Spain and Portugal deliver great food and wines
Count me among those who dislike the word “foodie,” although by interests and actions that is exactly what I am, at least in slang terms,
I will, however, gladly admit to being a “food and wine enthusiast” and if I had to cite one particular practice that qualifies me for that designation, it would be my affinity for culinary travel. My wife and I choose our new vacation destinations these days by the food and wine experiences we can have there.
Spain was high on my list of countries known for great food and wine that I wanted to visit, and in May I did just that, adding a jaunt to neighboring Portugal while I was there. It was the first time I had been to either country, and the food and wine I consumed over my 11-day visit to the Iberian Peninsula was an experience I won’t forget.
I consider myself an adventurous eater, something which began when I first landed in the Cayman Islands in 1982. In the 32 years since, I’ve eaten oxtail, cow’s foot, pork belly, conch wiener, all sorts of turtle parts, sweetbreads, whelks, agouti (aka Cayman rabbit) and parts of goats in mannish water I’d rather not discuss. None of that really prepared me for Spain.
Within hours of landing in Madrid, I was eating some of the most bizarre foods I’ve ever seen at the Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor market with 30-plus stalls that sell tapas, beer, wine, sweets, fruits, flowers, crafts and more. Perhaps the strangest thing I ate was something called percebes (gooseneck barnacles), which looked like the toenails of a prehistoric reptile. Considered a delicacy in Spain and Portugal, these weird little steamed seafood morsels weren’t cheap, priced, after unit conversions, at more than US$60 per pound. To eat them, I had to snap the leathery neck of the barnacle at the base and then pull it off, leaving a small amount of meat that tasted like, well, seafood.
Percebes take a bit of work to eat and I think part of the attraction is the ritual of eating them, along with their relative scarcity.
The next day, I lost my tripe virginity at a restaurant called El Sobrino de Botín, which the Guinness Book of World Records says is the oldest operating restaurant in the world, having been established in 1725. It was supposedly Hemingway’s favorite restaurant in Madrid because of the roast suckling pig, which I also tried and liked (but maybe not as much as Hemingway).
Tripe is the stomach of cows and other farm animals, and frankly, I’d never had the stomach for it, particularly for the Jamaican-style tripe and beans dish available in Cayman. But the tripe stew dish called callos a la Madrileña is considered traditional in Madrid and a specialty at Botin, so I felt I should try it.
Made with beef tripe, chorizo sausage, garlic and paprika, this isn’t a stew for the faint-hearted. It was ultra-rich and strong in flavor, spicy and slightly smoky with a gelatinous texture that made it somewhat sticky in the mouth. The broth was delicious, especially for dipping with crusty bread, and I couldn’t help think it would be great for pouring over rice and meat dishes the way oxtail gravy is used in Cayman.
Over the next week and a half, the list of strange and wonderful foods continued: razor clams; blood sausage; a deep-fried lamb’s ear sandwich, which I ate during a tapas crawl in Logroño; and pescaditos fritos, which were small, cleaned fish that were deep-fried until crunchy and eaten whole. The salty little tidbits went great with beer.
Not everything I ate in Spain was strange. Even during the tapas crawls I ate plenty of what I would consider normal foods.
Popular tapas included ibérico and serrano ham served either on its own or as an ingredient in another dish; pimientos de padrón, which were small green peppers fried in oil and then topped with coarse salt; and boquerones, white anchovies that were usually served as part of a pinchos de encurtidos, which are tapas skewers that also include items such as brown anchovies, hot peppers, olives and cheese.
In Spain, I also visited Chef Jesus Ramiro and his son Chef Jesús Ramiro Flores in Valladolid. I had met the senior Ramiro in Cayman at a wine dinner at Agua in February 2013 when he cooked a meal using molecular gastronomy techniques. My lunch with him at Restaurante Ramiro’s was less about science and more about fine cuisine, although it did include a somewhat controversial fish called butterfish (also known as escolar), the risk to eating of which is hinted at its nickname, the Ex-Lax fish. I suffered from no adverse effects, I’m happy to say.
I was looking forward to eating the large sardines everyone who has ever been to Portugal in the summer talks about, but since I was there in mid-May, apparently the sardines weren’t ripe yet. So I decided to go the fine-dining route instead.
At Restaurante Sacramento, I had the tastiest, most tender octopus – whole with all eight tentacles – I’ve ever eaten. The key to the tenderness, I was told, is boiling the octopus for 40 minutes prior to grilling.
At Restaurante Eleven, I ate hake, once considered a trash fish, but now worthy of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Then came the highlight dining experience of my entire trip, lunch at another Michelin-starred restaurant called Belcanto, which features a rising-star chef named José Avillez.
I knew I was in for a treat when I bit into one of the three amuse-bouche offerings.
“It looks like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate,” I said to the waiter when looking at the nut-and chocolate-covered ball.
“I can assure you it’s not,” he responded, and he wasn’t lying. Inside the chocolate was foie gras mousse, and the combination of ingredients was extraordinary.
Everything about the dinner was excellent, but the most unique dish was called “the garden of the goose that laid the golden egg,” which was a sous-vide soft-poached egg, wrapped in gold leaf and served with crunchy bread and mushrooms. The dish was as wonderful to look at as it was to eat.
Not to be outdone by the foods, both Spain and Portugal offer fantastic wines.
In Portugal, I drank a 10-year-old tawny port wine called Quinta do Javali, which was different than any Port I’d ever had because it was less sweet, more acidic and showed the characteristics of the grape more, a style I now know I prefer.
I tried to bring a bottle of this port back with me, but was told it was nearly impossible to find outside of restaurants or the winery. Instead, I was told about a similar port from a winery called Quinta do Vallado. I bought a bottle, toted it in my luggage for nearly two weeks across Spain, Portugal and Italy, and then back to Cayman, only to find that BlackBeard’s started carrying the same product only weeks before.
In Spain, sangria and vermouth were popular quaffs, but I was more interested in wines of Rioja, an area I visited. While there, I went to three wineries and learned some interesting things, like:
Spain offers much more than just red wines made with tempranillo or grenache, which is known as garnacha there. It also produces some very good white wines like albariño and verdejo.
Verdejo is an up-and-coming wine from Spain, which is strange to say since it’s been grown in the country since at least the 11th century. But it’s soft and aromatic with nice body and it has found its way into almost every bar and restaurant in Spain. Those who like sauvignon blanc, and that’s seemingly everybody in the Cayman Islands, will probably like verdejo – and its friendly price point.
Spain produces some good rosés. Ramón Bilbao makes one from grenache and Marqués de Cáceres produces one from mostly tempranillo that I was glad to discover is available in Cayman through BlackBeard’s.
Some of the techniques being used in Rioja are the cutting edge of winemaking. The boutique winery Remírez de Ganuza separates the “shoulders” – grapes in the top portion of clusters – from the tips. The riper shoulder grapes are used in making the best quality wines, while the tips are used in other wines.
Remírez de Ganuza also uses a patented method to complete the juice extraction process of grapes used for its flagship wine Trasnocho. A large water bag is used to gently squeeze juice from the must without imparting as many harsh tannins as traditional methods would.
Of course, the proof of quality in any wine is in the drinking, and Trasnocho is a modern-style wine that will appeal to those who like new world big red wines, including me.