Literary Inspiration for A Traveller in Wines

"Here," cried Don Quixote, "here, brother Sancho Panza, we shall be able to dip our hands up to the elbows, in what is called adventure. . ." – Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

"People talk of the glorious dreams of opium-smokers, the frenzied exhilaration that hashish can give, but I, who have studied both, assure you that neither can for a moment compare with the delirious joy of fifty or sixty Spaniards applauding a dancer in the upper room of a café in Seville!" – From Paris to Cádiz, Alexandre Dumas pere

"Of one thing the reader may be assured, – that dear will be to him, as is now to us, the remembrance of those wild and weary rides through tawny Spain. . ." – Gatherings From Spain, Richard Ford.

"The traveller in wines, finding these topics a little beyond his comprehension, remarked loudly that Sénécal was forgetting a lot of scandals." – Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert, whose work was greatly influenced by Cervantes's Don Quixote.

Share This Post

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Traveller in Wines (A Work-In-Progress) - Prologue: Monterey, California to Southern Spain

* * * * *

Roberto (l) from La Alameda de Hercules and his army buddies (and my wine drinking and flamenco buddies) on the train from Sevilla to El Puerto de Santa Maria (my stop) and San Fernando (their stop).  Photo by Gerry Dawes 1969.
Before I was stationed in Spain in the United States Navy, my experience with wine—except for plying girlfriends back in Illinois with the occasional bottle of pink “Champagne”—came in California in the mid-1960s. On weekends on the mystical white beach at Carmel, with my buddies—all of us students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey—and I shared the jugs of cheap California wines, along with bread and cheese from the Mediterranean Market in the village. 

One night under Monterey’s decaying old wharf, I helped two others polish off a gallon jug of Mountain Red—with miserable results. And once in a while on a payday weekend, I would splurge on abalone and a bottle of Almaden Emerald Riesling or some such at a restaurant on Monterey’s then-not-so-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or have spaghetti and a wicker-wrapped, aptly-named fiasco of Chianti on Cannery Row, which at that time still had vestiges and whiffs of John Steinbeck’s time.

And, one August weekend in 1967, surrounded by a bristling, rifle-armed, weekend warriors of soon-to-be-sent-home National Guard Troop (for a rock concert?), we watched and listened in wine-soaked reverie at the Monterey Pop Festival as Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat and Otis Redding became international stars right before our mesmerized eyes and passed into legend.

At Southern Illinois University I had sporadically pursued a journalism major until 1965, when the Lyndon Baines Johnson-led United States government—opting first, or course, for those “who had not worked continuously towards a degree”— decided that they needed even more carrion candidates for Vietnam. I volunteered for the Navy as soon as I felt the hot breath of my local draft board breathing down my neck. To avoid the possibility of two years of infantry duty and possible death (certain in my mind), I enlisted for four years of life in the Navy, astutely calculating that aircraft carriers didn’t normally invade Vietnamese rice paddies. 

Ironically, I damned near died from a bout with spinal meningitis that I contracted during basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station, where recruits were allowed some four hours sleep a night, which greatly contributed to a meningitis epidemic among them during that epoch. (In the middle of the night, we took turns guarding a laundry room, just in case, we surmised, the Viet Cong somehow managed to penetrate the heartland in the dead of a Lake Michigan winter to stage a surprise laundry raid). 
After a four-month stay in the hospital, on the telephone I pestered the Navy bureaucrats in Washington until they sent me to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, California, where I miraculously graduated as a poor-to-mediocre linguist. I left Monterey barely conversant in pidgin military Russian, but did learn to sing a transliterated version of “Dixie.”  

After graduation, we were transferred for several months to Defense Department’s Top Secret Security School in San Angelo, Texas, a training assignment made memorable by a monumentally ignorant Chief Botswain’s Mate, who lined up a mostly college-educated crew of linguists and threatened to charge us for mutiny for failing to show up for a useless meeting after an all-night class. He punctuated his blustering by proclaiming the “ignorance in Botswain’s Mates went out with the sailing ships,” which caused the incredulous officers watching this absurd, worthy-of-a-M.A.S.H.- episode performance to stifle guffaws. The mutiny squelched, we survived to graduate. Just before we graduated, one day in class when my field assignment was announced as Spain, someone blurted, “You lucky bastard!” As it turned out, life’s lottery had handed me a winning ticket. As soon as class was over, I went straight to the base library and checked out the few books I could find on Spain. 

Rota, January, 1969.  Photo by Gerry Dawes.

Because of the military’s infinite wisdom and logic-defying precision, I was assigned for two years to the Rota Naval Base in Andalucía, from which periodically I was sent out riding the plane captain’s seat of antiquated, 1950s’ vintage, un-armed airplanes, including the great swept-wing hog, the A-3 Skywarrior, a converted fighter-bomber. Staging out of Greece and West Germany, we flew on electronic eavesdropping missions off the coasts of Egypt, Libya, East Germany, Poland, and Russia. It was my job to listen on a radio receiver and tape Russian military conversations. The first time I heard a MIG on our tail pretending to lock on with a missile, which would have turned us to toast in just a few seconds, I momentarily longed even for a rice paddy. Nevertheless, during my two-year tour of duty in Rota, between flying missions, I had time to begin discovering Spain and I began to develop an afición, a passion, for the country that has continued to grow for more than 45 years. 

I was glad, deliriously glad, to be in Europe and not in Vietnam. By August of 1968, a year after that momentous Monterey Pop Festival, I found myself in a steamy second class train car rattling south through Andalucía towards El Puerto de Santa María with a group of Spanish conscripts, who would become my friends over the course of that summer as we traveled back-and-forth between our respective military assignments in Cádiz province and weekend R & R in their beautiful, mystical Sevilla, the quintessential city of southern Spain, which was rapidly becoming my adopted hometown. 

On that slow rocking train in southern Spain, Roberto, one of my new Spanish soldier friends—most of whom came from La Alameda de Hércules, a Sevilla working class barrio—taught me how to cut a V-shaped wedge out of either side of a cork pulled from the label-less bottles of coarse, ice-cold, red vino corriente that I would purchase at station when the train stopped in heat-baked Utrera, south of Sevilla. Roberto would shove the cork back in the bottle and pass the wine around for all to share bota-style, each in turn tilting up the bottle and allowing the wine to flow in a stream into the drinker’s mouth without allowing the bottle to touch his lips. During the summer of 1968, I nearly mastered the art of hitting my mouth with a stream of red wine while standing in the passageway at the end of the swaying train car, through whose open doors warm air gushed, considerably increasing the degree of difficulty.


Wine-stained shirts and few bottles of wine were a small price to pay for many hours of the conviviality of these fun-loving Spanish soldiers. In addition to learning a modicum of unorthodox wine-drinking etiquette from Roberto and his friends, I picked up some Spanish by osmosis and was treated to impromptu flamenco singing accompanied by the staccato rhythms of my friends clapping palmas (which they also taught me). I was also given a share of Roberto's mother's superb tortillas españolas (Spain's classic potato omelettes that are sliced into wedges and eaten cold—then a traveller's staple in Spain). Each week, when we arrived in Sevilla, Roberto and his friends told me which train they would be taking back to their base in San Fernando. No matter what shape we were in after drinking multiple bottles of wine on the two-hour train ride, my new amigos always made sure I got off at El Puerto de Santa María, the great sherry town on the bay of Cádiz, where I would catch the shiny little local train to nearby Rota. There were big abrazos (embraces), waves, and good wishes from my new-found friends as I dis-embarked, then they were back to clapping and singing flamenco as their train creaked to life and rolled on to San Fernando, two stops down the line. 

