an hour (because the tours can really take a while), but also, over time, we shelled out a substantial amount of money for tours we didn’t necessarily want (how many wine presses and bottling machines can a person see?). Now, I definitely understand that the vineyard should be able to cover the cost of wines that people are tasting (though sampling/marketing strikes me as a legit cost of doing business), but I think it’s much fairer if vineyards credit you the tasting/tour charge if you end up buying a certain number of bottles. Or at least just charge for the tasting and let me skip the hour-long tour beforehand.
  3. Don’t expect a huge variety of food in restaurants. While the roast suckling pig (cochinillo) and suckling lamb (lechazo) are outstanding, I have to confess that baby-animal-meat-lover that I am, even I hit my limit of rustic roasts and stews after a few days. The minute I got back to London, I practically ran to the Vietnamese place down the street to get some light, delicate flavors back in my system.
  4. As in the rest of Spain, be prepared to eat at later hours. Only losers and tourists (no, they’re not the same thing) eat lunch at 12 or dinner at 8. Even a 1:30 lunch is a bit Early Bird Special, so aim for 2:00 and be part of the cool crowd.

And now my favorite parts of our trip to the Ribera del Duero:

  1. The wines. Just outstanding stuff. I’m no wine writer, but I know what kinds of reds I like – rich, dark, nutty-chocolate-cherry-ruby-red wines that look *thick* running down the sides of your glass. And that’s the kind of wine we found everywhere we visited, particularly at Vina Mayor (which abuts the famed Vega Sicilia) and at Emilio Moro. (The exception to this enthusiastic rule was Cepa 21, which looks better than it tastes and didn’t justify the 10 euros-a-person tasting fee of a single wine. We did, however, greatly enjoy the photos on the wall at Cepa 21 of Tom Cruise and David Beckham mugging with a bottle from parent vineyard Emilio Moro).
  2. The bread truck guy who arrived in front of our house every morning at 9:30 am and used his special bread-truck-horn to announce his arrival. It was like the ice cream man, but with bread. Too bad his bread was rather dry, especially the round loaves of pan. But you can’t beat daily home delivery.
  3. The night we went to the “bodega tradicionale” owned by the family who rented us the house where we stayed. It was an underground cellar that was three parts garden shed (full of discarded old lawn furniture) and one part wine=making facility (with barrels of aging homemade wine). What started as a friendly-but-polite exchange with the son of the family soon turned into a town-wide social event featuring lots of homemade plonk, pickled snacks, and a giant pot of liebre con arroz (hare and rice stew). A memorable and heart-warming example of how people can get along fabulously despite not sharing a common tongue.
  4. Roast suckling pig (cochinillo). While I did (just above) list the region’s lack of menu variety in restaurants as a disappointment of the trip, the roast suckling pig was so consistently delish that I did, happily, eat a good amount of it. On a related note, if you do want some cochinillo or lechazo, some of the smaller restaurants in the area require you to mention that desire when making the booking. (I guess so the restaurant can pop one in the oven for you ahead of time).

Cepa 21, Nac. 122, Km. 297, 47318 Castrillo de Duero (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 484 084

Bodegas Emilio Moro, Ctra Penafiel- Valoria, s/n, 47315, Pesquera de Duero (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 878 400

Bodegas Vina Mayor, Ctra. de Soria Km 325, 47350 Quintanilla de Onesimo (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 680 461

Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Ctra. N. 122 Aranda-Valladolid, Km 325, 47350 Quintanilla de Onesimo (Valladolid), Spain; +34 983 681 146

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Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain

The Titan of Titanium strikes again: Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain

So generally, I’m a planner kind of person. Especially for holidays abroad. Yet somehow I overlooked how much a “daytrip” from the Ribera del Duero to Rioja was – how shall we say – ambitious. I mean, a simple google map search (now) reveals it’s a 227 km (140-mile) drive between Penafiel and Laguardia.

Apparently, neither Jon nor I (nor our friends) are ones to abandon a plan once it’s set, so to take a break from all the wine tasting we did in the Ribera del Duero, we set off one day for some wine tasting in the Rioja.

Three hours after leaving our rental house near Penafiel (note: if you get stuck on a local highway behind, say, a long flatbed truck carrying a giant windmill blade, you’re screwed), we pulled into Laguardia. And let me first say that the town of Laguardia, Spain shares nothing in common with the New York City airport of the same name. Laguardia, the town, is picture-perfect, with cobblestones, winding alleys, mysterious doorways, tunnels, and warm, ochre-hued stone.

The airport is, as you probably know, not picture perfect.

