Tapa Thursday: Vermouth

vermouth in Spain

My biggest ambition in life is to become a Spanish abuelo. Who wouldn’t want to spend the days leisurely reading a paper in the bar down the street, sucking down a vermouth while looking adorable? I’ve already got the vermouth obsession down, after all.

My first taste of vermouth was actually on a food tour. I didn’t think I’d learn anything I didn’t know about Spanish cuisine, but an early stop at the Mercado de San Miguel’s vermouth bar proved that I had a lot to learn, and a new favorite beverage.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Vermouth is making a comeback hard in Spain, much like G&Ts not so long ago. Pop-up bars called vermuterías, tastings and pairings and even the Adrià brothers of El Bullí fame are spearheading a sort of vermouth renaissance. While this beverage never really disappeared, it’s become the drink of choice for hipsters and for me anytime I’m in Madrid or Barcelona.

On my last trip to the Ciudad Condal, I happened upon a small bottega, or local watering hole, where vermouth was poured from a tap in the wall. No frills, no sky-high price tag, despite being a mere 150 meters from tourist hell. The girl behind the bar filled my glass, shoved a few mussels and a toothpick my way and charged me 1,85€. Other patrons trickled in, drinking the sweet wine by the glass or simply asking the bar keep to fill up old water bottles. 

The Novio even came back from the capital with a gift from my soon-to-be familia política recently: a bottle of vermouth with its flavorless soda water.

Vermouth at Cafe Comercial

What it is:  Fortified wine has been drunk for more than three millennia, often for medicinal purposes. Its name comes from the German ‘wermut,’ or wormwood,  

At its most basic, vermouth is a young fortified wine brewed with aromatic herbs like cardamom and and cinnamon and occasionally its namesake, wormwood. Sweet varieties also contain a fair amount of sugar – around 20% – whereas dry vermouths contain less than 4%.

Goes great with: Vermouths come in sweet and dry varieties, but salty snacks like potato chips, cured meats, olives or mussels in azabeche sauce are tart and will offset the sweetness or bring out the dry flavors. Typically, vermouth is consumed much like fino sherry wine in the South – as a before-meal drink, and most often at the weekend.

Where to find it in Seville: I have yet to find vermouth anywhere but the grocery store, and even then, it’s commercially branded martini mixes. I’ve yet to try smaller specialty shops, though sherry seems to be preferred to vermouth in these parts. You can find it for sale in 2.5 liter jugs at Bodegas Salado in nearby Umbrete for 7,20€.

 Are you a vermouth drinker? Any preferred watering holes, whether in Seville or further afield?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: La Rioja

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageI would have been totally clueless about La Rioja unless it was for a Spain-born love of red wine and Liz Carlson’s Young Adventuress blog. And without knowing it, I may have saved some of the best of Spain for last.

Name: La Rioja 

Population: 322,000

La Rioja Collage

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in Logroño.

When: 17th of 17, December 2012

About La Rioja: Despite having the smallest population in all of Spain, this region packs a lot of punch worldwide because of its wine. Reds, whites and rosés – many of which are celebrated – are manufactured from grapes grown in the vineyards that spain La Rioja and the southern end of the Álava province in País Vasco.

This area was once part of the Roman kingdom of Hispania Tarraconensis, based in modern-day Tarragona. Given its positions between kingdom kingpins like Aragón and León, the area was hotly disputed by even smaller dukedoms, but the Moorish Invasion of 711 meant that La Rioja was soon grouped into the Al-Andalus kingdom.

wine branches in la rioja

After Sancho the Wise swooped in during the early 9th Century of the Reconquista, he claimed the land for the Kingdom of León. After a bitter feud against the Kings of Pamplona-Navarra, La Rioja was given independence as the Kingdom of Viguera before being swallowed up by Pamplona once more.

The region continued to be jockeyed between Pamplona, Aragón, and the soon-united Castilla y León as part of both Soria and Burgos before a new administrative district was formed in 1822 by the Regio reform.

La Rioja got its modern name in 1982 when the Spanish Constitution was passed into law and Autonomous Communities were given more self-governance. The province stands for more than just their cash cow, but for a place where wine is an integral part of the culture.

Oh, and dinosaur footprints have been found here, so toma.

Must-sees: It should come as no surprise that wine is the main attraction in this tiny autonomía. More than 14,000 vineyards and 150 wineries fills the 75 square miles of the Denominación de Origen, whose lifeblood is the snaking Ebro River.

spanish wine

The earliest reference to wine in La Rioja is dated in the late 9th Century, and thanks to the continental Mediterranean climate and a series of peaks and valleys that protect the vineyards from the wind, several highly rated wines have been produced here. The most common grape varieties are tempranillo and garnacha, and the technique of aging wine in oak barrels for at least one year sets wines apart from other Spanish DOs.