The sharp, metallic, chilled wine--which tasted far better with the good tortilla, Spanish olives, and rough country bread--was never more than poor to mediocre, but it was the camaraderie and conviviality of Roberto and his Sevillano friends sharing their food, songs, jokes, and stories with me that made those train trips so memorable and the ordinary wine and food a feast. On those wonderful “wild and weary” train rides through tawny summertime Spain, I also learned an indispensable rule about drinking vino—the most important thing about any bottle of wine is the people surrounding it. And in the process I developed a passion for Spain, Spaniards, and Spanish wine and food that has endured to this day. 

My experiences with those Spanish soldiers set the tone for the stories that follow.

Gerry Dawes©2016

Introduction to A Traveller in Wines

 * * * * *

From Cervantes's Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; the writings on Spain of Alexandre Dumas père; the marvelous English Murray Guides writer, Richard Ford; and the late Americans, James A. Michener, and Donn Pohren, a little-known, but important, American expert on things Spanish, I learned to approach Spain and its wines, food, history, and culture with an adventurous and inquisitive spirit.

In 1972, Pohren, who lived in Spain for decades and is one of the world’s greatest flamenco experts, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain. Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula exploring some of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest wine acreage of any country in the world, and tasting wines. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On several occasions, Pohren would find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another showed up at the bar with his wines to prove to this foreigner that his vino was the best in the village.

In Adventures in Taste, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making good country wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days. Although Pohren was relatively unsophisticated as a gourmet, he chronicled his food adventures as well, ferreting out great regional restaurants, back-country inns and taverns, and tapas bars all over the country. He wrote about the best places for great roast lamb in Castile; the superb mountain hams from acorn-fed, free-range Iberian pata negra pigs of southern and western Spain; great fish and shellfish along both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts; garlic chicken in Madrid; and such esoteric specialties as baby goat livers in lemon sauce in the mountains of Malaga, and. Pohren not only wrote about the food, wine, customs, and fiestas, each year he ran several specialized tours, in which he introduced a handful of privileged travellers to his secret places in back country Spain.

During the eight years I lived in Spain, I traveled with Pohren’s book and with James A. Michener’s Iberia (my copy of Iberia is signed by more than 20 of the characters about which Michener wrote). I often drove many kilometers out of my way to find Pohren’s culinary and wine treasures and to search out the people and places about which Michener had so persuasively written. While following in the footsteps of these predecessors, I naturally had my own adventures. I began to uncover exceptional wines, experience my own unique gastronomic epiphanies, meet unforgettable people, and discover places about which neither Michener nor Pohren had written.

The writings of Richard Ford, an Englishman, who covered much of Spain on horseback during the 1840s also inspired me. Ford wrote one of the most well-written and witty travel guides I have ever read, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Readers at Home (ironically republished by my home university’s Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois; ©Centaur Press, Ltd. 1966). Ford’s frontispiece further billed the book as “Describing the Country and Cities, the Natives and Their Manners; The Antiquities, Religion, Legends, Fine Arts, Literature, Sports, and Gastronomy with notices On Spanish History.”

Ford described his travels in Spain pithily, provided his readers with often humorous insights about Spaniards, many of which still hold true, and imbued his writing with a sense of adventure that has long inspired me to continue embarking on what he called, “those wild and weary rides through tawny Spain.”

Wine and food are the threads that will bind the tapestry of A Traveller in Wines: Forty Years of Adventures on the Food & Wine Roads of Spain, but I intend for the book to have a much broader appeal. Although I plan to concentrate on wine and gastronomy adventures, like Ford, Michener, and Pohren, I will draw from the broader spectrum of Spain’s rich heritage, history, and culture to make A Traveller in Wines a great read about the country, its people (and, like Michener, sometimes the foreigners who love it), its vineyards and wineries, its tapas bars and restaurants, and its winemakers and chefs.

I am fond of quoting two passages about Spain—one from Richard Ford and the other from Alexandre Dumas père—which are in the spirit of the approach I want to bring to my book. Ford’s passage is about the philosophy of travel and life; Dumas’s is evocative description.

In A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, Ford wrote his philosophy on traveling in Spain: “The search for the excellent is the high road to excellence . . . The refining effort and habit teaches the mind to think; from long pondering the beautiful world without, snatches are caught of the beautiful world within, and a glimpse is granted to the chosen few, of glories hidden from the vulgar many. They indeed have eyes, but see not . . .” It will be my task in A Traveller in Wines to share those glimpses with those who may not have been able to see Spain for themselves and provide deeper insights for those who have been to Spain.

Alexandre Dumas wrote some fine descriptive passages about his travels in Spain in From Paris to Cadiz, including this quote, which is one of my favorites, “People talk of the glorious dreams of opium-smokers, the frenzied exhilaration that hashish can give, but I, who have studied both, assure you that neither can for a moment compare with the delirious joy of fifty or sixty Spaniards applauding a dancer in the upper room of a café in Seville!” Dumas’s quote alludes to the duende that Lorca wrote about, a magical quality in the Spanish spirit that I have been lucky enough to encounter on numerous occasions in my travels.

Gerry Dawes©2010

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Homage to Patxaran (Pacharán): The Pretty Ruby-colored Macho Drink of Northern Spain

* * * * *

Patxaran (from the Basque paitar and aran ("sloe"), called pacharán in Castilian Spanish, the red sloeberry anís made by macerating arándanos, or endrinas, (sloeberries) from the blackthorn shrub in fine anisette spirits for several months (one part fresh sloeberries to three parts anisette).   Patxaran Navarro is controlled by an official denominación de origen, or D. O., like wine, and must contain no artificial flavorings or additives.  Sometimes a few coffee beans or cinnamon sticks are added to the patxaran casero housemade styles.   The maceration period can run from one to eight months.  Some homemade patxaran leave the berries in the anís.

Patxaran would seem to be the last drink on which to base macho memories, but in northern Spain everyone from Basque woodchoppers and daredevil bullrunners at Pamplona to the star chefs of El País Vasco’s great Michelin-rated restaurants drink this stuff - - often over ice. I first tasted Patxaran in 1971, when my old friend José Ramón Jorajurría, the “printer’s devil,” as I called him (he worked in a print shop), decided to make me only the second American to be invited into the Peña Anaitasuna (the other was the famous bullrunner Matt Carney, who was featured in James A. Michener’s Iberia; Joe Distler, the great bullrunner and my dear friend was the third). 

Anaitasuna is one of Pamplona’s legendary social and drinking peñas,or clubs. During the Fiestas de San Fermín, the peñas carouse all over town behind their raucous, but accomplished, band of musicians, drinking, singing and dancing the infectious northern folk dance, the jota, and generally raising Hell for eight days. The peñas all sit in the same section in the sun at the bullfights and drink, eat, sing, dance, throw flour and food all over one another, generally raising some more Hell. On the 11th of July, they have DIMASU (Día del Marido Suelto), which means Husband’s Day Out, an excuse to stay out for 24 hours straight, do even more drinking, singing, dancing, and, you guessed it, Hell raising. 

But, at midday on DIMASU, they retire to their clubhouse, which is like an Elk’s Club, only much bigger and with a health club, an Olympic swimming pool, plenty of rooms and facilities for family activities. There the men of Anaitasuna have a gargantuan lunch followed by cigars and heroic amounts of Patxaran.   Among the few things I remember about that day, aside from feeling supremely honored at having been invited, was that I didn’t like Patxaran. That was then, this is now. Like Scotch, drinking Patxaran is an acquired taste. Over the years I have acquired it; I love Patxaran. It’s nutty, sweet red fruit and anisette flavors are a great counterpoint for a good cigar.

