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Restaurant Marqués de Riscal (visit – http://www.restaurantemarquesderiscal.com) is housed in what is possibly the most stunning contemporary-styled hotel in Europe. Designed by the American-Canadian architect Frank Gehry the hotel and restaurant are within the Marqués de Riscal wine estate (visit – http://www.hotel-marquesderiscal.com) near the small village of Elciego in northern Spain. Image

The two Michelin-starred restaurant is positioned on the second floor of the building and offers spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards and the San Andrés church in the village.

Renowned Spanish chef Francis Paniego is the culinary adviser to the restaurant which has become a reference point for gourmands visiting the area. It’s not hard to see why it’s been garlanded with the enviable stars. Stunning modern décor combines with the unmistakable interiors of Frank Gehry as well as high-end tableware and truly amazing cuisine and wine.

Highlights from the menu include tomato carpaccio with Dublin bay prawns, and glazed lamb lightly flavoured with fresh ginger. Desserts are well worth saving room for. Try the variation of the original mojito which comes with banana and tangy mint. Those who prefer something savory can enjoy a few slices of cheese from the large selection of Spanish and European varieties.

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As part of the interior design, one wall is given over to wine. Guest can choose from magnificent Marqués de Riscal vintages which date back to 1860 or a number of prestigious international labels. The sommelier will be pleased to assist with your choice.

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For those who wish to stay a few days, the hotel offers luxurious modern rooms and suites, a vinotherapy spa by Claudalie and opportunities to tour the wine estate and historic cellars.

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On Tuesday, March 12th, Madrid was the scene of Mexico Spirits Culture, a fabulous ‘fiesta Mexicana’ to celebrate all that this wonderful country has to offer. And what Mexican party would be complete without tequila? More than 15 tequila distilleries were there to show off their products. Offering visitors a taste of the best was the premium brand Azteca (visit www.casatequileraazteca.com)

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Azteca tequila has been produced at the company’s distillery in the D.O. region of Jalisco in Mexico for over 60 years.  What makes Azteca tequila stand head and shoulders above the rest is the hands-on approach that is taken with its distillation. From cultivating the agave plants – the base ingredient for distilling tequila – to their collection and finally distilling the beverage, the process is monitored every step of the way. Azteca has its own agave plantations in Mexico and lavishes care on the plants to ensure that the sap used is full of subtle flavours which will then be passed on to the final beverage. What you get is a smooth taste with delicious fruity nuances.

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Offering boundless opportunities for exciting taste sensations, Azteca produces a range of tequilas with varying flavour nuances. At the top of the list is La Revancha Añejo, which stays in fine wood casks for 18 months giving it a golden hue and smooth drinking qualities best enjoyed on the rocks. For those who love cocktails, the range of Azteca tequilas, including Real Hacienda Única, Espinosa, Revancha and El Retiro are perfect for making everything from a classic margarita to other enticing tipples such as the Paloma Re-Mix – a heady mix of Azteca Esponosa tequila with lemon and grapefruit juice, salt and a dash of soda water.

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Providing the perfect opportunity to experience Azteca tequila in an authentic party atmosphere, the Mexican Spirits Culture event exploded with music, dance, food and drinks throughout the afternoon of March 12th on the ground floor function space of Madrid’s famed Reina Sofia Museum. All those who attended were keen to get into the Mexican party spirit. Traditional Mexican dances started off the festivities.

At the Azteca tequila stand the mixologists thrilled the crowd with their cocktail mixing abilities and theatrical flair. One of the most popular cocktails was the Patanga which combined white tequila with lime juice and a dash of Coca Cola. Another great drink combined white tequila with Grand Marnier, lime juice with a dash of agave syrup.

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Mexican food is one of the world’s favourite cuisines, and helping keep hunger at bay was Chef Armando Oropezo from Madrid’s restaurant Mestizo (visit www.madrid.mestizomx.com) Chef produced some great bites, most of which included tequila in their elaboration. Some real crowd pleasers were avocado gazpacho with Azteca Tequila, chicken with Azteca Tequila Espinosa and ceviche flavoured with Azteca Tequila Único.