Because 99.9% of vineyards we contacted prior to arriving in Spain required us to make an appointment for a tour and tasting (and no, you apparently can’t just drop by for a tasting without the tour), we reached Laguardia with three hours to kill before our scheduled time at the Marques de Riscal (aka “the Frank Gehry place”).

walking the medieval streets of Laguardia, Spain

walking the medieval streets of Laguardia, Spain

So we walked a bit. And the town was lovely. But it was siesta time (i.e., between 2 and 4 pm), and we needed something to eat. We found a place, Biazteri (Calle de Mayor, near the TI office) that had a positive description in this April 2007 Guardian article on this part of Rioja, but it was a bust, offering just a Spanish soap blaring on the TV and a few sitting-there-too-long bocadillos. At least the glasses of house wine were hilariously cheap (1.50 euros each).

So we kept on walking until we saw Mayor de Migueloa, which was both open and had a wall lined with wine bottles.

Mayor de Migeloa bodega in Laguardia, Spain

Mayor de Migueloa bodega in Laguardia, Spain

So we walked in, and it was just what the doctor ordered. I liked the old wine press converted into a table – just enough yuppie decor to be appealing to me, while those fast-food-style napkin dispensers kept things down-to-earth.

jamon Iberico, lomo Iberico and chorizo

jamon Iberico, lomo Iberico and chorizo

First up – Iberico everything! Ham, cured pork loin, and chorizo with kick! Nobody wants for cured meats in Spain, and the platter served at Mayor de Migeloa was excellent. It seems that everywhere in you go in Spain, there exist melt-in-your-mouth pork goodies waiting to be eaten.

patatas Riojanas

patatas Riojanas

We felt obligated to order the Rioja-style potatoes by virtue of being in Rioja, but you know, they were potatoes. with some pepper. and not enough chorizo. A bit eh.

croquetas at Mayor de Migeloa

croquetas at Mayor de Migueloa

But luckily, every meal is a success when there are croquetas involved: crispy crust; creamy interior; and a little bit of ham inside if you’re lucky. I especially liked how, at Mayor de Migeloa, they didn’t come in that suspiciously pre-manufactured fish-stick shape you see in the more touristy bits of Spain.

All these snacks with glasses of house wine all around totaled 35 euros.

Fueled up for our 4 pm appointment at the Marques de Riscal, we spent 5 minutes driving over to neighboring Elciego, parked, paid our 10 euros each for the tour and tasting, and got on our way.

Despite having gone on many wine tours before and after our visit, I thought the Marques de Riscal tour was super-comprehensive and worth taking, and our guide, Patricia, was knowledgeable and funny, earning extra points for taking us into the vineyard’s “treasury,” where all the *really* old wines are kept.

the "treasury" at the Marques de Riscal vineyard

the "treasury" at the Marques de Riscal vineyard

Having walked the quiet, dusty depths of the Marques de Riscal treasury, we now have something in common with Gywneth. (Obviously this shared experience is bound to make us BFF before too long).

The 2004 Marques de Riscal reserva we tasted was fine for the money (12.50 euros a bottle), but it wasn’t super memorable.

By the end of our tour, it became clear to us that the Marques de Riscal owners are incredibly good at marketing and promotion (how else do you get Frank Gehry to design you a tiny 14-room hotel?), and while it’s a pleasant place to visit, I wouldn’t make it a destination for the wines.

Slightly annoying is that the relationship between the vineyard and hotel seems a bit strained, so our vineyard guide insisted she had to call for reservations at the hotel bar/lounge if we wanted to have drinks there.

Service at the hotel lounge, once we were allowed in, was friendly and helpful, and we downed lots more cheese, chorizo and wine there. Prices were what you’d expect at a Starwood-operated hotel, costing 65 euros before tip for four glasses of the vineyard’s wine, and a bit of chorizo and cheese.

I’d go back to Marques de Riscal if I were vacationing exclusively in the Rioja, but it’s not worth the drive as a daytrip from the Ribera del Duero. So skip the long drive and just enjoy the powerful reds and sleek tasting rooms that abound in the Ribera.

Marques de Riscal vineyard and hotel, Calle Torrea, 1 · Elciego 01340 · Spain, (+34) 945 18 08 88.

Mayor de Migueloa, Mayor de Migueloa Nº 20, 01300 Laguardia, Spain, +34 945 62 11 75 / 76.

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the pig's the thing at Restaurant Jose y Maria in Segovia

the pig's the thing at Restaurante Jose Maria in Segovia

Our one wine-free day during our Ribera del Duero trip last week was when we flew into Madrid and hopped on the AVE train to meet our friends Colleen and Mike in Segovia. We spent a day there to eat a long lunch and do a little sightseeing before driving to Castrillo de Duero, our home for the remainder of our trip.