One year, while touring the Basque Country with Chef Mark Miller (who then had Coyote Cafes in Santa Fe, Austin, and Las Vegas and Red Sage and Raku in Washington), on a cool misty afternoon at Kaia, a fabulous seafood restaurant in the port of Getaria near San Sebastián, I ordered a Patxaran after a stunning meal that featuring fresh house-cured anchovies, grilled sardines, and a whole wood fire-grilled turbot. Our server poured, over ice into a large brandy snifter, a very generous portion of Baines ‘Etiqueta de Oro (gold label),’ the Aston Martin of Patxaranes. A fine Montecristo completed the picture and all was well with the world by the time we finished lunch - - at 6:00 p.m.! (Some other brands of Patxaran to look for are the easier-to-find regular bottling of Baines, Basarana, Etxeko, and the brands you are more likely to find in the United States, Atxa and Zoco).


Then there was the glorious afternoon of the 14th of July, 1998, I believe, when John Ewing and I brought two liters of patxaran that we had been given by the sisters at Restaurante Hartza.  I got the fine folks at Hotel Maissonnave in Pamplona to partially fill a garbage bag with ice, put the jug of patxaran in it and put that into a wine box.  Somewhere we procured a couple of dozen plastic copitas so we could share the patxaran with the whole tendido.  We took the box with us to our seats in Tendido 9 and after the merienda, we began distributing the iced-down, Hartza house-made patxaran to about 20 people around us.  We indeed, lit up the whole tendido.  After most of our tendido had cleared out Ewing and I lingered in our seats, telling stories and drinking more patxaran. 


Below us, Tom Gowen and "Australian George" Danick appeared in the bullring callejón in front of our tendido, so we gave them some, too.  One of them took the picture above--George, I believe.  It remains one of my favorite memories of San Fermín.

Remember the Sloe Gin Fizz? Patxaran, which once a homemade concoction, has become one of the most popular drinks in Spain, bit it has only a remote relationship with that American sloe gin sensation of decades past. Patxaran, a ruby-garnet colored, Navarrese-Basque destroyer of brave men and levitator of adventurous women, is made by macerating sloe berries (called endrinas, arandanos, or arañones in Spanish; patxarán in Basque) in a sweetened, anís-flavored aguardiente. Patxaran de Navarra (from Navarra) even has its own protected Denominación Específica (DE - - which refers to the method of production, whereas in wine, denominación de origen (DO) refers to the area). The endrina fruit grows wild throughout Europe, but 110 experimental hectares of sloe berries have been planted in Navarra to insure a continuous supply from within the denominación for some of the nearly eight million liters of Patxaran produced annually.

DE Patxaran de Navarra, which averages 25 to 30 percent alcohol by volume, is produced by infusing orujo (aguardiente or marc) or agricultural-based alcohols with the essence of anís oils, then macerating sloe berries in the anís-flavored alcohol for a minimum one month to a maximum of eight months for each liter of Patxaran produced. Old-timers back in the hills of Navarre say that eating the berries after they are macerated in the anís cause you to go loco or develop a permanent dislike of patxaran, the latter of which I personally do want to risk, so I don’t eat the sloe berries.

Only the commercial Patxaran brands Zoco (made by Larios), Atxa and a few others are presently available in the United States. The attractively packaged Etxeko and Las Endrinas brands, found in duty-free shops in Spain, are quite good. Top Spanish wine and licores shops, such as the Club de Gourmets shops in Spain’s El Corte Inglés department store chain, stock the superb Baines Patxaran de Arañon and the top-of-the-line Baines Etiqueta Oro (Gold Label) bottling.

Once looked down upon as a blue-collar regional drink from Navarra, patxaran is now popular with everyone from Pamplona bullrunners, Basque woodchoppers, and heirs apparent to Hemingway’s Lady Brett to discriminating Spanish winemakers. An incident at a private luncheon held in Madrid before a fútbol match a few years ago underscored the popularity of Patxaran. Mariano García, for 30 years the winemaker at Vega Sicilia and now a much sought-after enologist considered to be Spain’s top winemaker, invited me to lunch with a group of his friends at Mesón Txistu. They had come to the capital to root for the Valladolid soccer team, in what was thought to be a hopeless match with powerful Real Madrid (the game ended in a 2-2 tie, which under the influence of patxaran, I had correctly predicted).

After a long, laid-back luncheon that featured almost every wine García has a hand in (Mauro, Mauro Vendimia Seleccionada, Maurodos San Román, Leda, Luna Beberride), coffees were ordered and cigars were lit. The proprietor then suggested post prandials. I ordered Patxaran on the rocks in a brandy glass (as it is often served in Spanish restaurants after meals).  The owner was aghast. With a somewhat patronizing tone, suggesting that a foreigner should be properly instructed in what constitutes a proper drink to end a meal, he suggested that I couldn’t possibly want to drink Patxaran after having drunk Mariano Garcia’s superb wines, some of which are among the most expensive in Spain.


I held my ground, however, and asked him to pour my favorite, Baines Etiqueta Oro, if he had it. Garcia, who had been somewhat distracted in conversation during my exchange with the owner, chimed in, “Make that two.” Shaking his head, the poor man went off to get Patxaran for the foreigner and for Spain’s legendary winemaker.
About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Donn Pohren, The Great Flamencologist Who Also Wrote The Trailblazing Book For Discovering Artisan Wines in Spain

* * * * *

Madrid, Spain - American writer and well-known Flamencologist Donn Pohren died in Las Rozas [a Madrid suburb] on November 5, 2007. His wife, Luisa Maravillas provided a brief statement: "I regret to inform you all that Donn passed away the 5th of November, during the night. Sometime in the near future I intend to organize a gathering of friends and aficionados in Las Rozas."  - - Contributed by: WMC_News_Dept.  11/07/2007 08:35AM

Donn Pohren was regarded as one of the leading experts in Flamenco in the English language and wrote several influential books about the subject. "Donn Pohren's book was the first thing I bought when arriving in Andalucía, before I even knew how much my life would be involved with and changed by flamenco. It helped me understand a lot that was to come," says British expatriate Kate Edbrooke, who runs a recording studio in Granada and has produced several Flamenco recordings by local artists.

The Significance of Flamencologist Donn Pohren
and His Impact on Spanish Wine & Food
Que descansa en una juerga de “pura ma're” with a copita in front of him
and Diego del Gastor playing alongside him.

Copyright by Gerry Dawes 2017. 

In 1972, Donn Pohren, a Minneapolis-born American who lived in Spain for decades and was the world's greatest foreign expert on flamenco, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain. I was living in southern Spain when I first encountered Pohrens's book (privately printed in Spain) soon after it was published and it had a profound effect on me. In the early years, I never traveled without it. At first, I merely wanted to have some of the wine and food experiences that he had described. Soon, I was having new experiences of my own, experiences that would eventually lead to my becoming a widely published writer on Spanish wine and food and a recognized authority in the field.
Donn Pohren's Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain

Adventures in Taste, self-published by Pohren in 1972.

Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula in the 1960s exploring the nooks and crannies of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest acreage of any country in the world. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On many occasions, Pohren would soon find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another vied to show this foreigner that his wine was the best in the village. In his book, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making excellent wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days.

Pohren's Map of the Wine Regions of North Central
 (He did not cover Galicia!)

