Much of the food and wine that we enjoy in Valencia comes from the small towns surrounding us. The train system makes it really easy to take day trips to the Valencian countryside. This past weekend we jumped on the train to Utiel, a little town about 50 miles west of Valencia.
Utiel is part of the D. O. Utiel-Requena wine region, along with the nearby town of Requena and seven other municipalities. They have been growing grapes and producing wine in this area for over 2,500 years. Every year after the harvest, Utiel celebrates in mid-October with a food and wine festival called Utiel Gastronómica.
The train from Valencia to Utiel is a slow one that takes 2 hours to cover the distance, but it’s a good price at only €5.80 each way. The best deal for this event was the Tren del vino a Utiel Gastronómica, a special arrangement that included a same day round trip ticket, a wine glass, a little earthenware bowl and tickets for four tastings for only €11.
The Utiel Gastronómica Festival was set-up in a beautiful park in the heart of the city. There were dozens of food and drink booths lined up along the park. We didn’t really understand what a “taste” would consist of, considering that each ticket was only about €1, but after the first round we knew that we wouldn’t have a problem getting enough to eat or drink. At each booth, we handed over one ticket along with our little bowl, and in return our bowl was completely filled with food.
The winters in Utiel-Requena are very cold, so the traditional dishes tend to be hearty and calorie dense. The local ladies spooned out some of the most interesting and delicious dishes typical of the area. They filled one of our bowls with Morteruelo, which is a pâté made with pork liver and game meats that are crushed into a paste in a mortar and mixed with bread crumbs. A couple of bread slices heaped with Ajoarriero (a creamy dish of salt cod, garlic, potatoes and olive oil) were also squeezed into the bowl.
The other bowl was loaded with a rich thick stew. When we were told that it was gazpacho, I’m sure that my face went blank. I seem to have that look often in Spain when I don’t comprehend something. It turns out that Gazpacho Manchego is a very old Iberian dish that is a staple in the area. It is made from unleavened flat bread, called torta de gazpacho, cut into small pieces and mixed into a stew with quail or other game meat. Why is it called gazpacho? I still don’t know but at least I know that on a cold winter day, it is just what I would want.
Of course, just about everything came with a few curls of chicharrones (fried pig skins) tossed on top. How about a bowl of sausages? The region is known for its sausage and Requena even has its own regulated Denomination of Origin for sausage. We’re always on the lookout for good morcilla and we found a few really tasty ones here.
The hearty food matched perfectly with the local wines. Utiel-Requena is known mostly for its reds and rosés. The predominant grape grown here is the Bobal varietal, which is also frequently blended with other varieties like Tempranillo or Cabernet Sauvignon. As with most wines made in Spain prior to the 1980’s, Utiel-Requena historically has produced mostly light table wines. However, in recent years there has been a push to produce high quality wines. The Bobal wines we tried were dry, ruby red and inky, and tasted of dark red fruits like blackberries. The tannins were quite strong which help the wines pair with the heavy meats, stews, and cheeses.
There was also a booth serving artesanal beers from multiple breweries in Valencia. We tried an excellent saison from Cervezas Alegria in Massanassa, Valencia. Their brewery and taproom is only about 8 km south of Valencia city. I see another day trip on the train in our future.
The event had a very local, small town feel. It was nice to see a mix of people of all ages having fun, including grandparents, teenagers and kids with balloons. One thing we love about being out in Spain is that we never feel too old or too young, but always seem to fall right in the middle. We may have been the only Americans in Utiel that day, but we found plenty of people to talk to. What better to drive conversation than good food and wine?
Best of all, we learned that there are at least 95 wineries in the Utiel-Requena D.O., which gives us plenty of reasons to come back.