Gourmet: To Basque in Culinary Glory

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The otherworldly plane trees of Navarra (Photo by Sofia Perez)

Koldo Rodero took over his family’s tradition-bound restaurant and, against all odds, is creating some of the best and most exciting food in Spain.

By Sofia Perez

[Published by Gourmet, November 2005]

Pamplona's central square, Plaza del Castillo (Photo by Sofia Perez)

Pamplona’s central square, Plaza del Castillo (Photo by Sofia Perez)

Hills encircle Pamplona like a bullring, which seems fitting for the northern Spanish city that is most famous for its encierro, the running of the bulls. And until a brash young chef named Koldo Rodero came on the scene, the encierro was the only claim to international fame for the entire province of Navarra, of which Pamplona is the capital.

Lacking the avant-garde sensibility of Catalonia or the flamenco-infused exoticism of Andalusia, Navarra is a pretty staid place. Home to the first university founded by Opus Dei, one of the Catholic Church’s most traditional wings, its conservatism is a badge of honor, its Catholicism steely. It is in this unlikely setting that Rodero produces some of the most innovative cooking in Spain. And some of the country’s great chefs have taken notice. “Koldo has a lot of respect for what he’s doing, and his evolution in the kitchen has been enormous,” says Juan Mari Arzak, the father of Spain’s modern alta cocina movement and a mentor to chefs like Rodero. “He’s one of the great ones, which is especially remarkable because he’s doing it in Navarra, where it can be difficult.”

For nine days each July, placid Pamplona erupts into a form of officially sanctioned madness, the fiestas of San Fermín, as men and women who would otherwise be tending shops or sitting in offices succumb to drunken revelry and catapult through the streets waving red scarves, trying to avoid being gored by the animals they are driving to distraction. Sanfermines, it might be said, is Navarra’s excuse to collectively blow off a head of steam.

The momentary madness may also be a result of living in a region with a split personality. Navarra’s northern, mountainous half, with its gnarled plane trees and mist-covered ravines, is smack in the middle of what Basques consider their ancestral homeland, and its communities still embody the Basque spirit, from its architecture to its language. As you move south, the province opens up. Hill country fades into a largely flat, arid agricultural region, La Ribera, known for cultivating some of the country’s best produce, such as artichokes, lettuce hearts, and incomparably juicy and tender thick white asparagus. People in La Ribera live much of their lives outdoors under the direct gaze of the sun; they are, much like the Castilians to the south, less reserved than their northern neighbors.

(l.-r.) Chef Koldo Rodero with sisters Gorreti and Verónica

(l.-r.) Chef Koldo Rodero with sisters Gorreti and Verónica

Navarra might be called a snapshot of Spain, and its dual nature can either drive you mad, or, as it does in Rodero’s case, call you to embrace it. Perhaps because Rodero was born to both sides of the province—his father, Jesús, is from La Ribera and his mother, Resu, is from the Basque Country (where Rodero, too, was born), and they joined forces to open their Mesón Rodero in 1969, which grew into the more formal Restaurante Rodero in 1975. “Imagine the combination of these two people,” Koldo says, as if he’s describing the marriage of a Martian to an Earthling. “They come from different worlds. In the south, it’s flat, and it’s impossible to hide, so everyone’s more direct. You meet someone from La Ribera and, almost immediately, it’s as if he’s your best friend. In the north, it might take a week before he tells you what he really thinks.”

The 42-year-old chef is a lot of both—his eyes dark and expressive, his compact frame barely able to contain a certain restlessness, his listening engaged yet guarded. He took over the reins of Restaurante Rodero from his father 18 years ago, and with his innovative use of all things Navarrese, he’s shaking up Pamplona and turning heads toward a part of Spain that in the past has been given little more than a nod.

