Sunday, September 16, 2012

Crabs the Basque way - but with wine, not Natty Boh

MFWC grew up in Baltimore, so I consider the steamed crab not just a delicacy but a symbol of regional pride. I was befuddled but intrigued when I saw "grilled crab" on the menu at Etxebarri, a restaurant in the Basque country that takes grilling to new heights. Was this grilled crabmeat? No, this was a crab from the waters off of Galicia placed on the grill. Curiosity got the better of me, which was a good thing. The whole animal arrived on a plate with a knife, fork, and pincers to extract the meat from the shell. Among the tools of the Baltimore crabhouse, only the mallet was missing, but crushing these claws would have been an insult to the quality of the meat inside. The crab, of a different species than the Chesapeake Bay blue crab but with a similar anatomy, was delicious, its meat tasting slightly of smoke and lightly and elegantly of butter. At €24 it was by far the most expensive crab I've ever consumed, but also the best, an excellent start to a week's vacation in La Rioja and the Basque country. 

I had Txangurro, a more traditional preparation of spider crab several days later at Rekondo in San Sebastian, famous for a wine list that runs to almost 300 pages and has stunningly low mark-ups on iconic wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and La Rioja, among other places. I would have chosen a 1987 Lopez de Heredia Gran Reserva, but the owner was keeping his few remaining bottles for his own consumption, so I opted for Chablis, a 2007 Raveneau premier cru Les Butteaux for €60, significantly less than the $110 or so it sells for here in stores, let alone restaurants. The sommelier recommended the crab as an entree. It turned out to be a far better version of that Baltimore classic crab imperial. The spider crab, he said, was blended with some tomato, Armagnac and Cognac, finished with a little cheese, run under the broiler and served in its shell, which was bigger and deeper than that of even a large blue crab. (A recipe for something similar is here.) The preparation was luxurious without being overly rich and a good match for the wine, which tasted like really clean spring water - more delicious than it might sound even if one might hope for more in a bottle at that price.

The intelligence about the quality of the '87 Heredia came in handy the next day at Kaia-Kaipe in Getaria, which is worth a visit for the beauty of the town, the Txakoli producers in the immediate vicinity, and the newly opened Museo Balenciaga that overlooks the harbor. I opted for the '87 Heredia reserva at €29 to go with grilled squid and cod throats in salsa verde, and it was a terrific bottle, its nose of dried orange and a hint of honey reminiscent of Heredia's very distinctive rosés. Heredia's younger whites have good acidity that bordered on excessive in the '96 that I tasted at their vineyards that week, but the '87 had mellowed without losing its leanness. I can only wonder what the classic 1970 and 1964 taste like.

I visited Heredia on my trip to Spain last fall, and the return trip to the wineries was different enough to be worthwhile, but the best view of their vineyards came on a tour of Remelluri and a few other properties with Telmo Rodriguez, who makes Remelluri's wines and a number of others around Spain. In the 1960s, Telmo's parents bought an abandoned church property several miles outside of Haro where his father began cultivating grapes. The father made the reds himself but allowed his son to produce a white from grapes grown on the property, but Telmo now owns a few other vineyards nearby, one of which affords a view of the Tondonia vineyards, one of the three that Lopez de Heredia owned. Telmo pointed them out to three Portuguese and me from a vineyard he's just starting to develop.

A sense of place is important to him even in the sites he picks; he says he sees the site and imagines the wine he can make from it rather than thinking about which grapes he'll plant. With sites like these it's easy to understand his method; La Rioja is beautiful, with high mountains sheltering more gentle, sloping hills on which grapes, olives, and grains grow. Telmo worked with the famous Rhone producer Jean-Louis Chave when he was younger, an influence that pushed Rodriguez to make more delicate red wines than was the fashion, or than La Rioja is known for. A taste of syrah from one of Remelluri's barrels reminded me of an Arnot-Roberts syrah I tasted this winter and found haunting, perhaps an example of the way young producers in different areas can be influenced by an established winemaker from yet another region. As we were looking toward the Tondonia properties and enjoying some peaches that a local farmer who knows Telmo had given him, he noted that though Heredia has for decades been seen as the epitome of La Rioja winemaking, the man who built it in the late 19th and early 20th century was himself not a traditionalist. There's room for both approaches, just as the same diner can enjoy both the radical simplicity of a grilled crab and the traditional elegance of a classic preparation.         

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