However, many of the wines Pohren described were wines whose charm soon faded if anyone tried to transport them beyond the boundaries of their home region. The winemaking techniques were often primitive. In many places the grapes were still crushed by treading, then fermented in open stone or cement vats, and aged in less than meticulously cared for barrels. The result was a flawed wine, which often tasted good with the local food, but was simply not stable enough to "travel" and was not the stuff to thrill sophisticated wine connoisseurs. Still, Don Pohren swore by the inherent quality of many of these Spanish wines and he was right.

His experiences have always been in the back of my mind and have served me well on numerous occasions, such as an encounter on my first trip to then unknown Priorat in 1988. Firmly in Pohren's shoes, I entered an old-fashioned, untidy cellar, where I was given a flawed wine to taste, but the underlying base wine was clearly very good. I judged the prospects for this region to be so promising that I came back wrote the first major article about the potential of Priorat. Alvaro Palacios and crew arrived the next year and began to make history. Recently, in Ribeira Sacra, I have run into some flawed wines (less so every year), just as a did in Priorat nearly twenty years earlier. Tasting "underneath" the sometimes inexperienced wine making techniques, I found enormous potential. I know Donn would have as well.

What Pohren tasted in those wines while researching his book forty years ago was the materia prima (raw material; grapes, soil and climate), the exceptional juice from grapes which often came from old vines, whose average yield of wine per acre of vines was less than half that allowed by the best appellations of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  Even backward winemaking techniques couldn't keep the underlying quality from showing through; Pohren's Spanish wines were diamonds in the rough.

In the years since Donn Pohren wrote his book, exciting things have happened which promise an incredible future for both Spain's traditional wines and those of emerging wine regions. Spain's nearly four decades-old democracy has been the catalyst for a modern renaissance in fashion, art, literature, cinema, and gastronomy and it has ushered in a technological revolution in wine making as well. A key element in this was Spain's acceptance in 1992 as a member of the European Economic Community, the Common Market (now the European Union), which posed a special challenge to Spanish wine producers: compete on a quality level with the other wines of Europe or enter the over-saturated European wine "lake," and be lost in the crowd.

Fortunately, Spain opted for quality. Many forward looking people in the Spanish wine trade began to see Spain's entry into the European Union as both a new challenge and a new opportunity for their wines. These challenges and opportunities would require a reassessment of their positions in both the domestic and export markets, an upgrading of their winemaking technology, and consistent quality in their wines. Emile Peynaud, Alexis Lichine, and other consultants were brought in from France to advise winemakers in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rueda. The best enologists from Rioja, Penedes, and Navarra traveled to other regions share their expertise. Young Spanish winemakers trained in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and at the University of California - Davis. Miguel Torres Riera, the maestro of Catalan winemaking, and Jose Peñin, Spain's foremost wine authority, wrote important books about Spain's future in the wine world. New wine books, periodicals, and gourmet journals proliferated. Seminars, international wine symposiums, and wine competitions began to be conducted on a regular basis. And, importantly, wine clubs and societies were formed as an increasingly affluent and growing middle class in Spain began to appreciate the wines of its own country.

During the past three decades, investments in new wine making technology (especially in the area of fermentation control), better barrels (although accompanying by a lot of oak abuse!), experiments with new grape varietals, and the replanting of vineyards in some areas have begun to have a geometric effect on the overall quality level of Spanish wines. This progress in winemaking technique in Spain would not in itself account for such a dramatic effect–in fact, it is now often a detriment to authenticity--if it were not for the fact that Spain is a splendid natural vineyard endowed with many areas whose grape varietals have become perfectly acclimated over centuries to the micro-climate and soil in which they grow. 

All that was needed in many cases were winemakers dedicated to quality and the technology to achieve it. The grapes produced in the best wine areas of Spain–Rioja, Jerez, Cataluna, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Rueda, and in many up and coming regions–have shown they are capable of producing wines which can stand alongside the best of France, Italy, and California. The Tempranillo of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, for example, is coming to be recognized as a grape which can produce wines to rival those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.

The established, classic wine regions of Spain like Rioja and Jerez, while refining the techniques and polishing the skills which made them famous, also created exciting new areas of interest with small estates like Remelluri and Contino in Rioja and the emergence of such high-quality wines as the almacenista sherries of Emilio Lustau and the late harvest Navarra moscatels from Julián Chivite, Ochoa and Viña Aliaga. Other areas whose wines were once underground legends in Spain, like those described by Donn Pohren, but whose viticulture was based on tiny artisan producers and ill-equipped cooperatives, began to realize their potential for making great wines.

Ribera del Duero, home of Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Mauro, and Viña Pedrosa; Navarra, the producer of perhaps the world's finest rosés; Priorato (Cataluna) and Toro (Castilla-Leon), whose rich, concentrated, blockbuster red wines have drawn international attention; Rueda, a surprising white wine region; and Rías Baixas, whose Albariños now count the U.S. as its most important export market, are just the most visible of the emerging wine regions capable of making first rate wine from native grapes. There are many more to come. 

Previously unknown regions–not many of which unknown to Donn Pohren–such as Bierzo, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei, along with Jumilla and many others–have either jumped onto the world wine stage or are just in the wings awaiting their call to stardom. Producers like Miguel Torres in Penedes, Julián Chivite in Navarra, Carlos Falcó at Dominio de Valdepusa and Codorniu's Raimat estate, just to name a few examples, have achieved new heights with foreign varietals, though even the best examples often fall short of the intriguing, delicious, uniquely Spanish wines made from indigenous varieties–the kinds of wines that Donn Pohren loved.

Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book. Following his example, I still ferret out little known producers and drive many kilometers out-of-the-way just to eat a dish in a little-known regional restaurant and, like Don, look beyond rusticity (or fancy trappings in some places) to find the core of something that is undeniably wonderful and unique to Spain. Only adventurers and indefatigable travelers can do what Donn Pohren did. I can attest to how indefatigable and adventurous he was from averaging six trips a year to Spain (eight per year in the past five years).

Without Don Pohren’s book (and to a great degree, James A. Michener’s Iberia) I may have never caught the spirit of the Spanish road that has sustained me now for more than 40 years. For that I owe Donn a now un-redeemable debt of gratitude and so do people such as Steve Metzler, who built a great and exemplary Spanish wine importing company, Classical Wines, based on his Pohren-inspired wine travels. Because of Donn, Metzler was inspired to find not only Pesquera and make Alejandro Fernandez's wine world famous, he even met his wife, Almudena. Neither of us saw Don Pohren as much as we would have liked to over the years, but fortunately several years ago in Madrid, I had an opportunity to let Donn know just how much his work meant to me and to the many who carry Spain in their hearts.

Pohren visited my late former wife Diana and I for lunch at our house in Mijas (Málaga) in 1974.  
Donn autographed Adventures in Taste to us.

I will miss the fact that Donn is no longer with us in body, but he will never die in the spirits and hearts of those who followed his incredible Quixotesque passion for Spain, flamenco, Spanish wine and traditional food and all things Spanish. (Quixote may have been a dreamer, but not a madman; those windmills he was tilting at were brought from the low countries and represented the domination of the foreign House of Austria, a powerful, inquisition wielding force that crushed those who dissented like Don Quixote after his encounter with the windmill sails.)

Donn Pohren was a dreamer and he may have seemed like a madman when he lived his life like a candle in the wind during his awesome flamenco juerga years, but to me Donn Pohren was a profound inspiration and he always will be. Vaya con Dios, Don Donn. I will raise a copita to you often in my journeys. I can see the angels lining up now for a juerga--a Spanish wine, food and flamenco party--the likes of which even heaven hasn’t seen.

