© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

 

© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Articles in Spirits and fortified wine category

Bloody Mary mincepots

Reading the recent discussion on perfect cottage pie in The Guardian, I was reminded that I hadn't made one for decades, so I put together a mix and let it settle. You may take your cue from the article, or from your memory: I used a rather higher proportion of meat (minced lean lamb), with carrot, mushroom, onion and parsnip all chopped to 4mm cubes.

But when I came to divide out the cooked mix into individual portions, I made sure I had a little left over: enough to half-fill a ramekin per person. I strengthened the tomato purée and Worcestershire sauce a bit, and heated up the mix. As soon as it was dolloped into the warmed ramekins, I added to each 5ml lime juice and 10ml bison-grass vodka. Serve immediately: an outstanding left-field amuse-bouche, and just right for these cooler nights.

The rehabilitation of sherry

“Sherry, sir?”
“Better make it two, Jeeves. Unless I’m much mistaken, that’s Aunt Agatha’s carriage just drawn up.”
“Very good, sir. I shall endeavour to intimate your absence, but Mrs Gregson does have rather a tenacious character.”
“Indeed, Jeeves. What ho!”

Despite the extraordinary value for money that it can represent, sherry remains a vastly underrated drink in this country. Many have noted this but the resistance still continues. Part of the problem is what I shall call its persistent Woosterification. Whether in sweetened form or “sophisticated” dry, sherry remains lodged firmly in most people’s minds as merely a suitable tipple to be offered to the vicar, maiden aunts or sundry other casual callers. All right — it just might make the status of apéritif, or even (daring, this!) stray into permissibility alongside the odd soup course. Otherwise, as a food wine — toodle-pip and all that — forget it. What ho! Generations of Spaniards have obviously been sorely misled … Our relegation of sherry to the gustatory sidelines looks at best narrow-minded and at worst downright stupid.

High time we reinstated sherry to the meal table, a particularly useful addition to the battery of wines available to the open-minded, enterprising food and wine matchmaker. What other wine comes in such a vast array of guises? Delicately salty Manzanilla; tangy and nutty, dry Amontillado (and its sweetened derivatives); appley Pasada; intense raisiny Oloroso (naturally dry or sweetened) — and this list is by no means exhaustive. Every shade of dry to sweet, light to dark, delicate to brooding. What other wine comes so well adapted to any number of food contexts? There’s a sherry for every course.

It just takes a little imagination and an understanding of the reactive elements within sherry, which is structured very differently from other white wines. Let’s consider what these are for a moment.

The key difference lies in the base dry wines which are all made from the Palomino grape (sweetened sherries often have an addition of Pedro Ximénes or Moscatel). Conventional white wines are structured both on acidity and primary fruit characteristics (and variations are then played on this fundamental constitution). The Palomino is naturally low in acidity and its fermentation in sherry proceeds basically by one of two routes, neither of which emphasise primary fruit. Olorosos proceed down an aerobic path accentuating nutty, oxidative flavour elements. Finos proceed anaerobically, protected from oxygen by their covering film of flor, which in feeding on the wine produces a range of tangy and aromatic esters and aldehydes. Sherries are also naturally significantly higher in alcohol than conventional white wines.

These are useful structural differences when it comes to pairing sherries with food. North African and Eastern Mediterranean cuisines bring with them a riot of flavours. Tagines, for instance, with their inclusion of dried fruits present quite a challenge to the wine drinker. Many commentators rush in quickly with the recommendation of a rosé (call me cynical, but I often take this as signal of defeat). Sherry, since it doesn’t conform to the conventional acid/sweetness counterpoint, is particularly adept at partnering this sort of mixture. It is not easily upset and maintains its own equilibrium much more easily — especially in the case of Amontillados or Olorosos where the wine has been further stabilised by controlled oxidation. The trick is to gauge the required weight of the wine so that its powerful presence doesn’t throw the food out of kilter.

Other north African dishes feature the use of preserved lemons. Their tart acidity, bitterness and saltiness pose a formidable challenge to most conventional wines (red or white), but their match with a dry Oloroso is magical, accentuating the wine’s glycerine-rich softness (it feels almost toffeed) leaving a long, creamy, raisiny mouthful. (A lighter match could be made with an Amontillado or perhaps a Pasada.) Since the sherry is not founded upon acidity or primary fruit, it again is largely immune to the upset that the lemons threaten.