You can visit a number of the wineries in La Rioja, particularly in the Álava province and outside of Logroño. We stuck to just a few – Bodegas Darien on the eastern edge of the city, Marqués de Riscal in Eltziego, Laguardia and its underground medieval aging caverns (as well as trippy Bodegas Ysisos) and romantic Haro.

Marques de Riscal winery in Eltziego

Our wine tasting trips were pre-booked and included a guided tour and several tastings afterwards. There are a few bodegas within walking distance of town, as well.

Logroño has a definite small-city feel and served as an excellent home base. We skipped the old town’s few historic sites and instead focused our time on pinchos heaven: Calle Laurel (and its lesser-known counterpart, Calle San Juan). Pinchos are northern Spain’s answer to tapas: simply order a glass of wine and a single serving of food served atop bread, and within a few bars, you’ll be stumbling down the “Path of Elephants.”

tortilla at bar sebas

If you can rent a car, get out of town: Haro and Laguardia are beautifully preserved towns, and a visit to the monasteries of Yuso and Suso means you can get your Spanish nerd on: the first written records of Castillian Spanish are housed here! Apart from that, Roman ruins are scattered around the province and each of the 174 villages seem to have their own flair.

I’m all for Spanish public transportation, but La Rioja is one place to rent a car (so long as you’re not imbibing!).

The town of Assa, La Rioja

A fair number of towns in La Rioja – notably Logroño, Cenicero, Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada – lie on the pilgrim route to Santiago, so expect to run into pilgrims and arrows

My take: Admittedly, my four-day trip to Rioja has a lot of speed bumps. Getting ticketed by cops! Having my cell phone robbed! SO MUCH SPILT WINE! But I loved our venture north, and my companions and I often talk about it being the last weekend hurrah before we got into the heavy adult stuff. 

Wine Tasting at Bodegas Darien

Apart from indulging on Calle Laurel and in little blips of wine towns, we had a chance to not focus on ticking off historical sites or racing to see museums before closing time.

I’ve got a preliminary plan to drive up to Madrid in May and pick up a friend so we can spend a long weekend in Logroño together. After all, eat, drink and be merry!

Have you ever been to La Rioja? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia

Tapa Thursday: Meson Sabika in Naperville, Illinois

 Growing up, I didn’t even know Spanish food existed. My mother is not an adventurous eater, and even our tacos were devoid of spice, onions and garlic powder.

When I began studying Spanish at age 13, I was exposed to an entirely different culinary world – Spanish cuisine. Tapas were discussed extensively in my textbook, but it seemed like a foreign concept that I’d never get to try. That is, until Señor Selleck took us to Mesón Sabika – one of the few Spanish restaurants in the Chicagoland area at the time – senior year for a field trip.

Recently, Kaley of Kaley Y Mucho Más published a post on why she thought American tapas restaurants get it all wrong. She’s definitely got a point – tapas portions at raciones prices and a more crowd-pleasing “take” on Spanish cuisine is not for me – but since I had to be at Meson Sabika for a lunchtime meeting, I figured I could have a beer and a few dishes.

Arriving at a Spanish meal time of nearly 2pm, the frazzled but friendly waitress led us immediately to the bar, where we figured we’d get away from the lull of chatter of the other patrons. Built in 1847 as a family home, the mansion that houses Meson Sabika has various dining rooms named after Spanish cities, landmarks and foods with accented ceramic bowls and bullfighting posters. Not as sleek as Café Ba-ba-reeba or Mercat a la Planxa, but definitely more intimate than Café Ibérico.

The Spanish wine list is extensive, with even lesser-known DOs like Jumilla and Toro represented. Margaret chose a fruity Rueda, but I stuck with a beer and ordered a 1906 (Spanish restaurants may not know Spanish food, but Meson Sabika had my two favorite Spanish beer brands, Estrella Galicia and Alhambra!).

While safe, the menu plays up Spanish favorites by making them a bit more American-palate friendly. Many of the meat dishes had cheese or roasted vegetables with them, bocaditos came with garden salads and not one dish contained a weird animal part. We settled on papas bravas to share, which came covered with shredded manchego cheese and chopped parsley. Not the most Spanish dish, but definitely tasty.

We each decided on an individual entrée – skirt steak with roasted potatoes and cabrales cheese for my sister, eggplant and roasted red peppers sliders for me. After so many brats and beers and processed food, it tasted like home.