The End

Gerry Dawes©2017

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heavenly Nights in Old Castile: Adventures with Ambrosio Molinos, Maestro Cheesemaker and Subject of Michael Paterniti's "The Telling Room"

* * * * *
 By Gerry Dawes©2013

Ambrosio Molinos with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings. 
Photo: Gerry Dawes©20004 /

A new book based on Ambrosio Molinos, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, was released 30, July 2013.  Mike Paterniti recounts and credits my description in this chapter about “rotten pot” stew.  Paterniti, whom I met in Spain, told me recently that he has read this piece half a dozen times.

* * * * * *
Unlike many Spanish cities and coastal resort areas, which have lost much of their unique Spanish flavor to modern developers, the back country towns of the Duero River valley and the upland region of Burgos province known as the Cradle of Castile still smack of old Spain, the Castilian Spain of evocative landscapes, ancient castles, old monasteries, and brick baker’s ovens redolent of lambs roasting. For a period of almost ten years, when I was exploring the Ribera del Duero to write about its unique local wines, a few of which can hold their own with the world's finest, I came to know the area as well as any place in Spain.

Early on during my travels in the Ribera del Duero, I met Ambrosio Molinos, an aficionado of great regional food, a gourmand of repute, and one of the great artisan cheese makers of Castile. He, his wife Asunción, and their three children lived in Roa de Duero, a village with a rocky history, which stands on a high cliff overlooking the Duero.

Ambrosio Molinos and his wife, Asunción, with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings, Gúzman (Burgos province). Photo: Gerry Dawes©2004 /

It was the Pérez Pascuas brothers, the exceptional wine making family of the nearby village of Pedrosa, who introduced me to the stout, jovial Ambrosio, who came over to Pedrosa to eat wild boar with us and brought his guitar and one of his wonderful Burgos cheeses with him. Ambrosio has a quick and easy laugh, an incredible sense of humor, and always seemed to be in good spirits. We soon become fast friends because of a common interest in wine, regional cuisine, and his penchant for scandalous jokes. He began to join me on my explorations of the Ribera del Duero, sometimes driving me in his Land Rover, sometimes guiding me, often following, as I introduced him to things and people in his home region that even he didn’t know. Except for my propensity to gain weight when I spent time in the company of him and his robust appetite, I suppose I could travel with him for weeks on end, for I have know few more amiable companions.


Ribera del Duero. At a lunch that I arranged for a Commonwealth Club of California tour at Pérez Pascuas winery in Pedrosa de Duero. Ambrosio Molinos entertains with his guitar and his voice. No one wanted to leave. It was a magical afternoon. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2006 / /

Ambrosio loves to eat as much as anyone I have ever met. He relishes the intellectual aspects of gastronomy as well and can talk for hours about the art of eating, then on occasion after dinner, can spend another hilarious hour on the scatological joys of eliminating what he eats. He is a hefty man. One hot summer day, when I stopped by his home in Roa on a surprise visit when I was following Fran Rivera around Spain with a New York-based writer,I encountered Ambrosio shirtless, having a casual lunch with his family. When I kidded him about putting on weight, he clutched a roll of fat at his midsection, and told me, "That’s not me, that’s my shirt."

   Ambrosio Molinos in Roa de Duero. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

On several occasions, Ambrosio Molinos had told me about the Colegiata of Covarrubias and its famous polychrome wood triptych of the Epiphany, but on previous trips, it had been closed when I arrived, so this June day, I made arrangements to meet Ambrosio for lunch at a new Covarrubias restaurant, De Galo, and visit the Colegiata after lunch. It was to be another memorable day in Castile.

I arrived at a small parking area just outside the 16th-century gate that is the northern entrance to town just as Ambrosio was arriving in his Land Rover. As usual, we were both hungry, so lunch was the first order of business. It was three p.m., a civilized hour for two old friends and aficionados of good food to begin a serious lunch. However, on past trips, I had had little luck with the food in Covarrubias. I had distinctly bad memories from my first encounter years ago at the Parador de Arlanza across the Plaza Do a Urraca and the other restaurant on the square, Galín, was known for its middling comida casera ("home cooked" food), including olla podrida, literally, rotten pot stew, an undeservedly famous Castilian dish that Ambrosio had introduced me to a couple of years earlier.

One day over lunch at Julián de Tolosa, a trencherman’s Basque restaurant in Madrid, Ambrosio carefully related the recipe for a great rotten pot stew into my tape recorder, thus preserving for posterity the secret Castilian formula for mainlining pork: "First, an olla podrida should be made with alubias de Ibeas, the little black-red beans that come from around the village of Ibeas east of Burgos and are the best beans in Spain. That is most important. Then, in a clay stove top casserole, you slowly cook the beans with a special adobado (marinaded) pig foot, a marinaded pig’s ear, and pork ribs. The adobo marinade is made with salted water, to which orégano is added or, depending on the area, other spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, and paprika, sometimes even piquant paprika. The marinade, which gives the olla podrida its strong flavor, also preserves the meat, so it can be left all season in a cool place such as a basement or a cave. Then you put in some fatty chorizo, the one they call botage o, because it has a higher percentage of fat to lean, and some morcilla, blood sausage."

But, there is more. Ambrosio continued, " Once the olla podrida is cooked, you make what we call bolas, made from toasted hard bread that is then mixed some of the pork fat from the stew to make "balls," which are then fried and served on a platter alongside the olla. The meat that was cooked with the beans is served on a separate platter, the beans are also served on a separate dish, and guindillas, pickled onions and other pickled vegetables are served as a garnish. Then all you need is a big appetite." He then recommended a scandalous precaution, not to be repeated here, for the flatulence he said was sure to ensue from eating rotten pot stew.

I had gone with Ambrosio to one of these olla podrida pig-outs near Ibeas and he also had offered to take me to mother of all pig festivals at the Virrey Palafox restaurant in El Burgo de Osma in the neighboring province of Soria, where they have multi-course pig meals in February to celebrate the winter hog slaughter. But now, my concern was for Restaurante De Galo, whose chef-owner was the son of the owners of Galín, who were proud of their olla podrida. Just thinking about rotten pot stew conjured up visions of thousands of tiny porkers lumbering through my arteries in pursuit of the Pig Olympics gold medal for cardiac arrest.

Fortunately, De Galo turned out to be one of those great culinary surprises that can not only make your day, they can make your week and provoke future gastronomic pilgrimages. The restaurant was just inside the main village gateway, so we went straight in. Not only were we to have a great meal, I was introduced to another of the mysteries of Castile, one as basic to the human condition as food itself, but unique to this region and utterly fascinating. Inside the restaurant, in an ante room, was a cocina serrana, a "kitchen of the sierra," specifically the Sierra de la Demanda.

Chimenea serrana, Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / / 

Inside what was essentially a large chimney that tapered gradually to a small opening at the top was a large hearth, surrounding on three sides by benches, where the mountain people could sit on cold winter evenings as stew pots bubbled away, keeping warm, having communal meals, and, no doubt, tertulias, or gab fests, of legendary import, almost certainly repeating the great oral histories of the region. These cocinas serranas are as snug as a teepee and once I had seen one, I was immediately reminded of the pre-television days of my youth in my Illinois village when the communal joys of family and friends were everything. (In the Hotel Arlanza, there is another cocina serrana, this one now a part of the hotel bar and with a television installed. Somehow, it does not have quite the same charm as the one in Restaurante De Galo.)