Sherry of one sort or another is equally at home where other briny, tangy flavours are to the fore. An affinity with olives should come as no surprise bearing in mind their favoured status at the Tapas bar, so too capers which tend to mellow the wine’s flavours without diminishing them. Caper-sauced fish with Manzanilla or Fino would be a very interesting combination.

Salt-cured, air-dried hams also fall into the ambit of the potentially wine-challenging. Many wines develop metallic off-flavours in combination. Again this is a classic alliance of the tapas bar, flattering both participants. A glass of Fino will bring out the fruity characteristics of some slivers of prosciutto whilst its floral aspects in turn will come to the fore.

In exploring this, we’ve strayed back into Tapas bar territory. I no more want to restrict sherry to this environment than I do to Woosterland, so let’s consider that other aspect of sherry’s singular make-up — its high alcohol levels — and see where they take us.

Alcohol is a very useful attribute for matching a wine to anything rich. It provides the necessary weight and presence (which acidity alone does not) and cuts the richness admirably. Partnering a dry Oloroso to some oxtail is a revelation. The sherry takes on a particularly nutty character that seems entirely appropriate to the dish and is a perfect foil in terms of weight and palate cleansing. The same idea will work with a beef daube or something similar — a rich game casserole perhaps.

Duck, too, provides another interesting combination, with the nutty weight of both dry Amontillado and Oloroso working well in partnership. The Spanish have a couple of intriguing dishes of duck with olives (a magic combination with Amontillado as you would by now predict) and — more intriguing still — duck with dried figs. As with the Tagines mentioned earlier, dry Amontillados and Olorosos do admirable service in circumstances which otherwise might leave you scratching your head (the dish is surprisingly unsweet and doesn’t really require any sweetness in the wine.)

And do try sherry in combination with gutsy wild mushroom dishes: the woodsy-woodland flavours of Amontillado has a particular affinity. And I haven’t even talked about sherry alongside cheese (some wonderful combinations there) or the scope for matching sweet(ened) sherries with desserts. So much for you to try …

It’s time we dispensed with our prejudices about sherry and explored its potential a few steps further. One of the great things about sherry is that (apart from Fino and Manzanilla which really must be drunk very fresh) you can keep a bottle (or handy half) on the sideboard for a week or two (much longer for Olorosos) ready for any off-the-cuff experiments that happen to take your fancy. Now isn’t that enticing? Don’t get too squiffy.

Toodle-pip.

Sherries to try

Bodegas Argüeso San León Manzanilla Clásica: £6.99 per half from Philglas and Swiggot.
Beautifully crisp, appley, brine-tinged dry sherry from Sanlúcar de Barremada. Serve well chilled as an aperitif or partner with salty flavours. Magic with air-dried ham, salted almonds, olives, capers, salt cod, try also with light fish dishes or sauced chicken. Pure heaven alongside chicken with morels. Always buy fino or manzanilla by the half and consume within the day. Acceptable on the second day; distinctly dull thereafter.

Lustau Alcemenista Amontillado de Jerez, Solera Matured by Miguel Fontadez Florido: £11.50 per half from Harvey Nichols.
A lovely grapey nose gives way to darker raisiny flavours on the palate. Try serving lightly chilled to bring out its upnotes. A perfect pick me up, try it out with duck or rich red meat.

Waitrose Solera Jerezana Dry Oloroso Sherry, £7.99 per bottle from Waitrose.
Produced in collaboration with Lustau, this is rich and nutty with a deeply “roasted” character.

Lustau East India Solera Rich Oloroso: £8.99 per 50cl from Waitrose.

Waitrose deserve to be commended for keeping faith with sherry and stocking a range that displays a proper sense of the drink’s variety at a range of price points.

Whisky Show

We trailed the first ever London Whisky Show a few weeks ago. The calendar moved round, and QED sent an intrepid Englishman.