While Spanish restaurants stateside might not embrace the eat-as-many-small-plates-as-you-like and we’re-family-let’s-share mentality that I love about Spanish food traditions, the menu does have a lot of different choices for even the most wary about Spanish food (let’s put it this way – my mother thinks it’s an appropriate for a big party venue) and makes it pretty easy to share a few things and still get your own plate. 

But, ouch, the bill! A meal like this back in Spain might have run us 20€ without a tip, but I ponied up $50 after tax and tip for the two of us. And no free olives?!

Have you been to any tapas bars or Spanish restaurants in your home country? What it your opinion on their food, prices and portions?

In case you go: Mesón Sabika is located on Aurora Avenue in downtown Naperville. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Saturdays, dinner only. Their menu is available on their website.

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Picking Winter Fruit in Southern Spain

In the winter months, citrus fruits, figs, mushrooms and chestnuts are ripe and ready to be picked. Olive oil harvests begin, and crops like pumpkins, avocados and leeks begin to pop up in supermarkets.

As a kid growing up in the icy Midwest, we’d often have raspberry and tomato plants, which only came around in the summertime. My grandpa lived in Orange County and would send us navel oranges as holiday gifts – without fail, there’s always one at the very bottom of our stockings on Christmas morning.

Coming from a country that pumps horomones into everything we consume, Spain is a breath of fresh air. Horomone-free, that is. I have learned to live with seasonal products. Strawberries comes in the early spring, sardines are best eaten in the months without an R in the name, and tomatoes are available year-round, thanks to greenhouses in nearby Los Palacios. Winter means fig jam, roasted chestnuts and zucchini soup.

As part of our day in the malgueño countryside, Mickey and I searched a small orchard for the ripest figs, lemons, and oranges. Honeybees continued to flit around the fruit that had fallen to the ground and smashed open. Sergio crushed a few ripe olives, showing us how oil was traditionally extracted from Southern Spain’s star crop. Mayte explained how to pick the best fruit, which had been victim to little rain this year.

Later that day, our hand-picked lemons would dress up our fideuà, the oranges formed the base of a fresh salad with spring onions and cod, and the fleshy part of the figs were devoured, turning our lips red.

My experience at A Cooking Day was offered to me for free by Mayte and Kety. My opinions, and the extra calories, are all mine.

Spain Snapshots: Little Known Wines from Spain and Portugal

You should blame my host family for my love of wine. Not used to drinking with dinner, they’d top up my glass with rich Ribera del Duero wines, saying it was all part of the cultural experience.

(if only I had a euro for every time someone told me wine is part of the cultural experience in Europe.)

Thanks to the arid temperatures, firm soil and river terraces, the Denominación de Origen La Rioja and the Duoro river regions of Spain and Portugal have become top wine-producing (not to mention an award-winning) regions in Europe. After a trip last year to Porto and several master’s projects centering on wine, I became hooked on vinos from lesser-known regions of both Spain and Portugal. Now that the harvest season is here, I find myself spending more time in the wine aisle of my supermarket, curious about where my palate can take me.

Here are some of my new favorites:

Madeira

Unbeknownst to me, Madeira wines of Portugal are up and coming, thanks to their wide range of grape varieties grown on this small island in the Atlantic. If variety is the spice of life, Madeira wines have it all – ranging from dry to sweet, and even used for cooking purposes. What’s interesting about these wines is that they can stay good after being opened, thanks to the extreme temperatures in which the grapes are grown. Madeira wines are becoming increasingly popular in the US, though they haven’t taken hold in Spain.

Ribera de Guadiana / Tierra de Barros

After my master’s program assigned us a case study on increasing wine sales internationally (my type of project, clearly), I learned about the wine region we’d chosen, based on having a group member in Cáceres. This region encompasses two dozen grape varieties, the most prominent of which is the garnacha. Their latest harvests have been classified as Very Good, and I find the reds complement the typical foods of the region quite well, particularly ham, migas and embutidos.

Jumilla

When the Novio and I were visiting Murcia last year, I searched for something to do besides eat baked octopus. Unbeknownst to me, Murcia hosts the Jumilla wine region, the breeding ground for the monastrell grape variety. The wines we tried at Bodegas Garcia Silvano were deep and woodsy, and you can find them at Mercurio Gastrobar in Triana.

Speaking of, there are loads of wine bars and specialty shops in Seville, and I’d recommend lunch La Viñería de San Telmo, Flor de Sal for Spanish wine tastings with Andre, or checking out the Viñafiel wine store near the cathedral.

This post was made possible by Tesco Wine.

Have you ever tried any of these DO wines? What Iberian wines are your favorites? Lauren explained five interesting facts about Spanish wines – check it!

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