Friday, May 28, 2021

The Queen of Almonds

                              Marcona almonds are one of Spain's regal gifts to the culinary world  

In honor of Wine-Knows' upcoming autumn trip to Spain, this is the last segment of May's blog on Spain's wine and food.  If there ever was a royal family of nuts, Marcona almonds would certainly be high on the list for succession to the throne.  While Marconas haven’t made it into Wikipedia as a separate line item (yet), Costco & Trader Joe’s can’t keep them in stock.  If it weren’t for their steep price tag, I imagine there would be huge shortages.

What makes these regal Marconas so irresistible?    Although they look somewhat like an almond (but are more round and flat), it’s their buttery taste that seduces.   This nut is also a tad sweeter than the standard almond.  Marcona’s silky texture also entices, reminiscent of something between a cashew and a macadamia.  It is also less dry and has a creamy mouth-feel.

Marcona dusted scallops:  a dish worthy of royalty 

While is California is the world’s biggest almond producer, it is Spain that leads in the production of the noble Marcona.  (Although the origin of the Marcona almond is unknown, the traditional almond tree can be traced to Iran.)   Today Spain cultivates >100 different types of almonds, but its Marconas are one of the most prized.  Grown along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Marconas are difficult because they produce significantly less than the typical almond tree, and also they are picked in February so are at risk of freezing temperatures.

                  In Spain Marconas are often used in the country's special nougats & cakes

In the US market, Marconas are simply blanched, roasted, dusted with sea salt, and tossed with enough EVOO to give them an alluring sheen.   In Spain, however, Marconas are often used in sweets.   The most typical sweet version is the country’s popular type of nougat, although Marconas can also appear in Spanish cakes. 

Regardless of preparation, the Queen of Almonds can be very addictive so pay attention!

Viva Espana!

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Making of a Sherry

                                     Sherry's unique Solera system operates on gravity flow

Last week on this blog two different types of dry Sherry were discussed.  Produced only in a limited geographical area of southwest Spain not far from Gibraltar, Sherry is different from other wine because of its “solera” system.   Think of the solera  as a vertical system where wine can be transferred via gravity flow.

To understand the process of making a sherry we must first start with the “base wine.”  Sherry begins as a regular wine made from the white Palomino grape.  The wine is initially aged for the first few years in contact with the yeasts left over from its fermentation.  These yeasts float to the top and create a layer called “flor.”  This flor cap creates a barrier to prevent oxygenation, and also gives the wine below it many flavors.

                     Dead yeasts from fermentation top the sherry in the base wine stage

Once the base wine goes through the initial aging with the flor of yeasts, it is then transferred to a holding area we’ll call the “nursery.”   (The flor is not transferred but remains behind.)  The nursery then babysits the wine until it’s ready for transfer to the the very top layer of the usually four tier Solera system.

To understand the Solera system, we’re now going to move from its top fourth level to the very bottom tier.   Solera in Spanish means "on the ground."  The very bottom level of the Solera system is a mixture of the wines that have been passed down through the varying levels bit by bit:  from the fourth level to the third, then to the second layer, and finally to the bottom final level.   The bottom ground level of the Solera is from where the finished sherry comes.  It is important, however, to note that the bottom level casks are not emptied.  Only a small amount of the cask is removed from the "ground floor."  After this removal, the bottom layer is then topped off with wine from the levels above.

      Some Sherry bodegas don't have verticality so must transfer the wine between levels by hand

What is removed from the lowest level of the Solera system for bottling, is then replaced from the above level three.   This third tier is then replaced with wine from the second tier.  Likewise, Sherry from the first level of the Solera is allowed to flow into level two.   Finally, a small amount of Sherry that has been patiently waiting in the nursery is permitted to flow into tier one of the Solera.

                    The solera system has been used to make Sherry since the 18th century

The bottle of Sherry that is ready for the consumer, hence, is a combination of all tiers of the Solera system, having been passed down slowly ounce by ounce from the nursery through all the levels.  In summary, the solera system is a unique form of aging, as well as a form of blending.   This system is unique and is only used to create Sherry.

Want to see the solera system in action?   Come with Wine-Knows in October to visit the Sherry wine countryside, along with Seville and Granada.