The Whisky Show 2009 threw up some eye-opening surprises. Sure, it offered the expected but very welcome opportunities to do some serious comparative tastings. There were vertical tastings aplenty of Scotch malts of different ages. And you could conduct regional comparisons of, say, what Islay has to offer, intriguingly presented at one stand in coded bottles that reminded me (in shape and label) of the Chemistry labs at school. Anybody for some Ci1? No? Then perhaps some Lp2? Maybe a spot of Pe? One learned that these were offerings fron Caol Ila, Laphraoig, and the mothballed Port Ellen, the idea being to encourage the consumer to reappraise on taste alone what they thought of the contents, rather than prejudging by brand name and declared age.

It was the entirely off-piste items, however, that were the most startling of all.

Best dram? Now, where might that be from? The Highlands? Islands? Try half way up a volcano in Japan.

The 1967 sherry barrel-aged Karuizawa elicited reverence from even the most stalwart of Scotchophiles. Its taste was quite literally breathtaking – and not simply because it came cask strength at 58.4%. From the moment you started to raise the glass, you knew you were in for something very special. A deep tawny amber in colour, it released a heady mix of plum pudding or Christmas cake to the nose – all the figgy, curranty dried fruits, the spices, the candied peel. On the palate, it realised all of its promise: a hall of mirrors complexity; a creaminess behind its kick of alcohol; a long, long, dry finish ... quite astonishing.

So how much might a bottle of this stunning amber nectar set you back? It's understandably rare. For the avid hunter, there may be a few bottles at The Whisky Exchange, though their site doesn't officially list it. Karu67 The bottle label has their stamp upon it (see picture), however, so it’s worth a try. As some sort of a guide, they list the 1973 at £150. This seems a bargain compared to the unreal price tags on some special bottlings.

I also tasted the 1976 and 1985 releases, which were both wonderful as well and reasonably priced.

From age to youth and on to the newly reopened Glenglassaugh (its history reads like that of a stategic fortified town, subject of a border dispute – like too many other distilleries, unfortunately). They were showing its 21-year-old bought-the-stock-when-we-bought-the-rest, a malt hitherto buried in commercial blends. It was its two new offerings, however, that were the most startling. The distillery of course has a problem: it's going to be years before it has any Scotch to offer. Part of its solution is to market a crystal clear eau-de-vie, The Spirit that dare not breathe its name.

I'd approached the stall to taste the traditional 21yo as Glenglassaugh was a name unknown to me so I was more than a little sceptical when offered this oddly incongruous looking sample. (There was pink one too, but more of that later). I don't know what I expected. Fire and brimstone? What I got took me back to a memorable tasting session in an Alsace eau-de-vie distillery some fifteen or twenty years ago. This was smooth and oh so fruity with distinct notes of Passacrassana pear — was it? — or Quetsch (a plum) — maybe? It was as delicious as it was elusive and, I think, an admirable innovation — or is that a return to tradition? Whiskies were drunk this way for ages before the benefits of maturation were understood. It comes at 50% abv and is available via Royal Mile Whiskies or The Whisky Exchange at just shy of £30. Oh yes, the pink thing. This was actually rather delicious too: a "whisky" eau de vie matured in Californian red wine barrels — hence the colour. As one would expect there was something distinctly vinous on the palate, which translated into raspberries with a supporting cast of summer pudding fruit nuances. Not quite so startling, but well worth a try: The spirit that blushes to say its name.

Diplo1 Third surprise of the tasting was not in any way shape or form at all a whisky: it came in fact from rum (the spirit, not the island off Mallaig). Or rather, two rums, the first Venezuelan and the other Guyanan. Quite what they were doing inside a Whisky Show is a moot point, but ...

The Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva has won a clutch of prestigious awards, and no wonder. Its ultra smooth, toffeed, spicy flavours lifted by a hint of orange zest were truly beguiling and its long, creamy sweet finish seemed to last forever. One could sip at this for hours. Strange that rum should originate in a hot climate when it seems so, so suited to being a winter comforter. The XM Royal from Guyana was quite different: buttery, raisiny, complex, with the unmistakable flavour of demerara sugar from which it is made. Its finish is amazingly long and very dry — apparently a trademark of the Guyanan style. Both of these rums are available from the Whisky Exchange: the XM Royal at £30.99, and the Diplomatico at around £35.

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