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If you want to order a gin and tonic in Spain, first drop the “and” from the drink’s name (it’s known simply as a “gin tonic”) and then be prepared to answer two serious questions from the barkeep.
First, what gin? Any respectable bar will have 10 to 50 bottles, or more, in stock. Second, what tonic? You should also know a favorite based on your preference for its handcrafted blend of bitter and sweet.
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In an instant, one luscious bittersweet sip helped me understand why the gin tonic had made a crazed ascent to become the unofficial national drink of Spain in less than a decade. But at the same time, it introduced a whole host of other questions. What makes a Spanish gin tonic different from the classic British stalwart? How many riffs on one cocktail can there be? Could I master the technique for the perfect gin tonic?
I sought out one of the reigning gin tonic masters in Spain to discover why this age-old cocktail is such a perfect foil for the Spanish philosophy that it’s good to play with your food. I also got some tips on making your personalized best GT.
Main photo: Gin tonic with Pepe José Orts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Caroline J. Beck
Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.
For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
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When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.
Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.
While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:
- Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
- Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
- Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
- Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
- Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.
Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.
Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck
Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.
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Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”
San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.
First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.
Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.
Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.
Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.
Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.
Fried Eggs and Chips
Prep time: 0 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 appetizer servings
Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.
I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.
Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan
2 whole eggs
1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)
1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.
2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.
3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.
Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
In Spain, the Christmas season lasts from early December until Jan. 6 and features a dizzying array of culinary traditions throughout the extended holiday. Christmas dinners are typically celebrated on the eve with either a traditional bird or a melange of seafood, depending on regional custom. Twelve grapes are eaten at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to ensure a bit of luck. Cava, the Spanish interpretation of sparkling wine, is imbibed with abandon. A ring-shaped cake loaded with candied fruit (and a hidden toy) and sugar glaze commemorates the Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, on Jan. 6. But the quintessential signal that it is Christmastime in Spain is the appearance of a traditional candy called turrónes.
Turrónes, an almond-studded nougat, can be found around the world and throughout the year. But in Spain, it has been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for hundreds of years. The southern Valencian region of Alicante is the world production center for this candy, with a history dating to the 15th century. As the story goes, it was invented to satisfy the young Scandinavian wife of a Moorish king who planted hundreds of almond trees in the area in the 1400s for their snowy springtime blossoms that reminded her of snow.
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While there are recipes for turrónes that seem easy enough, it’s not typically a homemade treat because there are simply too many excellent artisanal choices available to Spanish households. As soon as stores start to transform their aisles for holiday shoppers, all sorts of turrónes magically appear in grocery stores and market stands.
By the 20th century, large-scale turrónes manufacturers were taking the approach of the more varied the flavor options, the better. But seeking the truest traditional form of local turrónes, I paid a visit to Jijona (Xixona), high in the hills above Alicante, where turrónes has been produced since the Middle Ages.
Shortly before arriving in Jijona on a bouncing bus ride, I noticed that large-scale turrónes manufacturing factories lined both sides of the main highway and the Museo de Turrónes was strategically positioned front and center. If there had been any doubt, it was now clear that this was the turrónes mecca. The center of the quiet, meticulously maintained village was filled with turrónes storefronts and artisanal factories spilling into smaller side streets.
Turrónes production window ends just before Christmas
Most production begins in mid-October and only lasts until the week before Christmas. Although my visit was timed during the height of their production cycle, two award-winning turroneros, Ricardo Coloma of Coloma García and Primitivo Rovira, a sixth-generational family member of Primitivo Rovira e Hijos, both graciously provided a glimpse into their multi-step, multiple-day production processes.
Sugar, honey, egg whites and almonds are essential to every turrónes recipe. The process begins when honey and sugar are heated and mixed together for an hour until they become fluffy white syrup. As the heat is increased to a high fire, egg whites thinned with water are added to the syrup and stirred for another hour. If the goal is to make turrónes de Alicante, the final step is to fold in toasted almonds using giant punxe, or hand paddles, and cool it enough press into loaf molds or tart molds to set.
The process for the creamy turrónes de Jijona takes another two days to complete. The candied mixture is chilled on large tables and then run though stone grinders for 20 minutes. The resulting paste rests for a day when it is returned to the stone grinders for a three-pass process and then pounded for 4 to 5 hours over heat with a boixet, a high-speed large pestle that emulsifies the mixture into a creamy paste. One more day of rest in loaf or tart pans, and it’s ready to enjoy. (Watch a video.)
While I expected to be a fan of the crunchy, nutty nougat version that I recalled from childhood candy stores, I was surprised at how addictive the creamy, dense paste of the loaf-style turrónes de Jijona was. It is similar to almond butter but more intense, dense, creamier and richer. Ladened with bags of both, I got back on the bus for the bumpy ride home, no longer entirely sure whether any of it would make it into someone else’s Christmas stocking
Main photo: Different varieties of turrónes, the almond-studded nougat. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Nochevieja, or “old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance. All across the country, welcoming the New Year includes 12 grapes and a glass of first-class cava.
On Dec. 31, when the clock signals the midnight hour, people eat one grape for every toll of the bell. The traditional grapes are known as las doce uvas de la suerte, or “the 12 grapes of luck,” and no one would want to start the New Year without them. But Spaniards like to wash down these grapes with the best bubbly they can find. And with every new year, their choices for first-class cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, get better and better.
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The approach is straightforward enough, but requires a laborious multi-step process. It begins by creating a low-alcohol still wine, then adding a mixture of yeasts and sugar known as licor de tirajo to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the wonderfully tiny bubbles for which sparkling wine is known. The final step is to slowly invert the bottle over a few weeks (riddling) to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck, freeze the neck, remove the temporary crown cap and a small plug of ice and replace it with the cork that makes the quintessential “pop” when you are ready to start celebrating.
Catalan cava has true regional flavor
Like French producers who use three traditional local varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — to make the blend known as Champagne, Spain’s cava producers rely on their own regional grapes: Xarel·lo, Macabeo (known as Viura in Spain’s Rioja region) and Parellada. Other varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are permitted for use in the Penedés region of Catalonia, but the best Catalan winemakers are increasingly using grapes emblematic of the area to showcase the unique style of their sparkling wine.
With a strong regional pride typical of the highly independent Catalan region, these top producers represent the best that Spain has to offer in today’s vintages. The result is a dry, crisp quaff redolent of apples, lemons and almonds, a little less sweet than Italy’s Prosecco and not quite as nutty as France’s Champagne.
Yet like many other Spanish wines coming out from under a long-standing reputation for middling quality, prices still trail far behind the improvements in taste. Some vintages, like Agustí Torelló Mata’s Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature, rival the cost of high-end French Champagne, yet most contemporary cava options represent wonderfully priced, first-class quality.
Many of these producers export great vintages to the United States, and their prices reflect some of the best bubbly bargains around. So this New Year’s eve, start celebrating with 12 grapes and some Spanish cava. The first will bring you luck, the second will bring you happiness.
Cava producers and labels worth celebrating
Agustí Torelló Kripta Gan Reserva Brut Nature Sparkling
Castellroig Sabaté I Coca Reserva Familiar Xarel·lo
Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Sparkling
Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Sparkling
Llopart Leopardi Brut Nature Sparkling
Raventós Blanc de Nit Sparkling (which incorporates a bit of my favorite regional varietal, Monastrell to create the perfect pink sparkling wine)
Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva Brut Nature
Main photo: Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.
In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.
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But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.
But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.
But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.
To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.
Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.
Experiencing Monastrell at its source
During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.
As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.
Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50% Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.
Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.
Main photo: Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck