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, 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.

 
Roberto


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
gerrydawes@aol.com

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
gerrydawes@aol.com

www.gerrydawesspain.com/
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