Roz Crowley

Food, wine, travel, music

Spain’s food and wine

Spain’s culinary history goes back a long way, but it was Cervantes through his character Sancho Panza who declared that hunger was the best sauce, and often surviving on a crust of bread, he had that intrinsic sense that simplicity was the essence of good food. In his travels, when he could afford to, he enjoyed the pleasures of simply fried fish in the south of Spain, stews in the north and roasted meats across the centre. Who needs to change that? Spain has plenty of top quality standard fare. Using fresh vegetables to make salads and often slow cooking their meats, they produce simple meals which are packed with flavour. With some splendid local wines a feast is easy to replicate. An interesting trip across the north of Spain was an introduction to the specialities of the Castille Leon region. Here vast tracts of land are dedicated to olive growing to make high quality oil which is often rebranded as Italian. An interesting tutored tasting of olive oil revealed that Spain produces 39% of the world’s consumption – they even supply large quantities to Italy. Olive oil from Spain is made from the Picual, mainly grown in Andalucia and with a distinctive eucalyptus aroma, Hojiblanca, Picudo (ideal for Gazpacho), Arbequina (mainly in Catalonia) and Lechin de Sevilla is also used. There is nothing to beat buying a different bottle every time until you find what suits best or keeping a selection, but beware it can go rancid if left open too long. Aim to finish open bottles within a few months, or rebottle and seal and keep in a cool dark place. At Casa Pons, 140 km from Barcelona in the heart of the Catalan olive oil production area, an interesting experimental garden has been set up with plans to have 10 trees from every part of the world. With these they will make olive oil from every olive variety and compare results. They also make organic olive oil which is not too difficult to do in this dry region. Pests are more of a problem in areas close to the sea. Here once there is enough water, the olives need nothing else. The main problem with olives is that no-one likes to harvest them by hand as it is done around December when it is cold. Snow two years ago killed hundreds of trees. Fortunately the 76 year old trees survived to produce superb olives for their oil. The company makes flavoured oils many of which are not available yet in Ireland. When in Spain look out for the truffle flavour and also the basil, lemon and sweet paprika infused oils. Delicious. To arrange a group olive oil tasting contact Casa Pons at euro@euroaliment.com For a perfect Spanish meal start with dried ham. Ibérico pigs are fed on grasses, herbs and acorns, and produce a ham which is streaked quite evenly with white fat, making it tasty and tender. When you see it on the bone, the black hairy trotter distinguishes it from Serrano ham, the other popular dried ham of Spain. Serrano ham comes from white pig breeds which yield more meat than Iberico pigs. The curing process starts with the hams being buried between layers of coarse sea salt and curing salts. Later they are washed and hung in drying rooms which replicate the seasons of the year in homes where this process first began. The drying takes at least four months for Serrano and a minimum of 15 months (which often ends up as 24 months) for Iberico, during which time at least 32% of its weight is lost. No wonder it costs so much. Eaten with bread, simply drizzled with olive oil, with a salad, or when in season with fresh figs, these hams are a special treat. Lamb is Spain is often eaten very young, in fact so young it is still suckling. The result is soft, tender meat. Cooked in hot ovens known as asadors which are similar in style to pizza ovens, the skin of the lechazo becomes crisp, and after two and half hours the tender meat takes on some of the flavour of the wood on which the ceramic dish that holds the meat sits. Just a little water and knob of fat are added to the dish to keep the meat moist. Served with salad it is a perfect dish. Fish dishes re often cooked with saffron which is grown in the La Mancha region which is dry enough to suit its harvesting. The stigma of the crocus has to be carefully plucked by hand, dried out and even before it is harvested is prone to the nibbling of field mice, moles, squirrels, birds, rabbits, slugs moulds and diseases. It takes 200 flowers to produce a gram of saffron, an acre yields 10 lbs of dried saffron and it has been calculated that it takes 400 man/woman hours to produce one kilo of saffron. Dried it has a sweet, slightly dry woody scent perhaps with a little hint of seaweed, and when added to liquid its unique bittersweet pungency and scent of luxury is released. Use in recipes for the French fish stew bouillabaisse, Spanish