Galo, Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

Our meal was as memorable as the cocina serrana. This man Galo could cook. We began by splitting a whole besugo escabechado, a sea bream marinated in an escabeche sauce and served cold. We mopped up the sauce with good coarse Castilian bread. Then came a local specialty that I seldom pass up when I see it on a Burgos-area menu, those alubias rojas de Ibeas that Ambrosio talked about. These were cooked with chorizo, served with grilled morcilla, and guindillas, the slender yellow-green piquant peppers that are a Basque specialty without which one, especially this one, does not consume his beans. The main course was vine-grilled baby lamb chops (served here with the kidneys), roasted potatoes, and what in recent years has become an indispensable side dish with roasted or grilled meats, delicious pimientos de piquillo, the sometimes slightly spicy little red peppers that are one of the great delicacies of Spain. We washed this repast down with a delicious, inexpensive Covarrubias wine from Ribera de Arlanza, a growing region that was on the verge of disappearing just a few years ago. Similar to a Ribera del Duero wine, but lighter and fresher, this Vi a Valdable, was not only perfect with the food, it cost less than the equivalent of $7. A café con leche, a delicious limited production Baines Pacharán from Navarra, and a Montecristo cigar were dessert, after which we would waddle off in the direction of the Colegiata.

Serving alubias (beans) at Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

Over the years, Ambrosio and I developed a running gastronomic joke. First, in the morning, we claim to just about anyone who will listen, we have some breakfast, at which we discuss where to make our first stop for tapas, where we plot where to stop for the merienda (a kind of in-between-meals snack). After the merienda, it goes without saying that we need another tapa before lunch. After lunch, another tapas opportunity is in order, so we can discuss where we are going for the afternoon merienda, pre-dinner tapas, and then dinner, nothing too heavy, of course. Then there is the tough decision about where to have after-dinner drinks and cigars.

It is mid summer and I am with Ambrosio and his family on a path half way up the hill that rises above Ambrosio’s hometown of Guzmán, a small village located at the western edge of Burgos province just a few kilometers from Roa in what used to be known as Old Castile. At ten in the evening, the sun has just gone down over the páramo, the great stark Castilian plateau, which so captivated the imaginations of such writers as Antonio Machado and Miguel Delibes.

The páramo, like the large herds of sheep which graze these ancient hills, has recently been shorn of its cover. Gone are the infinite rows of ripening wheat that wave seductively over these hills earlier in the summer; now the fields are uniformly close-cropped and lay in the soft evening light looking like large tawny lions. From here, I can see a vast section of the great wine-growing Duero river valley and, in the distance, more hills where the last rays of the sun bathe the occasional hill top village with a rich golden light.

The hill behind me is honeycombed with family-owned wine and cheese caves, cool manmade caverns which were already centuries-old when Columbus discovered America. In a little stone shed built into the hill, Ambrosio and Asunción, are laying out the fixings for a simple, but first-rate and unforgettable dinner: a salad of garden-picked lettuce, perfectly ripened flavorful tomatoes, and sweet Spanish onions; wedges of Ambrosio’s superb Burgos sheep’s milk queso Castellano, a delicious, slightly sharp, white cheese; round, thin slices of home-cured country chorizo; chuletillas (milk-fed lamb chops), and red cherries picked from a villager’s trees. The meal will be accompanied by the rustic, but delicious, country wine which Ambrosio and his father buy from the cooperative in the neighboring village of Quintanamanvirgo, then age in large old barrels down in the cave next door. Ambrosio ages cheeses in his cave.

Soon we descend into the pitch dark depths of the wine cave, lighting our way by candles. The bodega, as a wine cellar is called in Spain, is perfectly cool and properly humid for ageing wine. It is rustic, old, full of atmosphere. There are cobwebs, mold, 16-liter bulbous glass garrafas with cork stoppers, a modest stash of bottled wines, a couple of smaller barrels, and a large cuba barrel, where last year’s harvest of wine is gaining character. Using a siphon, Ambrosio draws a good measure of dark red Ribera del Duero wine into a porrón, a beaker-like pitcher with a neck for putting wine in and with a long needle-nosed spout. The spout facilitates sanitary communal drinking for those who have mastered its use and wine-stained shirts or blouses and good-natured expletives from those who haven’t.

Part of the ritual demands that we sample the wine from porrón down in the cave. Ambrosio lifts the beaker by its glass neck and places the tip of the spout just inside his open mouth without letting it touch his lips or tongue. He elevates the bottom of the beaker and a thin stream of wine flows out. Once the flow begins, Ambrosio gradually extends the porrón to arm’s length taking the wine into his mouth in an arching stream that flashes ruby in the flickering candle light. Watching someone drink from a porrón in one of these wine caves is spectacular, beautiful, folkloric. There is almost a religious quality to this rite, a discernible atavistic pull that binds those who share from this vessel. This wine bonding, camaraderie in a jug, is the stuff of vintage nostalgia.

After a couple of more rounds, we draw more wine to top up the porrón and climb the hand-hewn steps out of the cave into the fresh evening air. Around us, other villagers are also preparing al fresco dinners in their own hillside merenderos, as they call these little huts, few of which are anything more than a cave anteroom with a stone table in front.

One of Ambrosio’s friends from the village has brought up a bundle of grape vine cuttings, which he sets alight on the ground in front of a rough masonry retainer wall. A blaze roars several feet above the bundle. I photograph this culinary pyre with the tower of the village’s 16th-century church, the rust-red, tejas-tiled roofs, and the lovely pastel vestiges of the glorious sunset as a backdrop. While the flame is blazing itself out, leaving only squiggly, glowing vine embers that are perhaps the perfect fire for cooking chuletillas, Ambrosio loads a hinged grill with two dozen little lamb chops. The grill has handles so that the whole device can be flipped over to finish cooking the other side.

While the chuletillas are roasting, we pass around the porrón and Ambrosio starts telling us about his 70 year-old father’s wine drinking habits. Ambrosio claims, that his father--the late Ambrosio padre--in his youth, drank three to four liters of wine per day. Some field workers drank six, he says. He calculates that his father has drunk some 85,000 liters of wine in his life. "Tres camiones cisternas--three tank trucks full," he figures.

 Ambrosio Molinos and his late father, Ambrosio, at the family home in Gúzman (Burgos province) with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2004 /

"His front tooth has a groove in it - - like limestone which water has dripped on for years - - where the stream of wine from the porrón hits it. When he had a stomach operation last year, the doctor told him he could only have one glass of wine per day, so he bought a very large glass. He refuses to drink water in months which have ‘r’ in them, so he still drinks a liter of wine a day."

Ambrosio’s hilarious account of his father’s love of wine is just the beginning. The smell of the fire-roasted lamb is irresistible and the cool wine flows freely, calling for another descent or two into the cave. We eat, drink, laugh, and talk until midnight. Out here in the Castilian countryside, the sky is a celestial canopy blazing with thousands of bright stars that seem to be hovering just above our heads. Finally, the cool air coaxes us down to the village bar for a café con leche and a brandy.

These are heavenly nights on the páramo of Castile.

--The End--
Read more about Ambrosio Molinos (I am mentioned in the text) in the new book:

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese  

by Michael Paterniti (Available July 30, 2013)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sunset in a Glass: Drinking Manzanilla Sherry at the Source

* * * * *

Sunset in a glass, Manzanilla sherry along the Guadalquivir River at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which along with Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa Maria, is one of Spain’s three great sherry producing towns, Javier Hidalgo, producer of La Gitana manzanilla and an old friend, once told me, “If you ever have a glass of manzanilla at sunset on Bajo de Guía beach, you will never have another glass of manzanilla anywhere in the world without seeing the Sanlúcar sunset in the glass.”

