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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.

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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.

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You can probably count Madrid’s Japanese restaurants on one hand, but when it comes to exquisite dining from the land of the rising sun one name stands out above all the rest.

Kabuki (www.restaurantekabuki.com), tucked away on the lower-ground floor of the five-star Wellington Hotel in central Madrid near Retiro Park attracts those who want to enjoy the unique flavours of Japanese cuisine with a Spanish twist. It’s this gastronomic creativity and merging of cultures from the hand of Chef Ricardo Sanz that has seen the Michelin Guide award the restaurant a coveted Michelin star for many years.

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Kabuki’s minimalist décor provides a sophisticated setting where diners can focus their attention on the exquisite food. Those who want to be close to the action and watch the chefs hand-slice the fish to prepare the sushi and sashimi should book a place at the Sushi Bar. The tables, which are spread over two levels, provide privacy and the perfect setting for those seeking romance. For small groups of up to ten there is also a private dining room. Kabuki’s fame has spread, and the restaurant is now extremely popular with both locals and visiting Japanese. Bookings are highly recommended.

Chef Ricardo, who learned his art during a four-year apprentice in Tokyo from the master sushi chef, Masao Kikuchi, presents an amazing menu which includes a number of delightful dishes where the flavours of Spain and Japan are combined with great effect. A good example is Usuzukari de Toro, a delicious combination of tuna loin and pan tomaca – a traditional bread and tomato dish from Spain’s north-eastern region of Cataluña. Sashimi of tuna loin is dressed with extra virgin olive oil, a drop of soy sauce, fresh tomato pulp and tiny bread crumbs to provide a wonderful fusion experience. It gets top marks from both Spanish and Japanese diners.

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For those who are concerned about declining tuna numbers, all the tuna used in the restaurant comes with a certificate showing that it has been sourced from sustainable reserves. Sushi lovers are really spoilt with some totally tantalizing flavours. The nigiri topped with a quail’s egg and black truffle is divine. Chef Ricardo’s creativity continues with the larger dishes. Chunky tuna with teriyaki sauce, and thin, extra-rare slices of beef drizzled with ponzo sauce – a citrus juice and soy sauce blend – are ‘must trys’.

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While Japan is not famed for its desserts Chef Ricardo has once again created some sweet treats which are the perfect marriage of both cultures. To cleanse the palette and provide a refreshing end to the meal try the apple jelly topped with juicy whole litchis and crowned with passion fruit pulp.