“There are still many places here where the menus are like photocopies of each other—the same stuffed piquillo pepper dish is on all of them,” he says. You won’t find that on Rodero’s menu, but you will discover layered, assertive, even playful foods such as an anise-marinated raw oyster with a warm fennel purée and lime-anise granita, drizzled with a caramelized teriyaki sauce, or his dessert version of a Bloody Mary, a sweet tomato and passion-fruit soup with a vibrant Sichuan peppercorn ice cream, served in a small Martini glass. In a bold stroke, Rodero refashioned one of the most classic Spanish dishes, tortilla española. His omelet with truffle oil and an onion cream sauce consists of a hollowed-out confit potato that has been filled with egg yolk, then sealed with an egg wash, warmed slightly, and topped with sauce. With the jab of a fork, the velvety yolk cascades out to join the truffle-infused onion.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have a standby dish or two of his own—his father’s creation, a merluza a la Navarra, panfried hake in a mushroom velouté, has been on the menu for a dozen years, although even that has been slightly redefined. “It’s a sure thing,” he says.

In certain regions of Spain, dishes like Rodero’s would take their rightful place in an ongoing discussion among chefs, each building on another’s experiments or posing questions. In Navarra, though, that sense of community among chefs is missing. Rodero is on his own, but it’s just the sort of challenge he thrives on. When Resu (who still handles the front of the house with Koldo’s sisters, Goretti and Verónica) is out of earshot, he confides, “I like to start arguments, just to see how they unfold.”

Part provocateur, part mediator, Rodero pulls off a difficult balancing act at the family restaurant. The main dining room is coolly minimal, with warm woods and vases of simple flowers on the linen-draped tables. But step into the private room and you’re surrounded by photos of Jesús Rodero posing with bullfighters (he’s a regular at Club Taurino, a hangout for the sport’s aficionados, just down the block). Koldo’s techniques range all over the culinary map, but most of his ingredients, and his inspiration, come from Navarra and the Basque Country. Take cuajada, a classic Basque Navarrese dessert, in which fresh sheep’s milk and rennet are placed in a wooden vessel known as a kaiku and a burning-hot stone is added. After the stone has cooled and the milk has curdled and set, the stone is removed, leaving behind a smoky pudding that is served with sugar or honey. In his savory reinterpretation, Rodero starts with a warm coconut and sea urchin cuajada, adds cockles for a briny pop, and tops it off with trout roe, resulting in a creamy blend of tangy, sweet, and salty.

The chef, who attended an ikastola, a traditional Basque school, is particularly proud of his heritage. Under Franco’s dictatorship, Euskera (the Basque language) was outlawed and, until the Generalissimo’s demise, in 1975, you could not give your child a Basque name. (Rodero is known as “Koldo,” but his birth certificate reads “Luis Mari.”)

Yet he is as much a child of the south, celebrating produce and growers both as host of a weekly radio show that covers everything from commercial fishing techniques to the roots of local food traditions and, for the past few years, as the teacher of a summer course at the Public University of Navarra, bringing in some of Spain’s leading chefs.

When I visit Rodero in Pamplona, he insists that we drive south to see the bounty of La Ribera and to meet his favorite produce purveyor. The landscape is austere and reminiscent of the American Southwest, all big sky and flat vistas marked by the occasional butte of striated stone. Only an hour’s drive from Pamplona, it feels like another country.

At a stone cottage, a former sheepherder’s refuge, we meet produce man Floren (who goes by only one name), a former guitarist for Barricada, one of Spain’s most famous heavy metal bands, who still looks the part with his ponytail and ripped jeans. A group of his friends have joined us at Floren’s cottage, and between tall tales and much joking, they begin to cook. Floren grills lamb chops in the fireplace while his friend Lino shaves paper-thin slices of marbled jamón ibérico from a massive shank. After we’ve consumed cured sausages, hearty bread, Roncal and Idiazábal cheeses, and some Navarrese rosés and reds, Floren assembles the components for a traditional ribereño recipe that he learned from his mother—an earthy asparagus and onion soup with poached eggs. “The broth is made with the stalks that were broken off or damaged during the harvest,” he tells us, “so nothing is wasted.” As we talk about the herbaceous flavor of the lamb, Floren gets up abruptly, jumps into his car, and drives away, only to return a few minutes later carrying branches of ontina, a brush-like herb that grows wild in the area, so that we can smell how its aroma matches the flavor notes in the meat.

Later, we head north again, through the winding roads of the Basque region to meet Jesús Orduna, whose family has been producing Roncal, Navarra’s famous sheep’s-milk cheese, for generations. Rodero uses this hard cheese with the smooth texture and nutty flavor in his restaurant’s cheese plate and in dishes like a langoustine and vegetable salad with a Roncal and wasabi cream. Above his ground-floor shop, marked Kabila Enea (“House of Kabila”), Orduna has created a museum dedicated to Roncal.

