I love Spanish food—particularly in Spain.
It starts with incredible food products including melt-in-mouth sweet pata negra hams, meaty Cantabrian anchovies, crunchy quick-fried chipirones (baby squid) and aromatic green olive oils.
Then comes the festive presentation—particularly in tapas places where you can share lots of small, artful plates and then gesture to a neighbor's food and say, "We'll have some of that!"
There is an irresistible excitement to point-and-choose dining—even if you don't always know what you're eating.
So I was thrilled when Gonzalo Iturriaga, winemaker at Spain's iconic Vega Sicilia, offered to lead me on a Saturday afternoon tapas crawl in Valladolid.
Valladolid (pop. 300,000) is known for its tasty roasted meats and charcuterie and award-winning tapas. It's also the wine capital of Castile and León—surrounded by appellations Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Cigales and Toro—meaning restaurants have good selections, with wines by the glass typically costing only 2 to 4.50 euros ($5 or less).
Iturriaga, 39, an agricultural engineer and enologist, moved here with his young family in 2015 after he was recruited by Vega Sicilia from a France-based winery-supply company. Since then, the lean, bearded Iturriaga says, "I've gained [15 pounds]."
"Tapas is a way of living," Iturriaga explained after we met on the town's main square.
It was 1 p.m., an hour that in most of Europe would be the height of the lunch rush, but in Spain we were, as Iturriaga put it, "quite early."
Our first stop was Los Zagales, famous for its inventive tapas that win national awards, which are displayed on banners above the long granite bar.
As lunch customers were only beginning to trickle in, Iturriaga ordered glasses of Palacio de Bornos Verdejo Ruedo 2016—about as uncomplicated and freshly exuberant as white wine gets.
We started with a tapa called "breadbag": a finger-size baguette filled with fried squid in a spicy red sauce and served inside a transparent bag. I was about to pull the bag off the bread when Iturriaga explained the bag itself is edible (from potato starch)—a fun touch.
The next tapa was the reason Iturriaga brought me, an American, here.
It was called Obama en la Casa Bianca ("Obama in the White House"), winner of a 2009 national competition.
The tapa arrived in a white porcelain domed bowl. Our server removed the top revealing a colorful contrast: black truffle shavings covering a poached egg on top of a thick hot mushroom cream and potatoes.
The dish was both comfort food and a heady journey into the underground forest of umami. In most big cities, you'd pay the price of an expensive meal for anything with truffles on it. Here, the dish was a mere 3.40 euros.
Next we walked a couple of blocks to Iturriaga's favorite weekly tapas hangout, Villa Paramesa, where we sat at a high-topped table and feasted on a parade of small dishes, including mini omelets served in 4-inch iron skillets, freshly grilled baby artichoke hearts drizzled with olive oil, rich pork rib ravioli in a meaty broth, and moist slow-cooked suckling lamb.
"They serve wines by the glass from magnums—for me the best size," Iturriaga enthused. We counted more than 20 Castilian wines by the glass that day, and ordered Mauro Viño de la Tierra de Castilla y León 2014 (89 points), from the estate of Mariano Garcia, Vega Sicilia's longtime winemaker until the mid-1990s.
For dessert we tried a sweet tapa called Un Canto al Vino ("A Song to Wine")—an artistic sculpture representing a wine cork in a vineyard, which the menu said was created from cocoa, licorice, fresh cheese and coffee.
It was only about 2:30 p.m. and the crowds were streaming in for lunch. Yet there was one more spot on our itinerary: El Figón de Recoletos, an asador restaurant specializing in wood-oven roasted suckling lamb, or lechazo asado.
We squeezed our way up to the bar, where we drank Bodegas Riberalta Ribera Del Duero Vega Izan Crianza 2014, and ordered delicate lamb ribs grilled over vine cuttings. The portion of six ribs arrived on its own small grill resting above a pan of smoldering ash.
We ate with our fingers, cleaning the ribs with our teeth. It was some of the most memorable (and probably youngest) lamb I've ever eaten.
We headed out in the crisp afternoon and I was sated. One afternoon of bar hopping made conventional dining seem dull.
Iturriaga patted his stomach and expressed exactly the way I felt.
"Now," he said, "it's time for a siesta."
Calle Pasión, 13, 47001 Valladolid, Spain
Calle Calixto Fernández de la Torre, 5, 47001 Valladolid, Spain
El Figón de Recoletos
Calle Acera de Recoletos, 3, 47004 Valladolid, Spain