La Batalla del Vino, Spain
Three days later, I was still trying to wash the pink stain from my hair, the webs between my fingers and from under my toenails. I had just experienced the Batalla del Vino, the annual Wine Battle in Haro, a small and important wine town in Spain’s wildly pretty La Rioja region, close by the region’s border with the Basque Country.
As was customary, I stayed up all night, and so learned that the procedure was to have dinner, then take a Paseo, or promenade, with your neighbourhood Peña (brass) band to the Plaza de la Paz, duck into a bar, take another Paseo to watch the 12-piece party band in the Plaza’s bandstand, dance in the streets, go to another bar, then another bar, then walk out to the site of the Battle.
For dinner, I chose a restaurant called Terete, just off the main Plaza and known for its local specialties. I was on my Tour of Weird Meats, determined to eat any and all regional delicacies I could find. Being quite hungry from a day of sampling local wine, I chose two large dishes, to the consternation of the waiter. “You’re aware they’re both mains?” he asked. I assured him I was aware. “And that they’re both…,” he gestured a turmoil, “leftovers, offal?”
I had ordered the roasted sheep’s head and the offal stew. On purpose. A man dining alone at the next table watched with some amazement, then asked if he could share my table. I asked him why. “Because I want to see you eat what you ordered,” he replied mischievously. I invited him to join me. He was the Northern Spain sales rep for an audio components company and we talked music until the sheep’s head came.
“If you can eat all of that, I’ll buy you the best coffee you’ve ever had in your life,” said my accidental dining companion. “Why is the coffee so good?” I asked him. “Because it’s an original machine and they use fresh cream instead of milk,” he told me.
The plate contained only the sheep’s head, halved and placed face down to give easy access to the tongue and brains. It looked macabre, a thin layer of browned fatty tissue covering the bone, and the sheep’s teeth grinning redly at me. The waiter had explained that there were four delicacies to sample in a sheep’s head — brain, cheek, eye, and tongue. I started there as I’d eaten tongue before, and while the thought of something’s tongue on mine is, in theory, disturbing, I found the meat tender and tasty. Next up was the brain, a first for me. I used a small spoon provided for the purpose to scoop out the soft white-pink sponge. It tasted very sweet and warm, a sort of meat pudding for babies. Then I had to face the eyeball.
“¡Buen apetito!”, my companion smirked at me over his glass of wine. I turned the head over, dipped the spoon into the eye socket and tasted nothing, really. It was kind of a fluffy fat. I made a face of disappointment for the Spanish audio salesman. “It doesn’t taste like anything!” I exclaimed. “I’m not sure you were supposed to really eat it,” he smiled.
Last came the cheek meat. Heavenly! Tender, juicy, sweet and a larger portion than I expected. I polished off the cheek just in time for the offal stew to arrive. “How do you say? It has all the… bits… from inside,” said the waiter, circling his abdomen with his hand. “I understand,” I said, “and it smells delicioso!” The gravy was rich and perfumed with herbs and pepper, the offal either meltingly tender or pleasingly chewy. This meal remains a culinary highlight of my travels.
As promised, my dining companion took me to Cafe El Sol on the Plaza, an unprepossessing tapas bar with an old machine and coffee con crema made from roasted angels. Everyone in Haro was partying, regardless of age or infirmity. My companion and I joined the party and danced off my Epic Feat of Eating to the Plaza band. A remarkable ensemble, covering both Spanish and English-language classics, they seemed to play straight through from 6pm to at least 6am when I left the square to make the pilgrimage up to the Hermitage. It was only at around 5am, as I left the town’s heavy metal bar high and happy, that I realised one bandmember disappeared under the bandstand every half an hour or so, I presume to take a nap or do lines or drink angel coffee — whatever he or she needed to play for 12 hours. An Epic Feat of Musicianship.
The Batalla del Vino is on June 29, which falls at the end of Haro’s fiesta week and is the feast of San Pedro. The procession itself, though, seems to celebrate the town’s Patron Saint, San Felices de Bilibio, whose own feast falls in the middle of fiesta week.
After dawn, when I was quite… elated from all the eating and dancing, drinking and parading, I joined the whole town, now dressed entirely in white, in a 6.3km pilgrimage on foot to the Hermitage of San Felices de Bilibio, following the mayor on his horse. Once there, I was advised to climb the monastery’s 300 steps, not only to witness the town’s flag being raised on the highest rocks, but for the spectacular views across the valleys and outcrops of the Obarenes and Sierra de Cantabria Mountains.
Suitably awed by the mountain vistas, I squeezed back down the steps to the terraces beneath the monastery where two rival Peña bands in their neighbourhood colours stood by the picnic tables warming up for the Batalla. Several trucks backed into the carpark carrying huge vats of Juven or young tempranillo. People carrying absolutely anything that would hold liquid, from wine bladders to buckets, pump-action water guns to enormous agricultural backpack sprayers, lined up behind the trucks to have their vessels filled. We milled, excited, until, at a mysterious signal, the Peña bands started up their furious Ska-like brass onslaught, and several thousand locals and adventurous visitors pogoed and flung wine at each other. For several hours.
There were plenty of mischief-makers in the crowd, and once my specially-saved orange juice bottles had been stolen from me, the only thing I had left was my t-shirt, which I removed, dipped in wine and started flicking at anyone silly enough to think I was undefended, but there was no malice in it, or any feeling of being an outsider. If we’d partied with the locals and made the pilgrimage, we were welcome to embrace the shenanigans. I grinned madly, danced, and made ten new friends to battle beside.
Much like swimming in rough seas, you accidentally swallow a lot of liquid at this Battle, but there’s no way I could have been higher than I already was, and mainly on the town’s hospitality and the mad glee of the whole adventure. If you’re an oenophile, or a connoisseur of food fights but Spain’s other famous Battle, La Tomatina, strikes you as too big and commercial, visit lovely little Haro for the friendly and fun La Battala del Vino.
Australian writer Samantha Wareing lives in Berlin making music, radio and mischief. Find her on social media: