Food and Wine Miscellany

On several occasions I have had good wines but not written, because there wasn’t enough of a story to make of a simple meal or tasting – but some of these experiences I don’t want to let pass, so here is a compilation of some recent bottles.

My partner in wine and dine here in Gaia is Fernando – I have mentioned him before as we attended the second night of Essência do Vinho together.  He is a Spaniard who settled here just a few weeks before I did, we met at the language school, though he has a year’s running start of me on Portuguese and a terrific gift for languages – five or six of them.

Downstairs of his flat is a tiny local family restaurant, nothing fancy, if tourists found it, they would probably turn up their noses and pass it by.  In early March we had some warm sunny weather, and Fernando called me one day to say they would be grilling fish, and I should come round for lunch.  So I did.  Big old barbecue set up outside, but we opted to sit inside to avoid the smoke.  We had grilled dourado – the shape of a mackerel, and a good size for one serving [nb:  just checked Charles Metcalfe’s marvellous Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal – he defines this as gilt-headed bream].  It’s grilled skin and all – slightly disconcerting to have those eyes staring up at you from your plate!  Fernando had to teach me the trick to get the flesh off the bones efficiently, it’s very bony – but excellent, the flesh very white and flaky and that slightly sweet salty flavour.  We had a bottle of vinho verde – no idea of provenance, grapes or maker, the label looked home made – but it was the perfect complement to that fish, crisp, cold, dry, pleasantly acidic, and with a very slight sensation of pétillance on the palate.  I think the bill came out around €6 each for fish with potatoes and salad, the bottle of wine, and one café for Fernando.

The following weekend they were going to be grilling steaks, so we made plans to return.  When I got there, Fernando said to come upstairs first – he had some sherry for me to try.  One of those perfect combinations I can still see and taste and smell in my mind:  another gloriously sunny day with a slightly cool breeze, sitting on Fernando’s tiny balcony which has a view of the Douro upriver from the railway bridge into Campanhã, a glass of ice cold Manzanilla and some cracked green olives.  The sherry had that yeasty flor scent that is not nearly so off-putting as champagne yeast scent, also whiffs of citrus, certainly lemon but I think also lime.  The palate followed through on the nose with a nuttiness coming into it.  The combination with the slightly bitter cracked green olives was perfect.

Then downstairs for a steak as big as the plate, more than I could eat, with potatoes and salad again.  Fernando brought a bottle of wine with us, a Tejo (new name for Ribatejo DOC) red – juicy red and black fruit, a bit rough and ready, but a good unpretentious and pleasurable match for that perfectly grilled steak.

After lunch we walked back to my flat – I had purchased bottles of the 10 year old tawnies from each Warre’s, Graham’s and Dow’s, because I wanted to compare and understand the different house styles for each.  Well, we opened the Warre’s Otima first, and one taste decided us not to bother with the other two that day.  I also had an array of cheeses, to try with the port and to begin to familiarise myself with Portuguese cheese.  Oh bliss.  The first was a Queijo da Serra da Estrela – which looks like a small squashed-flat yellowy basketball, but when you cut it open the most gorgeous aromatic pale yellow goo surges forth… very rich, creamy, sheep’s milk cheese.  The other two were goat’s cheeses, one a very cheap and cheerful slightly cured one with a texture and slight saltiness like feta, the other was a Queijo de Nisa, from the Alentejo, which has a very firm texture and a tough tan rind you have to carve off, very mature and dry, and not so salty.

Otima 10 year old has a really striking packaging – bit of a shock, all the Warre’s I have had previously was vintage, in the classic heavy almost black bottle.  Otima is in a really elegant attenuated clear bottle, to show off the gorgeous dark honey colour.  The wine is very smooth and well integrated – I had to think about it to realise what wonderful acidity it has, I was so enchanted by the silky smoothness and honey, caramel, orange peel and orange blossom flavours.  Really really lovely – and it worked with all three of the cheeses – none of them clashed with the character of the wine, even the salty fresh one worked as a good contrast, the two taste sensations pointed up rather than fought with one another.  We also had almonds and marmelada – this is a firm quince jelly sold in a brick shape (marmela is the Portuguese word for quince).  Only the marmelada was less than ideal with the wine, too similar in sweet-and-richness levels to enhance one another, though the marmelada was fantastic as a partner to the cheeses.  Also found the cheeses were better either on a soft white loaf from the bakery or the Nisa was firm enough to eat by itself – crisp wholemeal biscuits were a really bad choice, with both the cheeses and the wine.

