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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

No Bull

Dry Wine, Sweet Time
Madrid in 24 Hours
By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
One of my most exciting days ever was in Madrid when, within 24 hours and accompanied by a friend, I saw a bullfight, ate paella marinara with a magnificent Rioja tinto, and saw a Flamenco show at the famous coral de las Morrerias –- a famous tablado flamenco, club that was owned by a childhood friend.

I left Chicago for Madrid on a Friday night and was met in Madrid by an old friend on Saturday morning. I went to the hotel and napped for a few hours. I wanted to make sure I did not get caught in a jet-lag cycle. And by bull fight time I was ready to go. We went to a tapas place that offered my favourite -- Angulas al Ajillo and had a dry sherry, Tio Pepe. What a way to start a day. We discussed the next 24 hours.

I grew up in Mexico City, and my parents took me often to the bullfights. I appreciate them now, and didn't when I was young. But I did to see 'El Cordobes' do a Mano-a-Mano with Carlos Arruza in the Plaza de Toros de Mexico. As a young, impressionable person, I loved Spain and everything about it, as I loved Mexico and the United States of America. Spain in Mexico was the Madre Patria -– the motherland of Mexico and Latin America. To see the tussle between Spain and Mexico, or Mexico and the USA, and or the USA and Britain was not that transparent when I was growing up. All the countries were equal, and we were proud to be part of their history.

Luckily for me in Mexico City, I went to bullfights often, and did not need to read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon to enjoy the fiesta taurina. I already had taken many of my U.S. relatives and had to explain the process. I took roommates from prep school and college.

I loved the art form of los toros, and stepping into Madrid’s great plaza that day long ago was a dream come true. My friend Giuseppe had moved from New York to his home town Madrid and had set up a great weekend for me.

Since we already had a relationship from New York that included Italian and French food, I was going to see Spanish culture from a different perspective. From a wine point of view, we know we already liked white and red Bordeaux, and white and red Tuscan reds, but the treat today was exploring the Spanish Rioja reserves (the Tempranillo varietal). We also would savour the dry white sherries: Fino and Manzanilla Sherries that would go with the tapas. The white wine would be the ALBARIÑO and the red TEMPRANILLO; the sherries were key for the tapas. Famous sherries are a dry white that come from Jerez de la Frontera. The digestive drinks of this region such as brandy are mostly not known outside of Spain and Spanish-speaking countries.

There was an unwritten protocol: light first and dark and heavier later. So in this case we started by having light snacks with appetizer food. So the day's feast started with light food and beverages. Sherries can be confusing to some wine-drinking Americans because the white dry sherry is a Spanish Appertivo and the English prefer the Amontillado and Oloroso which is a dessert wine. Giuseppe had been one of my first food and wine mentors, and now he was going to open up the world of food and wine of Spain. I had to remember rule No. 1, do not look for the similarities and focus on the differences. So everything started on the edge of differences, and everyone I talked to avoided saying anything about similarities

A tapas sherry is a Fino or Manzanilla dry sherry, chilled and served from a refrigerator cold bottle and served in a 'chato' glass. Fino is Jerez de La Frontera and Manzanilla is from. Sanlucar de Barrameda. Not to confuse you, these sherries can change over time by ageing and transform into darker colours and nuttier taste. The most popular drink is a Fino or a Manzanilla. A tapas drink involves a shared environment. These small little servings are appetizers. The history must go back in history to the Mediterranean cultures and Arab roots of Spain. Unless one is a tourist as I was that day, there is no formal wine tasting. Just little snacks followed by sherry. And sherry is not required as the only drink, as some have white or red vino de mesa (table wine) or beer. My mentors taught me with sherry fino. The Spanish say, 'Para chupar los dedos.' ('Suck your fingers,' or 'Finger licking good'). Calamares fritos are comparable to the Italian calamari, but also come in servings as charcoal-grilled calamares or mixed in their blood and served with rice as calamares en su tinta, in a meat mixture in the rice.

My favourites tapas are:

Angulas al Ajillo -- baby eels in olive oil, garlic and red chili pod serving.

