Sherry, sherry bay-yay-bee
If Spain’s culinary history has taught us anything it’s that it is entirely possible to be famous, popular and very much misunderstood (yes, Angelina, there are others like you). You may be a household name. You may be the hottest thing in the country. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be stereotyped, pigeonholed and/or just plain bastardized. So it goes with Spain’s most famous wine, sherry, and its most fashionable food (at least in North America), tapas.
Even the driest abstainers have at least heard of sherry, and probably know that it’s a type of wine (or at least a type of devil drink). But outside the realm of the fairly well-tuned wino (or the Spanish, and maybe the Brits), sherry is a bit of a mystery. For most, it’s a sweet brownish drink that grannies drink/drank/drunk out of a dusty old decanter that has sat on the mantle since the dawn of time. Or it’s a substance of dubious composition typically consumed from a paper bag by those types who tend to line up at liquor stores every morning (a.k.a. the “breakfast club”). Nothing could be further from the truth. Okay, the statement “the economy has been doing just fine” or “things are hunky in the Middle East” might be further from the truth.
As for tapas, well, these “little dishes” have become very popular on these shores. However, much like all Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne, all tapas are “little dishes” but not all little dishes are tapas. A “slider” may be a little dish … but it ain’t a tapa.
Researching food and wine invariably leaves one hungry and thirsty. Since devouring words is no substitute for devouring food, I decided to get into the whole tapas groove via some “field research.” Toronto’s Cambalache seemed to be the place to do some serious studying (I doubted it billed itself as a restaurant de tapas for nothing).
Spanish by birth, proprietor Alejandro Calleja opened Cambalache a little over two years ago to introduce “authentic” tapas to the city. But the city already had tapas joints. Were these somehow inauthentic? I asked him how the other tapas restaurants were missing the boat and got an answer I pretty much expected. “What are they missing? They are missing the Spanish part. They are taking the idea of tapas — meaning small dishes, all different and meant to be shared. But tapas is a word coming from Spain. So then you’ll find Cuban tapas, Mexican tapas, South American tapas. Again, just the idea of tapas. Other than the language, there’s nothing really Spanish about these other places.” Mexican food, a few of Calleja’s patrons have been shocked to discover, isn’t Spanish food and a Spanish tortilla has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly-labelled Mexican staple. You’re about as likely to find an “authentic” Mexican tapa as you are Spanish tequila. I recently saw a tapas menu listing ceviche. Don’t think so.
While there are many stories of how tapas came to be (most involve some variation on putting a piece of bread or ham over the top of a glass of wine — a “tapa” is a cover — to keep out dust, flies, beer, the infidel, etc.), there is little argument as to where they came to be. And that place be Spain (most likely Andalusia, though arguments, of course, exist).
As dinner in Spain is typically served around 10 pm, a wee nibble or three is generally in order between then and lunch. The difference between Spain and here, as far as tapas are concerned, is that in Spain, the tapas lifestyle involves as much exercise as eating — “tapeadors” typically have a glass or two and a few noshes at one bar before moving on to the next. Considering the dearth of tapas bars in most North American cities, you typically stay put in whichever one you happen to chance upon.
So why aren’t there more authentic tapas bars in these parts so we, too, can get in our cardio as well as our calories? Well, for one, the whole concept of offering a menu with 40 or 50 (or more) selections poses challenges that many a restaurateur would rather not face.
“Forty seatings in a normal restaurant means you might have 40 main courses. With 40 people in a tapas restaurant you might have 150 dishes coming out of the kitchen. We have a menu of over 50 tapas, which is, yes, a challenge,” Calleja admits. Also, there are but a few purveyors of Spanish foodstuffs in Ontario (Montreal, he says, has a better selection).
And so, as Calleja and I chatted, the kitchen whipped up a selection of traditional and not so traditional little dishes. On the traditional side were things as simple as aceitunas marinados (cracked marinated olives) and jamón serrano (Serrano ham — Calleja hasn’t jumped on the Ibérico pata negra bandwagon at this point. “It’s just far too expensive for my clientele,” he admits), along with chorizo y gambas al sherry (Chorizo sausage and shrimp in a sherry reduction), tortilla Española al sherry (the traditional Spanish combo of egg, potato and onion served, in this case, with a nutty sherry sauce) and albondigas de cordero (lamb meatballs made with cumin and saffron). On the not-so-traditional side we were served a tempting Torremolinos pasta (a sort of ravioli of homemade Spanish pasta stuffed with smoked salmon and served in a creamy saffron lemon sauce topped with caviar).
