A Taste of Rioja, from Crispy Croquettas to Piquillo Peppers

By Josephine Price, National Geographic, Published April 29th

The Cooking Class: Atelier Hermanas Loro

“You need to eat croquetas with your hands,” says Isabella. “That way you feel the textures and the contrasts both in your hand and in your mouth. You just don’t get that same crunch if you use cutlery.”

Compliant, I bite into a croqueta made with cecina de León (a local cured beef) and parmesan. Its granular, breadcrumbed shell explodes under the pressure, releasing a bechemel sauce that’s rich and full of flavour. I’d made this filling earlier under close instruction, stirring the onions as they sweated down in a puddle of local olive oil and watching as they acquired a soft, glistening texture — it’s satisfying to now detect that sweetness in the sauce.

Mónica, Isabella and Marie José, better known as the Hermanas Loro (Loro sisters), have been running their cooking school in Logroño, the capital of the Rioja province, for 14 years. They’re a restless trio. As well as the school, they run two restaurants (El Arriero, in the nearby village of Sorzana, where they’re from, and Divina Croqueta, in Logroño, which focuses solely on the dish it takes its name from), as well as a catering company and a delivery service. “It’s in our genes,” explains Marie José. “Our father was very hardworking.”

I’ve joined them to learn how to cook traditional Rioja tapas, as well as some more modern creations. My visit coincides with red pepper-roasting season (from September to December, you’ll find strings of red piquillo peppers strung over glowing embers in the streets of the local villages, the air sweetly scented as they roast) and tonight, we’re using these peppers in a classic pinxtos dish, combining them with tuna, caramelised onion and toast. It’s not long before the aroma of the peppers triggers a wave of nostalgia in the room, the Loro sisters and my fellow classmates recalling memories of childhoods spent in the region. 

There’s a lot on the menu this evening and the room is soon filled with the sound of mushrooms simmering and cod bubbling in milk. The classes here are extremely popular — the sisters run up to 13 a week, with guests coming from as far afield as Israel, Canada and Mexico. And, for all their drive and ambition, the Loro sisters clearly also love what they do, laughing and teasing each other as they work. Next, they teach us how to make their grandmother’s buñuelos (like churros in texture, but round and made with butternut squash). Mónica drops them into hot bubbling oil — here, we learn, it’s always olive oil. As if to emphasise the point, she whips out a five-litre container of the stuff, laughing as she explains that American guests sometimes ask her for photos with it.

When they’re fetched from their sizzling oil bath, the buñuelos are a squidgy delight, although firmer than expected once I get past the crunch of the sugar dusting. “You have to eat them now,” I’m told. “They won’t last.” I nod; I’ll make sure they don’t. As with the croquetas, I’m happy to follow the Loro sisters’ advice.

The winery: Barón de Ley

During a late-morning wine-tasting session in the Finca Los Almendros vineyard, a 740-acre expanse of fertile land home to six grape varieties, the sun makes a welcome appearance. It shines down on the vines, boosting the golden-yellow tones of the garnacha tinta grape leaves. And, as I scan the landscape, I can see the other varieties represented by different colours — green, gold, ochre and rust — each vine responding to the sun’s rays in its own way.

Located just outside the town of Mendavia, in Navarre province, the vineyard belongs to Barón de Ley, which has six vineyards dotted around the area. I’m hosted by Martha and Patricia and, together, we taste a pale, fresh garnacha rosé that’s buttery, mineral and floral at the same time. It works particularly well with a selection of salty charcuterie, straight from the company’s farm in Extremadura.

The winery is housed in a 16th-century former Benedictine monastery, and it’s here, in a dimly lit cellar, that I meet Pablo, the winemaker. He opens a 1985 vintage — a good, warm year for Rioja wines. It gives off a rich, heady aroma, but has lost its intensity of colour. “The reds die as whites and the whites die as reds,” he explains.

Next, we taste a 2021 vintage. Pablo blushes and grins. “He won’t say it because he’s shy,” Martha explains. “But this is one of the best white wines he’s made in his life”. It has hints of black liquorice and is fresh and fun. We taste, we spit, we taste again.

As we explore, I’m shown the sleek concrete vats and the vast, ageing concrete tanks. They contrast sharply with the rows upon rows of oak casks (31,000 in total) and, as we meander, I can smell the toasted oak and ageing alcohol. Back outside, the late-afternoon sun is still dancing upon the vines, twinkling on the grenache and tempranillo leaves.