Gambas al Ajillo -– which are large shrimp with claws, olive oil and red chili pods.

And Pinchos Morruños -– lamb marinated in spicy herbs, charcoaled and served on skewers.

Tapas places specialize in specific dishes. If you are going to dine later after 11 p.m. be careful not to to be too full as dinner can be huge.

We had taxied and walked down to the Plaza de Toros La Venta and were quite eager to get to the bull ring. We had arranged with hotel consejero for seats in the sombra (shaded) section. (Seats are either 'sombra' or 'sol' (sunny). The afternoon sun in Spain can be harsh, but you pay less. Before the start, there is the customary beer, coffee, and or 'cognac,' Spanish brandy, but called after the French Cognac region. We kept cool with beer.

We found ourselves back in the Plaza Mayor (the main square, where every geopgraphical measurement starts in Spain). We had more tapas. We had reservations at the Corral de Las Morrerias, the Moorish center. And were scheduled to have supper at 11 and watch a Flamenco show. We had a beautiful table reserved by the consejero.

We had a white wine with the first course, which was the celebrated Sopa de Ajo. A wonderful potage that simmered with fresh garlic and Spanish bread that looks like French bread. but called pan de agua. This was the first time I had an ALBARIÑO, which is from Northern Spain, Galicia, a Celtic part of Spain. It is a dry white with a citrus component that goes well with garlic (as does Manzanilla sherry). This is not a complicated wine, just dry and citrus and cleans you palate.

We had the national dish of Valencia, paella, but we had seafood (marinara) instead of Valencia (sausage, rabbit, and chicken). The hard-to-get vino tinto, CVNE Reserva 1961 was available and we ordered that. In Spain this was considered Spain’s best red. Of course that old adage is true every country has the best wine, but I must say this wine was exceptional. What is unique about this wine is that it comes from a wine Co-op. in Rioja, a wine district that produces many Greats. CVNE stands for Cooperativa Vinícola del Norte de España. To my amateur tongue this was a great wine. Deep, silky, raspberries and peppery. This will compete with a Cabernet Sauvignon from France, California, Australia, and Chile.

This was a great experience as we waited for the show.

During the show we drank more red wine from a 'bota' (goats hide sewn into boot with a spout) or a porrón. One must squirt the bota or boot like wine container and have the wine shoot into your open mouth. The glass flask is called a porrón and it is considered as a wine container that must be started close to your open mouth and eventually pulled out arms length. I love wine and Flamenco.

The programme for that night came out and I saw that the Flamenco Squad was headed by Lucero Tena. I said I know her! I grew up in Mexico City, and she went to the American School in Mexico City. She is my sister’s classmate and a friend! The show started and lasted an hour plus. I had scribbled a note to the captain to give to Lucero. I told Lucero that I was Susie Alonzo’s brother and here in Madrid on business and I wanted to say hello. At the end of the show, she read the note and came over to the table with her mother and troupe. We laughed and reminisced ever so briefly. At the end she gave us a cassette and vinyl of her music. She offered an after-diner drink –- a famous Spanish Brandy called LEPANTO. This already was one of my favourites, and appreciated tremendously.

The American School in Mexico was a bi-lingual endeavour that prepared students to go back to the United States as if they had gone to school in any American city. As for Spanish, they complied with the law, teaching grade school in Spanish, and everyone had to pass to be certified.

The students came from all over the U.S.A. and from Europe and Asia, and their parents were in the diplomatic corps or in business. Many Mexican students had parents who left Europe before and during the Second World War. It was a great community, and we all felt like a family and related to each other. We were fluent in both cultures and languages. In school, we learned about English and American history and, in Spanish, we learned about Mexican and Spanish history.

Lucero’s family had come to Mexico during the Spanish Revolution when the King was deposed and Franco took power. Spaniards who did not favour Franco left Spain for Cuba, Mexico, Chile, or Argentina. Before going away to school as kids we would go to a Spanish night club in Mexico City to view flamenco and partake in wine.

By 1:30 a.m., the show was over and we called it a night. Great friends. Delicious food, and flavourful wine. Que más quieres? Quieres más?