What we sipped with all this was Spain’s other famous and famously misunderstood gem, sherry. Undoubtedly that country’s most recognized wine, it is also, ironically, perhaps its least popular, on these shores anyway. Even Calleja conceded that sherry is rarely ordered by his customers (though he stocks at least a half dozen labels).
The reason for this isn’t too hard to surmise. Sherry is most definitely an acquired taste. I had read about the wonders of dry fino sherry long before I ever had the opportunity to taste it. And when I finally got round to securing a glass of the stuff I couldn’t believe people actually drank it, let alone waxed rhapsodic about it (of course, I was 19, and my palate had some maturing to do). Even in its freshest incarnations where it can have floral overtones, sherry is an oxidized, high-alcohol number that smells not of a particular vinifera but, depending on the style, of sea spray, bitter almond, green olive, walnut, sultana raisin, fruitcake and yes, varnish. In other words, it’s not Pinot Grigio. Thank God. It remains staunchly traditional and demands that you conform to it rather than vice versa.
Also, sherry has got to be one of the most delicious to wines drink, but most complicated to get a handle on. Once you understand the mystery of flor (the weird yeast blanket that forms in certain barrels, dictating the ultimate style of wine), you are left to grapple with the unique solera system. This allows for “dynamic aging” (an oxymoron if ever there was; I mean, I’ve personally experienced “dramatic aging,” but “dynamic?”) resulting in uniformly aged, non-vintage wines … only to then be faced with sherries proclaiming to be 20-year-old or 30-year-old. Having made peace with the claim that fino sherries are light, fresh and delicate, and should be consumed within six months, you are hit with something called Very Old Fino. This happens right after you’ve been told that an amontillado is an aged fino. Huh? Oh, yeah, and don’t forget manzanilla, which is a fino aged near the sea. What’s a palo cortado (and why are there three levels of the stuff)? The verdict seems to be constantly out. And PX? Sounds like a virus. Is amoroso a sherry or a sort of liquid Spanish Fly? Is cream sherry a dairy product? And what, pray tell, are we to make of a Palo Cortado “Almacenista” Solara Matured by Vides 1/50? This is whacked. My head hurts. Did Torquemada use this to extract confessions? “Cardinal Fang, make the heretic learn about sherry!”
Securing even a murky understanding of all this is going to severely cut into our drinking time (or at least mine). I’m gonna do my best to simplify, but you’re still probably going to walk away a bit dizzy. Rest assured, much like the opposite sex, you can fully enjoy sherry without really understanding it.
Sherry is produced in a demarcated area of southern Spain’s Andalusia. It’s a hot region with little rain where the chalky albariza soil plays host to the white Palomino Fino grape variety (along with some Pedro Ximénez — yep, “PX” — and Moscatel planted in the lesser barros and arenas soils). It’s worth pausing here for a second to emphasize the point that sherry comes from Spain. While “sherry style” wines are produced around the world, the real deal comes from Spain. Period. (Though considering the influence of the British on the development of the sherry trade, and with sherry firms sporting names like Duff Gordon, Osborne, Williams & Humbert and John Harvey & Sons, you might be tempted to think it’s made in England.)
While the soil and the grapes obviously have a major influence on the type of wine produced, it is ultimately the maturation of the wine that makes it truly unique from all others.
Once the wines are fermented dry, they are lightly fortified (usually to about 15 per cent alcohol via the addition of a grape spirit and wine mixture) and are left in barrels filled only two-thirds full. While a typical table wine would spoil under these conditions, the damp sherry cellars filled with oxygen-rich Atlantic air create conditions ripe for the growth of flor — a type of yeast blanket that covers the surface of the wine and both protects it from rapid oxidation and eliminates harmful, vinegar-producing bacteria. The wines mature this way for about a year. Barrels with the most prolific flor are marked as finos — the lightest and most delicate style. Barrels with little or no flor are given additional fortification and marked as olorosos. The flor allows finos and sherries based on the fino style (amontillado and palo cortado) to mature, for the most part, biologically (the flor does the aging). Wines with little or no flor (destined to be olorosos) are given an extra dose of alcohol and allowed to age oxidatively (oxygen does the aging). Please raise your hand if you have any questions. Nah? Okay, moving on.
