Enjoying the Holidays in Rioja and the Basque Country

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In Spain the holiday season is a marathon that lasts about a month, from December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to January 6, the celebration of Epiphany.

We traditionally celebrate with company lunches and dinners, meals with friends and of course, traditional feasts on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, the evening of January 5 and lunch on January 6. Of course while we’re on our holiday shopping spree, we take the time to have a glass of wine and a few ‘tapas’ or ‘pintxos’.

Our festive lifestyle comes at a price: experts from the European Medical Institute of Obesity reckon that each Spaniard will gain between two and five kilograms (4,4 and 11 pounds) over the holidays.

That said, we are firm believers in “Adiós diet” at the end of the year and only after the holidays do we face ‘la cuesta de enero’ (the January hill), grudgingly starting a month of financial austerity and smaller meals to lose weight.

Wine, of course, is an integral part of our lifestyle. During the holiday season we scour our wine cellars and local wine shops to choose the best wines to enjoy with these special meals. And here, Rioja is naturally the name of the game, with its wide range of dry, semidry and sweet whites, rosés and reds, from the latest vintage to wines aged from a year to six years in oak and then in the bottle before release from the winery.  Rioja is truly a wine that can be paired with any dish.

A typical Christmas Eve menu in our house, which is, I believe, representative of holiday meals in the Basque Country and La Rioja usually consists of:

  • enjoying a glass or two of champagne while we’re preparing the meal;
  • some small dishes just after we sit down such as prawns, paté and slices of cheese. Some families prefer larger shellfish such as lobster or spider crab, paired with a young white or rosé rioja;
  • fish or seafood soup with which we continue with young white;
  • broiled sea bass or sea bream with potatoes, paired with a barrel fermented or barrel aged white (on Christmas Day we usually roast a leg of lamb with potatoes, and with it an aged red Rioja);
  • a special dessert that my wife makes with slices of fresh pineapple on which she pours a little Grand Marnier, Cointreau or kirsch;
  • Turrón (nougat) and marzipan.

New Year’s Eve is extra special because it’s our son’s birthday so we open a bottle or two of rioja red from his birth year.

On New Year’s Day we always have a huge meal of spaghetti bolognese with a good rioja reserva.

On January 5 we go downtown for the parade featuring the Three Wise Men who pass out candy to the children who line the streets.  Here in Spain there are several characters who deliver presents:  In the Basque Country it’s the ‘olentzero’, the legendary man who delivered coal to homes.  In the rest of Spain, it’s the Three Wise Men or in some families, Santa Claus, whom we call ‘Papá Noel’. He’s not a traditional figure in Spain, but is growing in importance because of the influence of TV.  Spanish kids must feel lucky that they’re receiving gifts from so many different people!

After the parade we go pintxo hopping with our friends.

The party ends on the afternoon of January 6th when we breathe a sigh of relief, remember our New Year’s resolutions and start the hard climb up the January hill!

Tom Perry

Inside Rioja