Back at the restaurant, Rodero is developing a version of Floren’s asparagus soup, a tribute to traditional ribereño dishes, at the same time that he is serving a tomato and violet soup with vegetable stems and marinated prawns that is both an homage to Navarra’s cardoons, asparagus, broccoli, and turnip, each in its season, and also a nod to Spain’s kitchen alchemists. Orange-colored spheres float in the soup, and when you put one in your mouth and pop it, orange juice explodes over your tongue. The wine list features bottlings from some of the best Navarrese vintners—Ochoa, Chivite, and Otazu. And through his classes and radio show, Rodero is trying to make Pamplona a meeting place for culinary minds.

“Since I happen to be in Navarra,” he says, “I am trying to give my food a sense of place and tradition; I’m trying to pull the cart forward.”


Staying There

If you don’t mind being a short ride from the city center, your best bet is the AC Ciudad de Pamplona (011-34-948-26-60-11; www.ac-hotels.com; from $130). Sleek, modern rooms decorated with contemporary art (plus a better-than-average breakfast buffet) make up for the distance. Hotel Tres Reyes (011-34-948-22-66-00; hotel3reyes.com; from $227), the city’s leading luxury hotel, is a bit soulless, but its proximity to the Old Town is convenient. For a place with real character, stay 15 miles southwest of Pamplona at Hotel El Peregrino (Puente La Reina; 011-34-948-34-00-75; hotelelperegrino.com; from $186). This comfortable old stone inn with slightly over-the-top décor—in the town where the two ancient pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela converge—might best be described as “medieval chic.”

Eating There

Restaurante Rodero (3 Calle Emilio Arrieta; 948-22-80-35) is in the very center of Pamplona, across from the bullring. At Bodegón Sarria (50 Calle de la Estafeta; 948-22-77-13), a favorite Pamplona tapas bar, be prepared to elbow your way through the crowds to order the signature pintxo (garlic toast with jamón jabugo). At Maher (19 Ribera; 948-81-11-50), a restaurant in a small hotel in Cintruénigo, chef Enrique Martínez’s seasonal menu is a tribute to the local organic produce (such as red cardoons and artichokes) grown by his staff on farmland that he owns nearby. In Tafalla, about 20 miles south of Pamplona, Atxen Jiménez and her son Nicolás Ramírez carry on the family business at Túbal (2 Plaza de Navarra; 948-70-08-52), which was founded by her parents in 1942. With well-executed dishes like kokotxas al pil-pil (hake cheeks in an emulsified sauce of garlic, parsley, olive oil, and guindilla pepper) and luscious borage crêpes, their lineup gives tradition a good name. Chef Luismi Lacar, a Rodero protégé, serves a variety of Navarrese specialties at Arotxa (34 Calle Santa Catalina; 948-45-61-00), 30 miles north of Pamplona, in the little Basque village of Legasa (very close to Parque Natural del Señorío de Bértiz, a beautiful forest and nature preserve). But the real reason to go is for the meat—thick, marbled cuts of Pyrenean beef from a rancher just up the hill. Perfectly grilled and topped simply with gray salt, the juicy chuletón (large cutlet) with a salad of local greens makes the trip to this picturesque hamlet worthwhile.

Being There

In the Pyrenees, visit Kabila Enea (Calle Zabalea, Uztárroz; 948-89-32-36), Jesús Orduna’s cheese museum and artisanal food shop, where you can buy honey and jam, as well as Roncal. Bodega Otazu (by appointment only; 948-32-92-00; otazu.com) is just west of Pamplona, in Echauri, on the banks of the Arga River. The wine estate dates to the Middle Ages and is home to the northernmost red-wine vineyards in Spain. Bodegas Chivite owns three wineries in Navarra, but the one to see is Señorío de Arínzano (by appointment only; 948-811-000; bodegaschivite.com), located 28 miles southwest of Pamplona, in central Navarra. The winery’s striking buildings were designed by Rafael Moneo, and the vineyards established in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund as a model of eco-sustainable agriculture.