Enjoying northern Spain's rich bounty during the holidays

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The holiday season provides the perfect opportunity to showcase the rich cornucopia of produce from the sea, the farms and the vineyards of northern Spain. 

The most eagerly anticipated meal of the year in both the Rioja region and the Basque Country is supper on December 24.  As an American who has lived in Spain for almost 50 years, this meal is only comparable in scope and sentiment to Thanksgiving.  We look forward to dressing up, greeting our family members at the door with a glass of bubbly and sitting down to enjoy a multi-course meal, together with regional wines paired specifically for each dish, with holiday music playing in the background. It’s the time of year when we bring out the best of the wines we’ve been collecting throughout the year.

The typical Christmas Eve supper at our house begins with shared plates of jamón ibérico (cured Spanish ham), along with slices of cured pork tenderloin, chorizo and salchichón (cured pork sausages) that we enjoy with a glass of cava or champagne.  Several Rioja wineries produce cava, a sparkling wine made using the traditional method with the second fermentation in the bottle. Our favorite is made at one of Rioja’s historic 19th century wineries in Haro.

Our first course is always fish soup, made with fish caught in the North Atlantic and in the waters of the Bay of Biscay. This is when we serve a white barrel fermented Rioja. The rich texture of the soup goes perfectly with the weight and flavors of this white.

We usually have two main courses.  We start with broiled sea bass or turbot. Before broiling, we open the fish lengthwise and sprinkle a little extra virgin olive oil from Rioja and slices of garlic on top.  The juices from the fish and this refrito are served over each individual serving of fish, along with some slices of roasted potato. Here we finish the white wine.  Next is roast leg of lamb, with its classic pairing, a bottle or two of Rioja reserva.

Before the meal we go to our cellar to decide on which reserva to drink.  If we don’t agree, we bring up each person’s choice.  After all, we also get together on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and on January 6, so everyone gets a chance to drink their favorite.

Dessert is always a big plate of sliced oranges and kiwifruit drizzled with orange liqueur and a few pieces of turrón (nougat), a classic sweet from around Alicante in southeastern Spain.

After dinner we gather around the Christmas tree to open our presents and raise our glasses to good health and family. Even though our kids have grown up and live elsewhere, they always spend the night with us at home on Christmas Eve.  It’s a wonderful tradition that we look forward to every year.