Wednesday, December 31, 2008

400 Bloggers Celebrate Quebec City’s 400th Anniversary

Or at least it’s hoped that 400 bloggers will toast & post, as it were. So I’ll join the celebration, and a worthy one at that. I hope that readers of this blog have already viewed my video from the Bordeaux Wine Festival, in which 400 French cowboys & girls performed line dancing in a salute to Quebec’s anniversary.
But getting more personal, I have fond memories of a trip to Quebec about nine years ago. For anyone whose world is rocked by history, architecture, fine dining, and all-out charm, Quebec City fits the bill. It’s as close as you can get to a trip to Europe without crossing the Atlantic. A place to practice your French, enjoy delicious cuisine, and amble around winding cobblestone streets of the old city.
My husband and I were there in the depths of winter, a time when hotel prices had dropped and the cafes and restaurants welcomed us warmly. A frigid hike around the spectacular Montmorcey Falls was a memorable outing. But mostly, we just soaked up the atmosphere. This was one of our first trips sans kids, and we treated ourselves to the luxury of the iconic Chateau Frontenac, a magnificent French-style edifice positioned high on a hillside overlooking the city.
I’m sure I’ll visit Quebec City again in the future, and when I do, I’ll also look into the emerging wine region there.
Happy New Year to all my friends, fellow bloggers and readers! Et bon anniversaire à Quebec City!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Perfect Pairing: Monastrell & Treats from Despaña

For Christmas, my husband gifted me three Spanish wines that I had never tried before. The first was a Juan Gil Monastrell -- a wine with lots of oomph. The grapes grow on 40 year old vines in the Jumilla region of southeastern Spain. This deep purple-red wine has lots of character: there is a great deal of ripe black fruit flavor, coupled with ample spice. It really opened up in the second glass, when I detected intriguing aromas, including a sweet caramel note—perhaps from being aged 12 months in French oak. The wine stood up to pizza I was eating just fine, and I’m sure it would work with other spicy fare. I’ve since learned that the monastrell grape is the same as mouvedere, which is used in France and elsewhere. I’m not very conversant with this variety, but I likened it to a big Zinfandel—high in alcohol (14.5), rich, and robust.
Planning a small tapas party for later in the week, I’ve been on a mission to hunt down recipes and gather provisions. This led me on a search for authentic Spanish ham—not an easy task! Luckily, I work mere minutes from Manhattan, where Despaña (literally “from Spain”) stocks all manner of Spanish goodies. They import products from one of the only producers of Jamon Iberico who is allowed to sell products in the U.S., because he has converted his farm to comply with U.S. Agricultural standards. That’s good for us, but bad for our wallets—the treasured sweet, salty, tender ham, made from black-hooved pigs who feed only on fallen acorns—sells for…steady now…$159 a pound!! Luckily, they slice the ham very thin, and will sell you just a couple slices if you like. I went with my entire clan into the city yesterday and we were charmed by the store on Broome Street (close to the tourist wonderland of Little Italy).
There were olive oils and vinegars and pates and olives to sample, but, best of all, they have a little take out counter and a small seating area in the back that serves authentic chocolate and churros. For about $16.00, four of us enjoyed small cups of the richest hot chocolate and a plate of 8 churros, plain except for a sprinkling of sugar. Then I introduced my children to the sweet joy of dipping churros into the piping hot chocolate.
I bought winding strings of bright orange chorizo, which I’ll slice into individual servings and only garnish with a toothpick, and a fat log of a deep purple sausage that I’ll serve sliced on country bread. Later in the week, a Manhattanite friend will pop into Despaña and pick up some of the wonderful jamon for the gathering.
I can’t wait to try more of my Spanish wine with authentic Iberian treats. Salut!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stateside, Choose Xunta for Tapas