For those who want to start their own Mexican party, make sure you have some bottles of Azteca Tequila on hand. Visitors to Madrid who want to experience a lively night out head to Mestizo restaurant in Calle Recoletos for excellent ‘south of the border’ food and plenty opportunities to enjoy some fine tequilas.

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Seamlessly blending together elements of both Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, Nikkei 225, ( visit www.nikkei225.es ) on Madrid’s sophisticated Paseo de la Castellana, has become the rendezvous de rigour for discerning foodies. Helmed by Chef Luís Arévalo, the restaurant now has a loyal following and one which is constantly growing as the news of his expertise and gastronomic creativity spreads.

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With its light and airy interior, this chic restaurant is perfect for informal meals, casual business lunches or, at night, when the lights are lowered, a romantic retreat for dinner. Expect to see famous faces as you are shown to your table.

Diners can choose to be seated at the stunning, back-lit, onyx, sushi bar – the perfect spot to watch the action as the chefs prepare hand-cut sashimi and colourful sushi, or at elegant table settings complete with starched white linens and an array of beautiful contemporary porcelain and glassware.

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The extensive menu includes many dishes which are ideal for sharing – an option which is encouraged, particularly at lunchtime. While the dishes at Nikkei 225 owe their origins to Japan, many show subtle influences from Peruvian cuisine. The use of ceviche, chilli and jalapeño peppers are the most notable. It’s a marriage of flavours that works wonderfully.

Chef Luis, who has born in Peru, exhibits real artistic flare when it comes to presenting his gastronomic creations on the plate. Don’t be surprised if you linger for a moment just admiring the visuals before you reach for your chopsticks. Highlights from the menu are king crab drizzled with chilli and garlic vinaigrette, octopus sashimi accompanied by black olive paste, and a wonderful selection of hand-rolled sushi. Desserts include a delightful variation on the Peruvian cocktail, Pisco Sour.

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While Nikkei 225 has an extensive wine list, it’s Champagne that is without doubt the best option to accompany the meal. It goes perfectly with every dish, and adds delightful nuances to the flavours on the plates. Nikkei 225 boasts a large selection of top labels and, for those who want to discover the finer points of various food and beverage combinations, there are special Champagne menus which allow you to enjoy three or four glasses of carefully chosen vintages throughout the meal.

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Spain’s premium sparkling wine, cava, seems to be the drink of choice for many these days. It makes the perfect partner for just about any food or celebration. Already the second biggest-selling sparkling wine category in the world, after Champagne, it combines abundance with a hard-won reputation for quality.

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Cava is based on the trio of indigenous grape varieties, Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo, which all have a refreshing lemony tang to them. The great news is that it sells for a fraction of the price of Champagne, and yet is still made by the very same process.

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Rosé cava has a persuasive raspberry bouquet derived largely from the Monastrell grape. These delicious rosés are a world away from the sickly sweet specimens which went by the same name in the 1980s.

That was the decade when the world of cava began to change. As a result of a prolonged campaign, the Holy Grail was won when Chardonnay became a permitted grape in the blends. In the last few years Pinot Noir has been authorized for use in the rosés, and since the 2007 harvest, it is permissible to use it in the white wines too.

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The use of Pinot Noir has been the pioneering concern of cava’s pre-eminent producer, the family-owned label Codorníu  (www.codorniu.com)  With vineyards in Cataluña, in Spain’s north east, the company produces around 60 million bottles each year. Much of this is exported.

Freshness is all with this delightful cava, as is evidenced by the vintages across the label. The bracing lemony tang of the cava is offset by a faint suggestion of toasted wheat meal bread. Its rosé cousin is predominantly Monastrell, backed up with Pinot Noir, and displays a highly appealing, rounded, ripe cherry style bouquet. Drunk with finely sliced Iberian ham its engaging fruity aromas are highly appealing.

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Codorníu is now available in many outlets worldwide. For those who fall under its charms on-line purchases are easy.

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Right across China this weekend everyone will be out in force to celebrate Chinese New Year. For those living in Madrid, there are a couple of restaurants that are perfect to see in the Year of the Snake.

2013 sees New Year’s Day fall on Sunday February 10th, but the celebrations span either side of this date. Get some friends together, book a table, pop a cork and enjoy yourselves.