That sounds like a zealous public relations invention until you have actually seen a Sanlúcar sunset with a glass of manzanilla in your hand. Picture yourself on Bajo de Guía beach at the western edge of Sanlúcar. The main part of town, where most of the sherry bodegas are located, is perhaps a kilometer behind you. Before you is a broad river, the Guadalquiver, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, a vista which stretches to the horizon. On the far bank of the river is the Coto Doñana, one of the greatest wildlife preserves and bird sanctuaries left in Europe and it is pristine, except for a small guard building on the shore and the remnants of a picnic carelessly left behind, which has drawn a wild boar down to the beach to forage. In the foreground, fishing boats roll in the gently lapping waves. A pair of old beached boats and several overturned fisherman’s dinghies, which make could seats for the viewing the sunset, are scattered along the beach. 

Langostinos de Sanlúcar with La Gitana manzanilla, in the evening, 
Bajo de Guía beach on the Guadalquívir River, Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
 Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Just before sunset, I usually purchase a couple of ice-cold half bottles of manzanilla, a plate of the famous langostinos de Sanlúcar (spectacular prawns), and some olives from Bigote, Casa Juan, or Mirador de Doñana, just three of more than a half dozen quality seafood restaur-ants facing the beach. I convince the owners that I will indeed return their catavinos, sherry glasses, and traipse across the sand with my culinary booty, the borrowed glasses, and my companion or companions (I once did this with a gourmet crowd of fifty people, including Chefs Allen Susser, Mark Miller, Jimmy Schmidt, and Robert del Grande) to one of the fisherman’s dinghies, preferably one with a flat bottom to serve as a table. I stake my claim to primo viewing rights, pull the tapón (stopper) from one of the bottles, pour a glass of manzanilla, and toast those who are going to watch today’s version of one of nature’s finer miracles with me. I never forget to toast my own good fortune at being in Sanlúcar de Barrameda at sunset once again.

La Gitana Manzanilla, half-bottle chilled.

Gerry Dawes©2008 /

To see a Sanlúcar sunset properly takes more than an hour and usually requires another quick sprint across the sands to replenish the stocks of cold wine, but the show is just beginning and we are on our first bottle of manzanilla as we peel and munch on those delicious prawns. The sun is a giant red-gold ball hanging out on the horizon and it seems to be plating the surface of the ocean with gold leaf. The fishing boats bobbing in the foreground are gradually becoming silhouettes. The smell of the fresh breeze off the Atlantic is echoed in the slightly salty taste of the manzanilla and the prawns, then one realizes that the greatest of wine and food matches are really wine, food, and place matches. I lift my glass to the sunset while the sun is still a perfect sphere above the horizon and see the whole scene repeated upside down in my glass.

As the sun begins to sink into the sea way out at what once was the far reaches of the ancient mariner’s world - - Sanlúcar is west of the straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules, beyond whose gates lay the unknown terrors of the vast open sea - - you almost expect the water to hiss as the blazing globe sinks below the horizon. One wonders what the sailors who accompanied Columbus when he sailed from Palos just 50 kilometers west of here - - Columbus sailed from Sanlúcar on his third voyage - - must have been thinking. 

Gazing out there in the direction of that magnificent golden sphere, you can imagine all those treasure-laden ships sailing into Sanlúcar, which was the customs point where the gold and silver was counted before the ships could proceed upriver to Sevilla, yet another place for this rich lucre to change hands before eventually ending up in the hands of German bankers. When you also know that most of the sailors who accompanied Magellan, when he sailed from Sanlúcar in an attempt to circumnavigate the earth, died and only one crippled ship commanded by a Basque, Juan Sebastián Elkano of Getaria, came limping back here three years later, you have a palpable sense of a monumental history to go with your sunset, your manzanilla, and your succulent langostinos

The sun disappears beyond the horizon, ending another day, and its golden glow is replaced by an enchanting array of yellows, reds, blues, purples. The first bottle of manzanilla is now a soldado muerto, (a “dead soldier”) and we are into the second or third, lulled into a delicious state of reverie by the wine, the beauty of the sunset’s changing colors (now they are pastels), and the smell of the sea. The cares of the modern world have been reduced to a speck on my mind’s horizon - - a speck that soon becomes the twinkling of the evening star as it appears, growing brighter as the Technicolor background grows darker. This evening star was called lucero by the ancients who did not realize it was the same as the morning star, Venus, so they built temples to both. They say Sanlúcar’s name is derived from lucero

As the star grows brighter, so do the lights beckoning from the bars and restaurants along Bajo de Guía beach. Enticing smells of grilled seafood, garlic, and spices drift across the sands, finishing the splendid job of whetting the appetite that the maritime air and the manzanilla have already begun. We have extracted the last hues of exquisite beauty from nature’s light show and savored the last drops of our manzanilla, so we head for Casa Bigote, a favorite tapas bar and my candidate for the greatest bar on earth.

Bigote is an old-time fisherman’s tavern, a real taberna marinera so picturesque in its trappings that it could have been created by the Ministry of Tourism, except it is too authentic to have been fabricated. At the entrance to the bar, there are the ubiquitous bullfight posters, the mounted head of a fighting bull, and a number of taurine photographs of local bullfighters (the second most famous product of Sanlúcar after manzanilla), many of whom have been very successful. Inside the bar, apart from bullfight paraphernalia, the decoration - - calling it decoration is being charitable - - is nautical, maritime, (actually the stuff that fishermen have dragged up in their nets for the last several decades), authentic, raffish, unique, and utterly captivating.

Behind the bar, perched on a small upturned barrel of Barbiana Amontillado Viejo, is a small image of the Virgen del Carmen (the patroness of the fishermen) mounted in the yawning jawbone of a small shark. On the wall behind the bar is a huge tortoise shell with “Bar Bigote - Bajo de Guía” spelled out with pieces of fisherman’s rope, several starfish, all sorts of odd crustaceans, a mounted fish, a whale bone, and photographs of a whale beached at Sanlúcar. And suspended from the rafters, along with a blowfish, are amphoras, the pottery urns, which were used in the days when Spain was a part of the Roman Empire to ship wine, oil, olives, pickled fish, and other foodstuffs back to Rome. 

Bar Bigote,  Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Among the habitues of Bigote is the great Matador José Martínez “Limeño,” one of my oldest friends in Spain and the padrino of Sanlúcar’s bullfighters. Limeño gained fame as a journeyman matador, who became so good at fighting the feared Miura breed that he won the trophy as the best bullfighter in the Feria de Sevilla, one of Spain’s most prestigious taurine events, three years in a row, something not even Juan Belmonte, Manolete, or Antonio Ordoñez had accomplished. I almost never visit Sanlúcar without meeting Limeño at Bar Bigote and for over the more than 25 years I have known him, he has been proved to be the catalyst for many of my most memorable wining and dining experiences in this extraordinary town. This evening is no different. I am meeting Limeño at Bigote.

Bar Bigote, El Rocio, Guadalquivir Crossing Day
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Bigote grew spontaneously as a by-product of this legendary port. It is now the successful creation of the owners, Fernando and Paco Hermoso, and three generations of fishermen who have frequented this place since the Hermoso’s father opened it in more than fifty years ago. The Hermoso brothers’ father was a fisherman with a large bigote, a moustache. In 1951, he opened a little bar on Bajo de Guía beach, when it used to be the point where the fisherman unloaded their catch (before they moved to the new port in the little suburb of Bonanza, a couple of kilometers away). The fishermen and the owners of the boat would go to Bigote after the catch was sold to divvy up the proceeds of the day’s catch and drink manzanilla. 