That was a lovely five or six hours of gourmandising, a wonderful range of flavours, combinations, well paced, just about the ideal Sunday afternoon, I think!

This past weekend Fernando came back from a few days in Spain, and brought a friend with him to help out with his DIY – and mine too, bless.  When they finished at Fernando’s flat they came round to mine, and after Miguel put up a shower fixture for me, we settled down to visit and eat and drink.

I hauled out all the bottles which were my wages from the IWC last year, and we decided to try an Argentinean Malbec-Shiraz blend from the La Riojana Cooperative in Famatina Valley.  It’s a Fair Trade wine, and I couldn’t tell if “Ecologica” blazoned on the bottle was meant to be the name of the wine, or just further emphasis of its green credentials.  All three of us loved the really overtly strawberry nose, and I adored the colour – a very deep Burmese ruby.  Palate was rich red fruit, nothing fancy, and not much of a finish, but it was supple and very pleasant.  We also all agreed it wasn’t very Malbeccy – nor for that matter, very Shirazzy – none of the spicy notes I would have looked for, if anything it felt almost like a Merlot.

Monday evening they returned and we settled down again to serious conversation, wine and food.  First we finished a half bottle of white, the first half of which I had used for soup – a Quinta do Pinto Viognier, vinho regional Lisboa, 2008.  We all agreed on a rather striking nose of banana and other tropical fruits, the palate tropical fruit especially pineapple, citrus came up on a second wave in the mouth, and this had wonderful acidity.  My notes say “I’m craving a fatty white fish or some kind of Southeast Asian food.”

The second bottle was CARM 2008 Branco (Douro Superior)  – I didn’t note the grape varieties, it was a blend, I remember Verdelho and Rabigato but there are more.  This one had been in the fridge, so a cold nose, apple, mineral.  On the palate, the apple came through first together with citrus, mineral followed.  A lighter acidity than the previous.

The third bottle was a red – Cortes de Cima’s wine of that name, 2007, a blend of Syrah, Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Touriga Nacional.  This was a hit, we thoroughly enjoyed the red and black fruit, the finish, the lot.  Fernando commented his tongue felt awake again after that.

With all of this we worked through both white and whole meal loaves from the bakery, a big bowl of roasted garlic cloves, almost half a bottle of CARM’s Grande Escholha olive oil, and some parmesan biscuits I’d made.  The olive oil was good – a vibrant sulphuric pale green colour, very fruity but with a peppery note too.  And by the time we got to the red we needed more, so we opened up a tin of Spanish Paté de Jabugo, a truffled black pork paté – and oh was that fabulous with the Cortes de Cima.

Fernando is Spanish, Miguel is Argentinean, and I was trying to speak Portuguese as much as possible, though I got de-railed repeatedly when Miguel would be unsure what I meant, look over at Fernando who would translate into Spanish, and then the two of them would start teaching me the Castilian as well as Argentinean pronunciations of the relevant word or phrase… between the wine and the two varieties of Spanish my Portuguese may never be the same.  Fernando also called me out on my pronunciation, saying that I was definitely using a northern accent sometimes, rather than the “proper” Lisboa/Coimbra Portuguese we’ve been taught at school.

After all of that, we went out for a curry.  Yes, you read that right – there’s an excellent Indian restaurant just off Aliados on Rua da Fabrica, called Thali.  Don’t miss England a bit, now I’ve found a good curry house.

Have been cudgelling my brains all day, as I was mentally preparing this blog, what to use for a photo – a line-up of empty bottles didn’t seem too appealing, a photo of the wreckage of the kitchen just wouldn’t really adequately convey the hedonism of the evening without the all-pervading morning-after reek of roasted garlic.  So, you will have to rest your eyes on another view of the Douro, taken from Mateus Nicolau de Almeida’s Quinta do Monte Xisto at the end of March.  The extremely loose connection would be that CARM is based in the Douro Superior too – at Almendra, south of Foz Côa, so offstage back right from this photo.