Some of you have been asking when we’re going to stop going on and on about France and get to some other wine-producing countries. Like Spain, for instance. And with good reason – Spain has great wines. I got to know more about them when I met some Spanish producers last month at the DC Wine and Food Festival. And I also learned about a wine and food expo in northern Spain that seemed like a good opportunity to get a little education and see if we could expand first vine’s portfolio south of the Pyrenees.
The Salón de la Alimentación was held March 15 – 17 in the city of Valladolid northwest of Madrid. Over 300 companies were represented, including about 100 wine producers and even more food companies, almost all from the provinces of Castille and León.
If you watched “The Tudors” you know that Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the daughter of Isabella of Castille (the same Isabella who launched Christopher Columbus). I’m fascinated by all that and so have read a fair amount about that time and Castille’s importance in Spanish history. But I didn’t know about the region’s rich agricultural and winemaking heritage, all of which makes the region’s slogan “Tierra de Sabor” (or Land of Flavor) particularly appropriate.
The wines, mostly from Ribera del Duero, were amazing. I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything I tasted, so I’ll save a discussion of the wines for another post. This time I want to talk a little about the food.
This was my first trip to Spain and my first immersion in Spanish food. I’m sure a lot of you have already been there – so sorry to sound like a breathless teenage fangirl, but what can I say? We’re lucky to have José Andrés and all his restaurants plus Taberna del Alabardero here in DC, but you’ll go broke eating at those places too often. As you’d expect, it’s fresher, cheaper, and better over there. I could probably write at least a dozen pages about the things I got to eat at restaurants and at the show, but I’m going to stick to two animals: sheep and pigs. I must confess I ate no seafood and almost no vegetables while I was there, so my apologies for the animal-centric nature of what follows.
Sheep revelation #1: Lechaza. Lechaza is milk-fed lamb, usually around two months old. Not eating grass means that the lamb doesn’t have that gamy flavor you find in older animals. Grilled Lechaza, simply prepared, is to me the very essence of lamb flavor. I can honestly say I’ve never had lamb that good anywhere else. (I can hear the objections from my friends in Provence as I write this, but it’s still true.)
Sheep revelation #2: Sheep’s milk ice cream. Oh. My. Goodness. One company at the show was giving out samples of it, both a soft version and a firmer ice cream. People were hanging around the soft ice cream dispenser because once they started handing it out the supply would only last about 5 minutes before they’d have to make more. It tastes a little like Mascarpone cheese, not as rich, but with a particular tang I haven’t had in anything else. Amazingly good. I have looked online for anyone here in the U.S. who makes it and haven’t found it so far. But if I can find sheep’s milk for sale, I’ll definitely try making it at home.*
Pig revelation #1: Jamón. I’m not going to pretend I know the difference between Serrano and Ibérico hams, although I’d like to learn. What amazed me is that you can have slices of ham from two different animals, cured in the same way, and they taste slightly different. I’m talking about slices carved in front of me from two hind legs, hooves intact and attached, side by side. (The on-the-hoof thing was a little disconcerting at first, but you get used to it – at least you know where the ham came from. The Spanish subsidiary of Oscar Mayer was also at the show with molded boneless specimens, but I didn’t try any of those.) Salty, earthy, rich, with a little buttery taste and creamy fat, there are few things like it in the world.
Pig revelation #2: The ubiquity. Some form of pork product is used as a condiment practically everywhere even if you’re not eating pork per se. Whether that’s the byproduct of the inquisition (prove you’re not Jewish or Muslim? Have a little pork!) or it evolved by less coercive means, pork is all over. And every bit of the non-cured pork I had was juicy and delicious.
As I said, I could go on and on. But what about a recipe after all my hoo-hah about the ingredients over there? I ate one dish you can certainly make at home, a big melty disk of grilled Provolone cheese. It’s not really Spanish, but an Argentine dish called Provoleta – I had it one night at a restaurant in Valladolid called Vinotinto (the word is one of the many local names for the Tempranillo grape). Since Argentina has a lot of Italian influence, the Provolone makes sense; and since Vinotinto is pretty much like an Argentine parillada place, I wasn’t surprised to see it there. What made this version different was the garlic-infused olive oil and the Spanish smoked paprika on top.
The first key to making this dish is to find some really nice aged Provolone. If you can, get it sliced off the log in about ½ to ¾-inch disks. The logs are about six inches in diameter, and once slice will serve four people as an appetizer with bread. The other important step is to stand the slices up on their edges in the fridge at least overnight, uncovered, so that the flat surfaces dry out a bit. That way when you grill, broil, or sear the cheese, the bottom will be soft but not completely gooey and it will all keep its shape. Any of these techniques will work for cooking (and it supposedly works on the grill without oozing through the grate), but if you want to be sure you’re not going to have quite such a sticky mess, I recommend searing the bottom in a cast iron, enameled, or all metal pan that can then go under the broiler to heat the top.
And what to serve? Well, we carry one Spanish wine at the moment, but I’m going to recommend our Maltese wines from Meridiana Wine Estate with the cheese. A big white and a big red for a cheese with a lot of flavor. We’ve put both the Isis Chardonnay ($16, formerly $22) and Melqart Cab/Merlot ($17, formerly $25) on sale this week – you can’t go wrong with either one!
* You could make it like “French” ice cream with eggs or egg yolks, but I think I’d try it without: Heat one cup of sheep’s milk with ¾ cup of sugar and a pinch of salt and stir until the sugar dissolves. (You might add the seeds of a vanilla bean or some vanilla extract, or not.) Stir in two more cups of cold sheep’s milk and refrigerate the mixture until it’s chilled, then freeze it in an ice cream freezer according to the machine’s directions.
(Four small servings or two large ones)
1 slice aged Provolone cheese, about ¾-inch thick and 6-7 inches in diameter (8-10 ounces)
3 tablespoons very good olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, or about ½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut into thin slices
Spanish smoked paprika, hot or sweet
The night before you plan to make this, stand the slice of cheese on its rounded side on a dish and let it sit, uncovered in the refrigerator overnight. This allows the flat surfaces of the cheese to dry out a little.
Add the oil, garlic, and oregano to a small saucepan, then place the pan over low heat and cook, swirling occasionally, until the garlic is golden but not brown. Take the pan off the heat and pour the contents into a small bowl. Let it sit for 10 minutes to cool a little, then strain out the garlic and oregano and set the oil aside.
Set an oven rack about six inches below the broiler and preheat the broiler to high. Put half the oil in a small skillet, preferably about the same size as the cheese slice – either cast iron, enameled cast iron, or all metal that can go under the broiler. Heat the skillet with the oil on medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Put the cheese slice in and cook for two minutes. Gently lift the cheese with a spatula and check the color – it should be a little more pliable than it was when you put it in the pan. You’re not looking for browning yet because the bottom of the cheese will continue to cook from the heat of the skillet. If it’s still pretty firm, let it cook for another minute.
Brush the remaining oil on top of the cheese and sprinkle with a little smoked paprika. Carefully – using a heavy but flexible potholder — put the skillet on the rack and broil until the cheese on top gets just a little brown (not always easy to see with the paprika on top, so you may have to pull it out and check). It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. You can either leave the cheese in the skillet to serve, or remove it from the pan with a big spatula and put it on a plate. Sprinkle with a little additional paprika and serve in the skillet with good bread.