Señor Hermoso ran his little bar there until 1967, when he followed the fishing fleet upriver to Bonanza, Sanlúcar’s then-new fisherman’s port and site of the afternoon fish auction, which is conducted by a reverse bidding procedure in which the ceiling price is quoted first. Fernando and Paco Hermoso stayed at the original Bigote. Soon, they added a kitchen and a coffee machine. 
Fernando Hermoso is the chef. He learned to cook for the crew of young fishermen with whom he worked in the local waters. He has a natural talent for the great guisos marineros, or fishermen’s stews, for which Sanlúcar is famous. Aside from Bigote’s own considerable attraction as one of the greatest places in Spain to eat seafood (and drink manzanilla), one of Fernando’s dishes - - huevo marinero - - has provoked many a gastronomic pilgrimage on its own.  Huevo marinero, is a sublime dish of monkfish and shrimp, cooked with olive oil and manzanilla in a cazuela, a ceramics baking and serving dish. When the dish is bubbling hot, it is pulled from the fire, a fresh egg is cracked on top and is the yolk is still setting up as it is served. With a copita of manzanilla and a piece of local bread to mop up the sauce, this “fisherman’s egg,” is not just food, it is a culinary epiphany. Fernando is also famous for his rape a la marinera (another monkfish cazuela dish with saffron sauce) and raya a la naranja agría (skate in a sauce made with the juice of bitter oranges, the kind used to make orange marmalade). 

Fernando Hermoso, Chef-partner, Bigote, Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

More than a decade ago, Fernando and Paco expanded into the building across a little alleyway from the bar and have formal dining rooms where they serve a maximum of 150 costumers per meal. There is usually one seating only; many people reserve two weeks in advance and start eating lunch here at 3:30 - 4:00 p.m.

Bar Bigote, Fernando Hermoso.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Bigote serves fish and shellfish from the area around Sanlúcar. They claim they don’t use fish from the North or the Mediterranean, nor do they serve frozen fish. In stormy weather when the fishing boats are kept in port for several days, the Hermoso brothers have been known to close the restaurant and just serve drinks at the bar. They try to serve only fish from that day’s catch for dinner that evening and at lunch the next day. Fernando waits each day at 5 p.m. for the catch to arrive. They use shaved ice, nieve or “snow” they call it, to keep fish cold in wooden crates, just as they come in from the fishing boats. They leave the ice on the fish, even in the refrigerators where it is stored. Fernando says the refrigerator is just to keep the “snow” from melting. As long as the ice stays on top the fish, it does not dehydrate in the dry cold of the refrigerator.

While I am waiting for Pepe Limeño, I order another glass of manzanilla, some house-cured olives, and a tapa, or small snack, of boquerones - - small, fresh whole anchovies, battered and flash deep-fried. The skin is crisp, but the anchovies are perfectly fried,moist, not greasy. Andalucians and Bigote, in particular, have elevated frying fish to an art form. It is said that the Japanese learned the art of frying fish from Spanish and Portuguese sailors in the 16th Century.  
At about 9:30 p.m., Limeño appears, and there are abrazos (the friendly embrace that takes the place of a handshake amongst friends in Spain) all around. Nearly twenty years retired from the bull ring, he is still greeted by half the bar patrons before he can settle in for a manzanilla and a tapa. His appearance assures us of two things: We will dine informally, but exceptionally well, and we will consume our share of manzanilla. Limeño always seems to know which restaurant is serving the best current specialty. Sometimes we end up eating at tables outdoors along the beach, dining on tiny clams cooked in garlic, parsley, and wine sauce; another time we sample Fernando’s excellent fish-and-shellfish stews; and in an upstairs dining room down the beach, we have plates of salad followed by heaping platters of pescaito frito, perfectly fried fish - - acedías (baby sole), pijotas (small whiting fried with their tails stuck in their mouths), and calamares (fried squid). 

Pescaito frito, tortillitas de camarones, Bar Balbino, Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Langostinos de Sanlúcar and Manzanila La Gitana at Bigote. 
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

And sometime during our long, sometimes peripatetic, bar-hopping, lunches or dinners together, we have langostinos de Sanlúcar, those superb tiger prawns which can cost up to $60 per pound, depending on the season. And always, those chilled half bottles of manzanilla, sometimes Bodega Hidalgo’s La Gitana, a manzanilla fina, but just as often, the gold-tinged San León, a gutsy manzanilla pasada from Argüeso. And as we lift our glasses for yet another toast, I can still see the Sanlúcar sunset in the glass. Javier Hidalgo was right!! 

El Rocío pilgrimage, crossing the Guadalquivir at Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes copyright 2008
Chapter Sidebar - Manzanilla

Manzanilla has become such a runaway favorite in Spain that it now outsells fino sherry by more than two to one. In fact, at last report, 70% of the dry sherry sold in Spain was manzanilla. It is the drink of choice at most fiestas in southern Spain and can now be found fresh in the bars and restaurants of Madrid and many other northern cities.

Catavino: Manzanilla Sherry glass at Vinicola Hidalgo. Posted by Hello
Gerry Dawes Copyright 2008

Manzanilla is a fino-type sherry, sometimes called el mas fino de los finos, the finest, the most elegant wine, of the fino family, which includes manzanillas, finos, and amontillados. It comes only from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has its own denominación de origen, Spain’s equivalent of appellation controlée, called Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanilla can be sold as sherry from Jerez, but only wine aged in Sanlúcar can be called manzanilla. Like other sherries, it is produced by the classic solera system of fractional blending.

So fickle is nature in the production of manzanilla, that not all bodegas in Sanlúcar are capable of producing it and even in some bodegas that do produce it, there are areas in those bodegas in which manzanilla can not be produced. The big, airy, above-ground bodegas in the barrio alto of Sanlúcar have a number of doors and windows which can be opened to let in air from the ocean side of the bodega or can be closed off if there is too much heat. As with finos, the best producers of manzanilla use only free-run juice. After fermentation the mosto (must) becomes mosto-vino, then alcohol is added to bring it up to 15 - 15.5%. It then goes into 500-liter botas (butts), which are filled only 2/3 full, for ageing in large, airy, high-ceiling bodegas.

The special yeast which makes sherries of the fino family possible grows on top the wine in these partially fillled barrels and is called flor, literally flower, because it resembles the white flowers that grow near the surface of streams. In actuality, it looks like cottage cheese floating on top the wine. Because Sanlúcar is on the humid Atlantic, flor, which needs humidity, grows all year round on the surface of the wine in the manzanilla bodegas, while in Jerez in mid-summer and mid-winter, yeast growth can be severely retarded and the yeast will even submerge, exposing the wine to slight oxidation.

Since the flor does not disappear from manzanilla and the wine has no contact with air, it is the finest, lightest bodied sherry, and is the palest, usually a green-tinged color not unlike that of a fine Meursault. The poniente winds, the westerlies, bring a salt-laden sea breeze and give a light touch of salinity to the wine.

Manzanillas are aged a minimum of five years, which in practice means, that since the five year aged wine is fractionally blended with older wines in the criadera system, they will be five-seven years old, in the case of manzanillas finas, 7-10 years old in the case of manzanillas maduras, and 10 years or more in the case of manzanillas pasadas. While fino sherries in Jerez in a solera may be racked, never fully, just drawn down by quantities equal to a third of the capacity of the wine, maybe five to six times before the reach the bottling stage, manzanillas may be go through 14 rackings in the same period.

Related Posts with Thumbnails