Once the cellar master (the guy swinging that whalebone wand with the little silver cup thingy on the end) determines which barrels are going to result in what, the wines are introduced to the respective soleras for final blending and maturation of that style.
A solera is essentially a series of barrels each containing the same style of wine but of varying ages. Fully mature wine is tapped off the bottom barrel, which is then topped up with slightly younger wine from the barrel above which, in turn, is topped up with even younger wine from the barrel above that. New wine is introduced to the first barrel in the chain to top it up. Then it tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on. (Sorry, but that paragraph just set itself up.)
In any case, this constant blending results in a fully mature wine that is always consistent. Stylistically speaking, finos and their ilk tend to be lighter and more delicate, olorosos darker and nuttier. Cream sherries are typically blended (sweet wine with drier) before being sold to old people in the UK. Serve finos cool, the others less cool. Treat them like wine and not like, well, not like whatever stuff you keep sitting open in a dusty decanter on the mantle for eternity.
Sherry, all things considered, is probably the most undervalued and underappreciated wine in the world. So go forth and try lots. With tapas, of course.
Bodegas Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla ($12.95/500 ml)
Fresh aromas with the typical hints of sea breeze and notes of green olive. Brisk, dry and undeniably salty. Magic with the lemony Torremolinos pasta.
Don Jose Maria “Very Old” Fino ($16.45)
Even Saldaña was bit unsure of what “Very Old” fino was all about. Nevertheless, it certainly seemed to be an unusually intense version of the typical style with chalk, wet slate, almond, green olive and dill on the nose. Very dry with grassy, mineral, brine notes and a long, crisp finish.
Bodegas Hidalgo “Napoleon” Amontillado ($18.25)
Beautiful and engaging copper colour. Intense, elegant floral/spice aromas with fresh, slightly toasty, marzipan nuances. Subtle, clean and very well balanced with mild dried fruit and toasted nut flavours. Memorable length.
Emilio Lustau Almacenista Palo Cortado (Solera Matured by Vides) 1/50 ($17. 50/375 ml)
An “Almacenista” is essentially a small producer (in this case, Vides S.A.) of usually very high quality sherries that it does not sell to the public, but instead to the bigger players for blending. The house of Lustau, one of the best sherry concerns, recognized that these unique wines had a place on their own and has since become a specialist in marketing them. Very fruity/nutty with fruitcake and toffee aromas. Delicate, round and complex with mildly spicy (clove?) overtones. 1/50 means the wine was sourced from a solera containing 50 butts (barrels).
Emilio Lustau Solera Reserva “Don Nuño” Dry Oloroso ($15.95/375 ml)
Walnut, marmalade, caramel and a whiff of acetate/varnish. Smooth, warm, and tasting of toasted walnuts and dried apricot. Long, dry finish with lingering spice.
Gonzalez Byass “Apostoles” Palo Cortado VORS 30-year-old ($33.95/375 ml)
If sherries are a constant exercise in blending from year to year, how can one be determined to be 30 years old? Read the interview with César Saldaña and find out. In case you might think that it’s all a marketing gimmick, this is awesome stuff. Tawny/copper colour with pinkish notes and an exceedingly complex nose suggesting candied walnut, vanilla, caramel, fig, sultana raisin, cocoa and orange peel. Deep, intensely flavoured and distinct. Amazingly fresh and clean in spite of the age. Silky, sexy and seductive. Glorious stuff.
Emilio Lustau Solera Reserva “Capataz Andres” Deluxe Cream ($9.95/375 ml)
Commercial cream sherries can be a bit one-dimensional and cloying. But this isn’t a commercial one. Textbook Christmas cake and raisin pie aromas with rich, warm, raisin and dried fig flavours buttressed by perfectly integrated acidity. Worked wonders with tapas in a sherry reduction sauce.