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Tse Yang, (www.cafesaigon.es tel 914 311 888) set inside the Villa Magna hotel on Paseo de la Castellana, serves Chinese, haute cuisine in a remarkable, Imperial-style setting. Expect to be pampered from the moment you walk through the doors. The space is nicely divided by hand-carved, wooden screens, while the walls are dressed with hand-painted murals depicting Imperial, court life. There are tables for two, four or larger groups of up to ten. Soft lighting adds to the atmosphere and makes the experience perfect for those looking for a little New Year’s romance.

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Tse Yang specializes in four of the great Chinese regional cuisines – Cantonese, Szechuan, Pekinese and Shanghainese. For those who choose to go in a group, there are special seven-course menus, each of which pays tribute to one of the four great regional, Chinese cuisines.

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Get the celebratory ball rolling with a glass of champagne, then sit back and enjoy the feast. Perhaps begin the meal with razor clams with black beans, or spider crab salad. A real treat is lobster flavoured with fresh shredded ginger and shitake mushrooms. Mains include a delectable Peking duck served with homemade plum sauce and crisp cucumber slivers, all wrapped in warm pancakes. A popular dish from Shanghai is sea bass drizzled with a light sweet and sour sauce.

Wines and Chinese food can be a tricky mix, so allow the experienced sommelier to guide you for some memorable food and wine combinations.

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Those looking for a restaurant with a modern heartbeat should head to Le Dragon, (www.cafesaigon.es tel. 914 356 668) situated just a short walk from Plaza Cibeles at 2 Calle Gil de Santivañes.

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This sophisticated, Hong Kong-style restaurant shouts sophistication. Covering two levels, the dining rooms are decked out with glossy, black and red dividing screens.

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The perfect way to celebrate Chinese New Year is to order a selection of delicious Dim Sum. Le Dragon offers an extensive menu devoted to these little dumplings which come filled with just about anything. Choose from more than 30 varieties with tantalizing combinations such as, lobster with fish roe, duck with boletus mushrooms, beef and water chestnuts, or prawns with tender bamboo shoots. Dim Sum go perfectly with a cold beer, and you can sample local Spanish labels or Tsingtao, China’s own brew.

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Think of coffee and countries like Columbia and Brazil immediately come to mind. You can now add Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Islands, found in the Atlantic Ocean some 1000 kilometres south of mainland Europe and about 250 kilometres west of Morocco, to the list.

Heading Gran Canaria’s coffee production is the plantation La Finca la Laja located just outside the small village of Agaete on the north of the island.  Local farmer Victor Jorge is the fifth generation to work the land and grow coffee and is justifiably proud of his product which is causing a stir with gourmands due to its exceptionally high quality.

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Victor stands before me with a handful of ripe, red coffee berries plucked straight from a bush on his 12-hectare plantation. As he crushes the juicy Arabica coffee berry between his fingers, the subtle aromas of date and ripe kiwi drift upwards. “We’re only producing Arabica beans here,” he explains, as we continue our stroll through the verdant vegetation, past grape vines, orange and avocado trees which provide much needed shade to the somewhat delicate coffee plants.

Amazingly, they have been cultivating coffee in Gran Canaria since the 18th century. Planting in the area began when specimens where brought back from the botanical gardens in the village of La Orotava on the neighbouring island of Tenerife where they had been used for ornamental purposes.

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Holding the title of most northerly coffee plantation in the world, La Finca la Laja’s location is perfect for growing coffee. It would be quite easy to imagine that you are in Brazil or Indonesia as the Agaete Valley is hot and humid year round due to its particular microclimate. While the temperature and rainfall are perfect, the lower altitude of the plantation – at about 100 metres above sea level – means that the Gran Canarian coffee doesn’t have the acidic aftertaste of its South American counterparts which are normally grown at heights of over 1000 metres.

Around December each year, the coffee plants begin to flower and that delicate white flower becomes the red coffee berry. By spring each year the fruit is ready to be harvested – a task that is done by hand.

Once collected the fruit is placed on open drying racks for 25 to 30 days and the bright Canary Island sun goes to work to desiccate the berries turning them hard and brown. Once dried, the fruit is split open and the two coffee beans are extracted.