I was glad to pick restaurants for our trip, but being a non-Spanish speaker left me feeling skeptical about my research. For Segovia, I relied largely on this December 2007 chowhound thread giving Restaurante Jose Maria a slight edge over its rival Meson Candido. The fact that Restaurante Jose Maria’s website lacked an English translation function was reassuring (and it was also an indicator of how little spoken English we’d encounter as we headed further north into the Ribera del Duero).

Lest there be any confusion about Restaurante Jose Maria’s specialty, the facade features a bronze cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig). Definitely my kind of place.

With some help from a Spanish-speaking friend, I’d made our reservations for the somewhat-early hour of 1:30 pm because the restaurant’s next seating wasn’t until 3:30 pm, and while I’m generally a late eater, waiting until 3:30 for lunch was pushing it.

chorizo crumbles at Jose y Maria

chorizo crumbles at Jose Maria

As soon as we sat down, a server brought a basket of bread and a shallow bowl of chorizo crumbles. There was paprika and pepper kick in there, and the pork was tender and meaty. So much better than mere bread and butter, and a fab way to start lunch. And actually, it was tastier than the starters we ordered – a forgettable 14-euro saludable de verdures (you know it’s bad news when 1/4 of your grilled vegetable platter is comprised of onion and carrot) and an overly-breaded Castilian garlic soup.

Castilian soup Castilian garlic soup at Restaurant Jose Maria

cochinillo (roast suckling pig) at Restaurant Jose y Maria

cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) at Restaurant Jose Maria

We did, however, really love our main courses, ordering two portions of cochinillo asado and two of lechazo. Ignoring the obvious piglet ear and hoof, I devoured the light, moist meat and beautiful thin crackling. I loved how, just under the crisp and thin skin, there was a thin, flavorful layer of fat. The star attraction had, thankfully, lived up to the hype. At 21 euros a portion, it wasn’t rustic pricing, but it was worth the money. Another table near us ordered a whole cochinillo, and the servers made a big show of portioning out the piglet by eschewing a knife and using a plate edge instead (“it’s just that tender!”).

lechazo (roast suckling lamb)

lechazo (roast suckling lamb)

Our lechazo, also 21 euros a portion, wasn’t quite as good as the little piggie, but in a lamb-and-piglet face off, I’ll always choose the piglet, meaning I’m generally pre-biased towards pig. That, and the broth for the lechazo plate was unbelievably salty. Nobody at Restaurante Jose Maria could be accused of holding back on the salt.

I didn’t think we could find room for dessert, but what’s a holiday without dessert? The tarta helada al whisky was a surprisingly-yummy nut-covered ice cream cake.

The best value at lunch was, hands down, the house wine, which was a very young, plummy ribera del duero wine. At 13 euros a bottle, we happily made our way through two bottles before getting our bill at around 4 pm.

If you go, skip the starters and lamb and just go straight for the pig, the wine, and the ice cream cake.

Segovia Cathedral and Plaza Mayor

Segovia Cathedral and Plaza Mayor

Just a block away from Restaurante Jose Maria is Segovia’s main town square (Plaza Mayor) and the just-another-reminder-of- how-rich-the-Catholic-church-was Segovia Cathedral. The 450-year-old cathedral was worth a tour, but mostly for the pretty cloisters and the people-watching. The interior was otherwise really huge and bare.

The alcazar (castle) in Segovia

The alcazar (castle) in Segovia

Walking ten minutes downhill from the Cathedral, we paid 6 euros a person to see the inside of the Segovia Alcazar (where Isabella married Ferdinand, luckily for Christopher Columbus and unluckily for all the indigenous people of the Americas), and similar to that of the Cathedral, the Alcazar’s interior was pretty bare and grim. I like my castles to include lots of crystal, gold and mirrors. This one was much more a fortress than a royal crib.

old Roman aqueduct in Segovia

old Roman aqueduct in Segovia

On our walk back to our car, we took one last look at the old Roman aqueduct, briefly considered all the far-flung parts of the world where you can find these aqueducts, and then headed north to Castrillo de Duero.

Segovia was a pretty and relaxing place to spend a day, and because it’s just a 30-minute high-speed train ride from Madrid, I think it’d make a lovely day trip if you’re visiting that city. And while you’re there, get yourself some of that cochinillo at Meson Jose Maria.

Restaurante Jose Maria, just off the Plaza Mayor (Cronista Lecea 11, Segovia +34 92 146 11 11

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