In the midst of the ancient wine region of Rioja, a narrow road, running deep between two small hills, links the hamlet of Peciña to the high cliff that houses the town of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. On each hill is a stone construction: To the right, facing San Vicente, squats a dolmen, a tomb built by prehistoric man; to the left crouches a much-restored Romanesque church, founded in the early twelfth century by Infante Ramiro Sánchez on his return from the First Crusade and named Santa María de la Piscina after the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Both these monuments are perfect symbols of the area's spiritual landscape: Between the two lie thousands of years of religious search.
"You should come here for Easter," said Mariola Sáez Monje, the manager of Casa Toni in San Vicente, "to see the picaos." The picaos (the ones who are pierced) are members of the Cofradía de la Santa Vera Cruz, a religious brotherhood who, for the past several centuries, on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, parade down the narrow streets of San Vicente in white robes and hoods, whipping their bare backs with tightly braided ropes. Then the penitents' welts are pricked by other members of the brotherhood, in memory of Christ's Passion.
Fortunately for me, the manager at Toni did not describe any gruesome religious ceremonies as she served me foie gras in phyllo with a beet-and-red-onion marmalade. The rabbit ribs--dipped in bread crumbs and garlic, then fried--were a copper color; the warm almond cake, oozing hot frangipane, had a fiery blush. Like most Riojan dishes, its simplicity was astonishing: It seemed like any sauce would be an unwarranted indulgence. The wine was from San Vicente itself, a 1998 Sonsierra Crianza with a faint hint of sweetness.