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At this stage the beans are pale green and need to be roasted for about ten minutes to bring out the much prized aroma and make them possible to grind. Using a machine, which was built by his father Inocencio, Victor pours the roasted beans through the grinder. The final product is now ready to be used.

With its fame spreading, the plantation is now attracting both local and international tourists. Victor is a keen guide and loves walking the inquisitive visitors through the trees and explaining in detail the production process from berry to cup. At the end of the visit it’s time to sit on the open veranda and enjoy a cup of coffee served with some homemade biscuits. Packets of Agaete Coffee are available for sale at the La Finca la Laja for around €17. You’ll also find them in the gourmet section of El Corte Ingles supermarkets and in specialty shops selling Canary Island produce (www.madeincanaryislands.com)  To organise a visit, Victor can be contacted via his mobile +34-628 922 588 or by e-mail lugojorge3@hotmail.com

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Tucked away in Madrid’s Barrio de Salamanca is a cuisine hotspot for epicures who love the rich flavours of winter game.

La Torcaz (www.latorcaz.com) specializes in a wide variety of dishes based on the best winter ingredients – venison, hare, rabbit and wild boar. There are also a number of seafood starters which provide a lighter, but simply heavenly, way to begin the meal.

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The restaurant’s cosy interior is the perfect place to escape from the cold winds and rain outside. Once inside, the dining room is divided into three areas each with about six tables carefully laid with white starched cloths and elegant flatware. Every detail throughout the meal is well thought out. Begin the experience with a selection of freshly-baked bread. The grain loaf with walnuts is simply divine, especially when combined with the extra, virgin olive oil.

La Torcaz is definitely a restaurant which entices you to linger over the meal. For those who want to sample a few dishes, a number of smaller portions of dishes from the main menu are available.  Perhaps begin the meal with a beautifully presented prawn carpaccio or, a real treat, the sea urchins. These gourmet sea creatures come presented in their shells as a warm, creamy puree topped with a soft-set quail egg. It’s an epicurean experience not to be missed.

Mains are a generous size. An unusual treat are the deboned pig-trotters. After being roasted they are sliced and presented on the plate as beautifully glazed discs accompanied by velvety-smooth mashed potato. A delicious winter dish comes in the form of pan-fried venison medallions served with creamed pumpkin and chestnut purée.

Adding to the experience there is an excellent selection of Spanish wines. Whites go perfectly with the seafood starters while the full-bodied reds bring out the subtle nuances of the game dishes.

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For those with a sweet tooth, La Torcaz offers a highly original dessert. Juicy dates are filled with Chantilly cream and then drizzled with honey. It’s the perfect end to a meal.

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When superstar chef Ferran Adrià declared that the best paella in the world came from a small restaurant in Alicante – and not Valencia, where the dish originated – he lit the touchpaper on a serious culinary rivalry. But what made Spain’s most famous chef come to this conclusion and was he right?

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Almost everyone now agrees that paella was invented in Valencia. That’s not up for discussion. We know that some time in the 19th century, peasants from the Albufera area, a few miles south of the city, first began frying up rabbit, chicken and beans, occasionally with mountain snails, before adding water, seasoning and, finally, rice.

That’s paella. Or rather, that’s what it’s supposed to be. But, as any Valencian will tell you, paella didn’t remain in this state of purity for long. Pretty soon, the dish spread down the coast and villagers who didn’t know better started adding seafood. From the point of view of paella purists, it’s been downhill ever since.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and you end up with the more touristy restaurants around Spain, advertising something called ‘paella’ which their Valencian neighbours would dismiss as ‘prawns in rice’.

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So it must have come as a shock when legendary chef Ferran Adrià recently said that a small restaurant called Paco Gandía (www.pacogandia.com) in the province of Alicante, serves the best paella in the world. It must have been as if a kitchen knife were being twisted in the heart of Valencia’s proud rice tradition. The Michelin Guide has also been quick to include this unpretentious restaurant in its hallowed pages. Although it doesn’t have a star, it’s described as a charming restaurant in the foodies’ bible and worth a visit.

