The wine cellar at Los Castaños being rather ravaged by recent festivities and, with the season of thirsty walkers fast approaching, we visited our local Ronda vineyard, Joaquin Fernandez, to restock. This delightful experience usually involves a chat and a tapa but today we were treated to lunch and a cata (tasting).
A unique feature of this most pleasant of grape gardens is that the wines are 100% ecological. No chemicals are used of any sort. Aromatic plants grow with the vines to encourage the good insects like ladybirds, and discourage the bad ones. A tour of the bodega explains the whole process that converts the grape, freshly harvested from the vines growing around the bodega, to rich and wonderful wine. Sitting in the bodega by the open fire after the tour, one could not help but feel relaxed and happy in this delightfully dusty and casually rustic environment.
Lunch was being prepared on a simple gas ring in the open air. Cunningly engaging the cook in conversation, I covertly studied his methods, seeking fresh inspiration for my own kitchen. I need not have stooped to skulduggery, however, as he was more than eager to share his secrets. It looks like paella, he said, but it ´s Arroz Campero, or country-style rice.
Curious about where he fitted into the vineyard picture, I asked if he owned a restaurant in Ronda. He chuckled. “I am the owner of the vineyard.” The eponymous Joaquin proudly told me that everything we were going to eat, except the rice, was out of his own garden and ecologically produced, including the chicken. Such a philosophy is rare in Spain where the organic movement is only just beginning.
But before lunch was the wine tasting. As you might imagine, we are intimate with the bodega´s four wines: a rosado, a young red, and two mature reds. But a fifth glass twinkled mysteriously in the line-up.
The surprise addition was a white red. A white wine made with red, merlot grapes. This process, “blanc de noir”, is used in Champagne but unheard of in Spain. Yolanda, the enologist explained that she had wanted to experiment and Joaquin gave his blessing, prepared to sacrifice a few grapes to innovation. The wine was delicious and intriguing. Fruity and refreshing. Our enthusiastic if amateurish approval was echoed by the more sophisticated palates around the table.
Lunch was simply delicious. Traditional cheese and meats, the aforementioned organic-grown salad. Rice and chicken. Finally, we were treated to home-made membrillo (quince jelly) and fresh white sheep’s cheese, Queso de Burgos.
When you come to Ronda and Los Castaños, I hope you will visit Joaquin Fernandez for a tour. You may not get lunch but you will certainly have a unique experience. I give below Joaquin’s “method”, for the rice which was delicious. Note, this is not a recipe! While chatting to the cook, I did not have the nerve to measure everything he added!
1. Gently sauté cut up chicken in plenty of olive oil. Once golden brown, add a couple of glasses of white wine and reduce. Remove chicken and keep warm.
2. Roughly chop onion, green peppers, garlic and add to the pan with some whizzed up tomatoes. Leave to cook gently, stirring frequently, until tender. Then blend this mixture. (Joaquin does this so that children must, against their wishes, eat vegetables. He therefore blends this “sofrito” as it is called in Spanish so the picky eyes of the young cannot discern their arch enemies.
3. Put the chicken back in the sauce, add green beans, large butter beans, saffron, water and bring to the simmer.
4. 25 minutes before serving, add the rice., a few dried red peppers and sprigs of rosemary. Cook slowly till the rice is tender and has absorbed all the flavours.