Thursday, January 10, 2008

Good things from Catalonia

Just before Christmas I was in Barcelona. I had a couple of things on my shopping list, one being some good Iberian jamón and the other being a nice bottle of Pedro Ximenez sherry. It’s always lovely when you buy these things from people who really care about what they are selling you. Yes, the jamón was the most expensive in the jamóneria, but it tasted like silk, and the expression on my face made the jolly round jamónista break into laughter. And I did taste about four others just to make sure.

I like sherry, but I’m of the manzanilla disposition, dry with a salty zephyr of the sea somewhere, and a bowl of almonds. I had never actually tasted a Pedro Ximenez (named for the grape, it’s not a brand). So we went off to a wine shop in the barrio where my daughter lives. The barn like building had wooden floorboards dark with age and its gloom was increased by shelves stacked high up the walls with bottles, cases piled in the middle so only one person could pass, and along one wall big wooden wine barrels. The only light came from the open doorway and there was a constant stream of pushy old ladies with plastic bottles to be filled from the barrels.

We found a few bottles of PX and asked for advice. It’s not cheap, this stuff. Some of it is very expensive indeed and the assistant felt it was a bit too special for us! So we made our choice and he went out the back to get the bottle, returning with an additional one. He explained that this second bottle was a bit more expensive than our chosen one, and held slightly less – 500 ml as opposed to 750 – but it was of a higher quality and he thought we would like it. Never was a truer word spoken. If you ever get the chance to buy a bottle of this you will not regret it. It’s called La Sacristía de Romate

To call this elixir sweet is to completely miss the point. Dark brown and concentrated, it tastes like fudge in a bottle, with overtones of chocolate and coffee and raisins. As a pudding wine it more or less is the pudding! I was delighted to see that on Christmas Day people who don’t ordinarily drink sweet wine reached for the bottle for second helpings with alacrity.

It was just as we were about to pay for the sherry that I caught sight of a hand chalked sign on a slate on the wall. It was notifying customers that the new Catalonian Siurana oil was available. What a piece of luck! This was mid December, so it was pretty much hot, or in fact cold, off the presses.

I don’t know why we don’t make more of a fuss about oil. We are quite happy to pay a whole lot of money for it, but I don’t know anybody who actually tastes the stuff in the bottle. Try it. Taste a teaspoon, all by itself, not with bread. If you haven’t bought a bottle since November it will be from the 2006/7 harvest and by now it will be old and stale – in fact the correct word is rancid, which seems a bit strong but there you are. Anything from the most recent harvest will have a best-before date of 2009.

There are hundreds of different kinds of olives, and my favourite just happens to be the little Arbequina, which is what the Siurana oil is made from. The new oil, from the early part of the harvest, is green and grassy fresh, fruity, clean and supple, with just a hint of pepperiness at the end, half way down your throat. I quite like that peppery kick in oil, as long as it isn’t accompanied by bitterness. Later pickings give oil that is soft and golden, smooth and almost sweet but never bitter. Truly the most delicious of oils to my mind.

A great book about olive oil, with notes about tastings, regions and producers is Olive Oil by Charles Quest-Ritson, part of the Eye Witness Companions series from Dorling Kindersley . This really is a terrific piece of work; just opening it at random I came across a note that tells me that fresh olive oil contains a chemical that works like ibuprofen – I didn’t know that! If you are at all interested in the amazing variety of olives that the world produces you will find this book fascinating.

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