6a01348617181b970c01539432e87c970b-300wiFound in Pinoso, a small village in the rugged highlands from Alicante, the small and rigorously authentic restaurant Paco Gandía serves paella in all its earthbound purity. Josefa Navarro and her husband Paco use round, short-grain calasparra rice cooked over an open fire of vine cuttings and garnished with creatures that thrive in neighboring vineyards – rabbit and snails.

As any aficionado will tell you, great paella is all about the rice. It should be slightly crunchy and yet still moist in its consistency.  Paco Gandia’s version meets all the criteria and has a caramelized, golden crust – known as soccarat by paella mavens – stuck to the bottom of the pan.  The paella’s flavors at Paco Gandía are intense, slightly smoky with intense saffron and grilled-meat notes. The rabbit and the snails add an earthiness and rich consistency to the dish. My suggestion is to make the trip there and find out for yourself.

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Spanish wine is all the rage around the world, and even if you are lucky enough to live in Spain, there is plenty to learn and discover.  When choosing Spanish wines it’s important to know something about the predominant grape varieties, the leading regions, and the classifications.

Tempranillo, the red grape most commonly associated with Spain, is only the second most widely grown grape after Airen, a white grape whose production is largely for brandy. Other major red grape varieties are Garnacha (known as Grenache in most of the rest of the world, but originally from Spain), Cariñena (known as Carignan elsewhere), Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre elsewhere) and Graciano. The primary white grapes that produce the dry, flavorful white wines are Albariño, Verdejo and Macabeo. (also known as Viura)

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Heading the list of wine regions in Spain, and where many of the largest and most important producers are still to be found, is La Rioja, about 370 kilometres north of Madrid. Tempranillo blends, long aged in American oak barrels and featuring earthy minerality, continue to dominate production there and have helped make this region’s wines firm favourites with locals and travellers alike.

Ribera del Duero, just south of La Rioja, is another major region known primarily for its Tempranillo grapes. Great sources of white wines are Rías Baixas situated in the cooler, northwest region of Galicia, and Penedès region in Catalonia on the northeastern coast.

When choosing a wine, two indications of quality to watch out for are the classifications DO, Denominación de Origen, and DOCa, Denominación de Origen Calificada. There are now 66 regions in Spain with DO status, but only two DOCa’s  – the newer category for DOs that have a consistent track record for quality. The two DOCa’s are La Rioja in northern Spain and Priorat which surrounds Tarragona in eastern Cataluña.

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Primary categories established by law indicating the amount of barrel aging are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Joven – These young wines are normally marketed on the same year of their vintage. If they do spend time in a wood barrel, it’s never more than a couple of months.

Crianza – Red wines should be at least two years old, and spend at least six months in barrel. White wines and rosé wines should be a year old with at least six months in barrel.

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Reserva – Red wines should be at least three years old and spend at least one year in barrel. White wines and rosé wines should be two years old with at least six months in barrel.

Gran Reserva – Red wines should be at least five years old and spend at least 18 months in barrel. White wines and rosé wines should be four years old with at least six months in barrel.

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For those looking for an all-round wine holiday, the Marques de Riscal Hotel (www.hotel-marquesderiscal.com) found on the Marques de Riscal wine estate in the south of the Basque Country is the perfect location to find out more about fine Spanish wines while staying in modern luxurious comfort.

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With the launch of award-winning chef Ramón Freixa’s new website (www.ramonfreixa.net) finding out what he’s up to and what’s going on in the kitchen just got a whole lot easier.

With text in both English and Spanish the website opens up a world of gourmet, Spanish, food culture, gastronomy and tempting flavours. Chef Ramón decided to use the spoon with its sensual curved shape as his symbol, and the storybook-style layout is full of them.Image

There is an ample biography explaining his early years in Barcelona and his dreams to become, first a rock star, and then a chef. Chef Ramón shares openly his aspirations and explains how his creative energy in the kitchen is transferred onto the plate. Specialising in modern, Catalan cuisine, his dishes are highly sophisticated, playful and often present unusual flavour combinations.

Ávalon by RamonFreixa-Barcelona

For those looking for quick information about his four restaurants – Madrid, Barcelona (x2) and Cartagena de las Indias – there are links to take you through to each.