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.

Gerry Dawes at Marisquería Rafa in Madrid.
Photo by John Sconzo, Docsconz: Musings on Food & Life

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

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

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 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.

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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

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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.

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