It’s been exactly one week since I left Spain and my appetite for its food, wine, and spirit has not diminished. So it was with great enthusiasm that I agreed with fellow writing group member and actor Gregory Waller when he suggested Xunta for tapas last night.
After an evening of critiquing each other’s work and reviewing the progress we made in 2008, my writer’s group descended from our cozy upstairs enclave at Solas and headed east on 9th Street. New York was buzzing on this mild Sunday night, but, Xunta was empty. Was it closed?
No need to worry! We poked our heads in and were warmly welcomed. The place was ours, and we choose a rustic wooden hightop and stools near a huge map of Espagne. I proceeded to trace my recent travel route with my index finger for my fellow writers.
Xunta is pronounced Shunta. This is from Galego--a language spoke in Galicia, a remote region in the far northwest of Spain above Portugal. There’s a map of Galicia on the wall, too, so clearly the restaurant has a Galician connection.
We turned our attention to the long, laminated menu crammed with dozens of tapas—not Americanized versions, but true Spanish treats like pulpo and croquettes. We ordered a good assortment: white asparagus in vinegar adorned with a pretty slice of roasted red pepper (a little bland), manchego with quince paste (the sweet quince balanced the salty cheese nicely), green olives stuffed with anchoivy paste (I never saw the stuffing, but these were tasty nonetheless), and sweet and savory Iberian ham slices, all served with slices of dense country bread that we rubbed in pools of olive oil on our plates.
We washed down the tapas with a bottle of Crianza. This one was a 2004 Diez Caballero, a Tempranillo from El Ciego in the Rioja Alavesa, in the northwest of the Rioja region. As a Crianza, this wine has, by law, seen at least 12 months in an oak barrel, as well as additional bottle aging. It’s released three years after harvest. I detected French oak on the nose and suspected there might be American oak as well. Checking their website today I found that this is in fact the case. The wine had good fruit and substantial tannins for a Tempranillo—this one really dried the mouth on the finish. During my time in Ribera del Duero and Rioja, I found that the barrel chosen for aging was one of the factors, in addition to age, that changed the nature of the fruity Tempranillo grape substantially. There were some winemakers devoted to French oak, some swore by American, and then there were those who mixed.
As my friends and I lingered over the food and wine, we talked about life, travel, books and more. Then we raised our simple juice glasses filled with rich red wine and toasted each other, the end of a year of writing, and the holidays.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Five Things I learned in Spain

The landscape is incredibly rugged. I saw mountains—jagged ones, softly curving ones, ones piled with lumpy rocks, and, most spectacularly, snow-covered majestic peaks.
The boots are to die for. On the Madrid metro, I couldn’t stop lusting after all the beautiful boots on every woman—and even some girls—I saw. Buttery brown leather, sleek black with high heels, pointy-toed, frilled, buckled, tasseled and tied.
Tapas rule. I’ve been to many a party where the hors d’oeuvres were amazing and the main course a snoozer. The tapas life means never having to be bored by the main course food. I enjoyed making a meal on tapas crawls throughout Spanish cities.
The Priorat is an amazing region. This landscape of painted hills, plunging valleys and twisting mountain roads is truly breathtaking. And the wine-making is exciting here. I stopped in Buil y Gine and, after having a breezy tour of their multi-level winery, tasted three red wines that couldn’t have been more different—a young tarty one, a purple-hued, jammy red with an intriguing whiff of cloves on the finish (this one from Montsant, a different but nearby region), and an earthy red that was tinged brown and had that characteristic earthiness and minerality from the stones that characterize this region.
Barcelona feels like home. During my weekend in Barcelona, I felt like I was in a Spanish-flavored New York City. This most international of Spanish destinations has streets teaming with both tourists and locals and has a racing heartbeat that rivals the Big Apple.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Live from Logrono, Spain

This is day 6 for me in Spain, and it´s been an incredible journey so far. There will be photos to post later of the great folks I´ve met and things I´ve seen. First impressions: Loved Madrid, it´s a grand capital with wide avenues and graceful architecture. The Prado is beautiful and I loved exploring the galleries, like my college art history class come to life. So far the advice I have gotten from Ryan and Gabriella of Catavino has been spot on. Ryan told me to head to a specific street in the city for tapas and sure enough, they were great and the scene was lively. I met three fun Madridlenas and enjoyed a debate with one about French vs. American oak. I still prefer French, but like when it is not too heavily applied, i.e., not all new oak, and sure mix in some American too.
Driving up from Madrid I was stunned to see snow-covered mountains. My next stop was Aranda de Duero in the Ribera del Duero wine region. This is a small town that has seen way better days. Even the historic archtitecture is crumbling. However, it has lots of bars and restaurants, especially ones that serve the speciality of the area, roast baby lamb, a juicy, super tender dish that pairs so well with the Ribera del Dueros. While in the area, I had the good fortune to have a personal tour of Abadia Retuerta, a sensational modern winery where the wine is truly treated like gold. Nothing every shakes up the wine, no pumping here, every process is acheived through ingenious operations that allow gravity to remove the wine from the tanks and barrels.
I spent the afternoon in Valladolid a lovely city with so many interesting styles of architecture represented that it should be on every aspiring architect´s list of places to visit-I saw a baroque university, a Spanish gothic church, a palace with a platteresque window and more.
Driving out of the area, I was advised to avoid the shorter route as the snow was bad there. Snow? Oh, yeah, 3 hours of driving in it to get to Rioja. And in the mountains. Mountains with jagged black rocks looking down menancingly at me in my little car. Then, when the driving should have gotten better, I got thoroughly lost in Logrono. Thanks to my Iphone´s GPS, I finally made it to my hotel. I´ve grown to like this town very much, which is a stop on the Pilgrim´s route to Compostala. Well, apologies for the typos, etc., it´s rough blogging from the road.