Friday, May 14, 2021

Sherry---No Longer Your Grandmother’s Wine

                                   A dry Sherry is a perfect pairing for pre-dinner nibbles 

This is a the second article in May's series on Spain.  It’s a back to the future story to do with Sherry:  the wines of the country's Sherry region are coming back into fashion.  But, these are not the insipid sweet wines of yesteryear enjoyed at the end of a meal with a piece of gingerbread or fruitcake.  Instead, the new Sherry is bone dry and is often taken as an aperitif to begin a meal.  Be advised, however, that while Sherry is made in several styles (varying from dry to sweet),  this article discusses only dry Sherry that is aged under a top cap of yeasts.

                      The yeast cap both protects Sherry from oxidation & gives it flavors

Sherry is a distinctive wine made from the white Palomino grape in the southwest of Spain near Seville.  The process of making Sherry is quite different from that of regular wine (next week’s blog will address this unusual process).  Suffice to say that Sherry is aged under a protective film of its own fermentation yeasts that have floated to the top of the barrel.  This “cap” of yeast protects the wine from oxidation, but it also gives flavors to the wine.

These dry aperitif Sherries are called fino and manzanillo.  The fino style, offering bread-like notes (influenced by aging under the cap of yeast), is a relatively  simple Sherry.  Finos offer a delicate bouquet often with almond nuances and savory herbs.  Served chilled, fino is a good, inexpensive introduction to a dry Sherry.

                                     Wine-Knows will visit the top Sherry producer in Spain

Manzanillo sherry is also dry, and like fino, it is aged under a cap of yeast.  The difference is that manzanillo is made in a different part of the Sherry region.  The special climatic conditions of the area, situated at the mouth of a river, favor the formation of a special kind of yeast which gives the wine its unique characteristic.  In addition to flavors contributed by the yeast (e.g. brioche, freshly-baked bread), manzanillo sherry also serves up an almond-like profile, and savory flavors such as camoumille.

Summer is quickly approaching---why not forgo the usual glass of Rosé and try a refreshing dry fino or manzanillo?   Sherry doesn’t deliver the usual uncomplicated charm of a Rosé.  It’s a bit more serious.  For wine-lovers, a dry Sherry can be the perfect way to begin the evening’s festivities.

Jerez de la Frontera, the city of Sherry, offers a stunning backdrop for its wines

There are two slots available on Wine-Knows’ tour to Spain this October.  In addition to Granada and Seville, we’ll be visiting Spain’s premier producer of Sherry.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Spain’s Edible Art: Paella

         A private chef will make paella at the Mallorcan villa Wine-Knows has leased this September 

The month of May on this Blog is being devoted to the foods and wines of Spain.  Many travelers would consider paella Spain's national dish, but most Spaniards would disagree.  Paella is from the southern part of the country near the Mediterranean coast, and is typically only seen on menus in the south.  (Yes, it's true that some northern tourists restaurants serve paella because of its popularity, but they are the exception).   The city of Valencia, located nearly midpoint on Spain's Mediterranean seaboard, is thought to have been ground zero for paella's humble origin.  Wine-Knows will have our first bite of paella on the island of Mallorca, located just off the coast from Valencia.

The Moors had a profound influence on Spain's architecture & gastronomy

Although created in Spain, paella would not be possible were it not for the Moors.  These north African Berbers invaded Spain in the 700's and ruled the country for nearly 800 years.  The Moors brought with them rice (the Spanish word for rice, arroz, is actually an Arabic word).  They also brought with them the knowledge regarding rice-farming.  The city of Valencia was one of the first coastal cities occupied by the Moors.  Valencia's surrounding wetlands proved to be a perfect spot for growing rice.  But, the Moors didn't stop there.  They also brought another signature ingredient for paella:  saffron.

Paella began in Valencia as a dish for the peasants who worked the nearby rice fields.  Cooked as a mid-day meal for workers over an open fire, paella contained what was available on the land:  rabbit, chicken, duck, snails, and green beans.  Saffron was used to flavor and color the dish, along with olive oil and broth from the cooking of the poultry. 

                       Seafood paella is especially popular on the island of Mallorca

Southern Spain's famous dish takes its name from the wide, shallow traditional pan that was used to cook it in the fields of Valencia.  (Paella actually means frying pan.)  Paella Valenciana ("in the style of Valencia"), today remains one of the most popular versions of the dish, and today still closely parallels the original recipe served to the rural laborers of centuries-past.   Seafood paella is another favorite---shrimps, clams, mussels, and squid replace poultry, and a seafood broth stands in for the poultry stock.  Saffron is used in broth.

Wine-Knows will be visiting southern Spain's Mediterranean where it all began.  In addition to Mallorca island, we'll also tour the don't-miss southern cities of Seville and Granada---both architectural Moorish gems.  There are only 2 spots remaining.