paella rice dish, Milanese risotto, Persian dishes such as Pilaf and Shola, Indian Biriani dishes, and as author Alan Davidson tells us – Shahi raan, a roast leg of lamb with saffron raisin sauce which sounds delicious. It also makes a superb colouring for bread, giving a wonderful heady smell in the kitchen and a light unmistakable smoky flavour. Also used in sweet dishes and cakes, saffron is fascinating in ice-cream, especially with a nutty biscuit on the side. Safinter is the premium brand of saffron in La Mancha and is worth seeking out and bringing home from holidays. Cheese from Spain is one of the best kept secrets, though good Irish cheesemongers and speciality shops have started to notice how they special they can be. From the island of Menorca for slightly salty and tart Mahon, up west to La Mancha for the slightly piquant and salty sheep’s cheese, further west for the easily identifiable small nipple shaped buttery and lightly salted Tetilla Manchego, they all have their own character. Journey across the dry plains east to the Basque region for the sharp, pungent Idiazábal and south to Murcia for the red skinned Murcia al Vino for more variety. Cabrales is the delicious blue cheese from the Eastern Asturias. The wines of Ribero del Duero make an interesting accompaniment and a change from Rioja. The River Duero, winds its way westward through the high plateau of Castilla y Leon, and then crosses the border with Portugal to reach the Atlantic Ocean. The 115 km long river provides an axis from which 100 villages spread out over a wine growing belt from the west beyond the village of Peñafiel east to San Esteban de Gormaz. One of th`e most interesting wine districts is Ribera del Duero, home of many remarkable red wines made primarily from the Tinta Fina grape, also known as Tinta del Pais and Tempranillo. The river helps to moderate the climate, irrigating vineyards and other agricultural activities in this otherwise arid region. Its high altitude also helps, the hot days and cool nights allowing grapes to develop deep colour and intense flavours, hallmarks of the vigourous wines of this region. Several wineries are worth looking at for quality wine. Bodegas Mauro on the banks of the Duero river is an interesting case in point. Mariano Garcia created this winery in 1980 in the Castillan town of Tudela. For over two decades, he was the acclaimed winemaker of Vega Sicilia. Now running his own winery he has put his mark on Mauro and is slowly gaining the same kind of respect he achieved in his former employment. The Ribero del Duero DO does not use the term Riserva, instead Seleccionada which in the Mauro means over two years in oak (new French and old American). The result is a complex wine with good structure of firm tannins and plenty of fruit – a hint of prunes. Their Terreus is great too, but with more demand than supply we have to beg. The Mauro usually has hints of balsamic, supple tannins and plenty of deep fruit flavours. Imported by Approach Trade this range has a sense of quality and finesse, yet fresh energy. Bodegas Emilio Moro is another name to try. The Finca Resalso and the superb Malleolus are powerful and elegant, even at the entry level reasonable price. Pesquera is the big name of the region, and none the worse for that. Producing well known names such as Condado de Haza (Searsons) and Dehesa La Granja (delicious high fruit concentration in the basic vino de mesa), the Pesquera can be superb.  Marqués de Grinon from Febvre and Bodegas Durius Alto Dureo are other good names at reasonable prices. Just west of the DO region of Ribero del Duero and dipping into the province of Valladolid is the DO of Toro. Vega Sauco is the name worth seeking out, and is still reasonably priced. The  Crianzas are particularly good and it seems each year they get more exciting, made from Tinto de Toro a local variant of Tempranillo. Imported by Approach Trade and available in many wine shops and restaurants. If wishing to relax in style there are plenty of four and five star hotels worth considering in the northern central area of Spain. Fascinating for its Mexican influenced architectural style is Mas Passamer which has superb spa facilities and various massage options. www.maspassamer.com. If flying into Bilbao visit the Guggenheim museum to be refreshed and inspired, and then stay in Hotel Silken Domine which has the best view of the museum and the river from the breakfast balcony, which resembles the deck of a ship. Plenty of fresh fruit for breakfast too.www.granhoteldominebilbao.com. In Madrid Hotel Bauza on Calle Goya is central and has the best silent air conditioning and a good stereo system in the room. mas@hotelbauza.com

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2012 by in Food, Wine.

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