Imagine a culinary region, and I do mean region not country, nestling in the heart of Europe with it own source of wind-farmed electricity, mountain ranges topped with snow for more than half the year, easy and direct access to two seas yet the proud possessor of its very own equatorial desert. All this and more, scattered within a landmass larger than the whole of East Anglia. Put like that I was a little perplexed when the region’s Consejo Regulador [head honcho of the local wine region] invited a small group of us to Navarra, in north eastern Spain to sample the region’s natural bounty the other week.

Navarra sits on the northern side of the River Ebro, Spain’s longest river. On the southernmost bank immediately opposite, sits the more hallowed region of Rioja. Like Liverpool and Birkenhead, proximity is where similarities end.

The people of Navarra are defiantly independent of their neighbours and fiercely proud of their domaine. Although I was principally on a wine visit, I was willingly sidetracked on more than one occasion by local aficionados desperate to highlight their culinary prowess. Olive oil tasting became a daily task as more and more examples of their liquid gold were produced to sample and discuss. Piquillo peppers, one of the main features of Navarra’s gastronomy, were eaten in some form at almost every meal. Smoked, roasted, dried, stuffed or  powdered they appeared with welcome regularity and were placed like a votive offering before us, each restaurant we visited boasting that their supply and theirs alone, were the sweetest style available in the whole of Navarra. No argument from me, they were all delicious. Although now out of season, preserved asparagus, blanched white here as a delicacy, was served with artichoke heart as a tapas course in almost every bar.

Pork is eaten widely and much used in the local Chistorra sausage, a kind of Chorizo light which was served without request whenever one’s head was turned. Pig’s trotters were a common dish but when a plateful arrived with the severed limbs no bigger than a man’s thumb, we realised that butchery starts young out here in Navarra. But for the assembled audience offal consumption was yet to peak.

With the region on the well trodden pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela in the west, the architecture reflects the aged and deep seated aspects of Spain’s turbulent religious history. No more so than in the region’s ancient capital, Pamplona. Here during early spring is the fiesta of San Fermin and its most noted tourist attraction, the annual bull run. Undertaken by young excited bulls and equally excitable young men, the perilously narrow streets of Pamplona form a dangerous chicane as hundreds of young Spanish alpha-males taunt and goad the bulls through to the main square, often with fatal human consequences at this point. The bull’s struggle of course comes a little later. This wild madness announces the start of the region’s bullfighting season. Opinion is divided as to the place of bullfighting in today’s sanitised world and even here in Spain the sport has vehement critics who regale against the perceived cruelty to this noble beast just as we once grumbled about the fate of the fox – although at least Spain eats what it kills.


I am a convert I am afraid, whether it was the corset and the tight trousers or Hemingway’s masterpiece Death in the Afternoon, I cannot remember, but I was hooked on bullfighting at an early age.

Although our visit was at the end of the fighting season at the famous Plaza de Toros, we were taken to a nearby restaurant who’s singular speciality was Rabo de toro deschuesado, colloquially translated as Bullring Stew . This dish is served all year round to a loyal throng of Navarran folk who queue dialy.  We were privileged to secure a booking during the three days we were there. Our own delicious home-grown take on oxtail stew, blanched, roasted and cooked for hours on end in the Aga whilst the family walk the dog on Holcombe beach, is the same glorious dish, but in this part of Spain we are talking of something approaching a religious experience. Like it or not, from the start of the run through the old city of Pamplona, followed by the separation and selection of the bulls, to the six or eight killed each day of the week’s  sporting fixtures, the bull has been revered here since the Roman occupation. Although beef dishes are common throughout Spain, rib and fillet are available on most menus, this degree of reverence appears undiminished in Navarran cuisine as the final celebration of the animal’s existence is celebrated with a mound of oxtail, glistening with a sheen of red wine reduction coating the pile of tender meat and marrow jelly. I cannot honestly see a restaurant in Norfolk dedicated to one sole extremity or even one single animal ever really taking off, but having spotted both spleen and squirrel on the same menu of a noted gastro pub in North Norfolk recently, who knows?