I have said this before and I’ll say it again, nobody knows Spain like Gerry Dawes. I sincerely doubt that there is another American, and very few, if any, Spaniards can approach, let alone surpass his knowledge of the people, food, wine and culture of Spain. He has been frequenting the depths, breadths and heights of the country as a second home for nearly fifty years, leaving no stone, and especially no wine, unturned during that time. I have come to know him as a good friend over the ten years or so and have now had the pleasure to travel around Spain with him on a number of occasions, including last year, when he led my son and I on La Ruta del Ibérico, a tour of the major Jamón Ibérico de Bellota regions of Spain, which is to say the finest pork producing regions of the world. This year, Gerry and I did something a little different and no less unforgettable – we visited the finest wine regions of Spain, wining and dining like kings along the way.
Gerry is in the midst of unrolling a new Spanish wine importing company, The Spanish Artisan Wine & Spirits Group – Gerry Dawes Selections. With a life built around wine, both Spanish and otherwise, Gerry has long experience tasting, importing and selling wines from Spain and elsewhere in Europe as part of such major importers as Frederick Wildman, Vineyard Brands Robert Haas Selections, the legendary Gerald Asher at Mosswood and Winebow. He has long bemoaned the influence of Robert Parker on the wine world, espousing wines reflecting terroir with low alcohol, little to no oak and a strong acid backbone with lush fruit expressing the varietal origin of the grapes. For years, that had been a difficult battle as more and more of the global world of wine fell under the sway of Parker’s mantra of big, bold, and brutish wines of high alcohol, full extraction and low acid, all bound together by the unifying flavors of wood. Parker wines have their place and I enjoy drinking them now and again, but what I enjoy more than anything else is variety and choice. It had become more and more difficult to find wines from around the globe that weren’t just like every other wine from around the globe with so many winemakers falling for the siren song of the cash behind a Parker rating. While I would not wish to see that style of wine disappear completely, I welcome the renewed interest in wines with real, distinct personalities that provide nuance within varietals as well as within regions and real choice all around. It also so happens that many of these wines happen to, for the moment at least, be very affordable.
Our trip started in Barcelona, where we rented a car. This was a working trip for Gerry, which meant that it was a working trip for me as well, as pleasurable as it would generally be. We headed south out of Barcelona. Our first stop was in Tarragona, where we visited a producer of licores, Teichenné, with a flavorful line-up of potential interest to Gerry, who is looking to build a portfolio of Spanish licores to go along with his wines. The Crema Catalana and Turrón licores were particularly well balanced and tasty, even if they were not my particular preference for drinking.
Our next stop was in Valencia for lunch at a wonderful restaurant from which I have fond memories. Casa Montaña is a classic wine bar, once described by Quique Dacosta as his favorite restaurant in Spain. I can understand why. Located in the old part of the city, it is an atmospheric spot with delicious, traditional, yet contemporary Spanish food. We enjoyed bite after bite of relatively simple, but wonderful product including marinated tuna, beans, artichokes, jamón Ibérico, roasted potatoes, tomatoes, berberechos (cockles) and sepia a la plancha. We sat with Emiliano Garcia, the owner of the restaurant and one of Spain’s foremost wine experts and met with Marc Agliata who showed Gerry and I two outstanding licores under the name Federica. One was a bright and tasty Valencia Orange licor and the other was a Crema de Naranja. We were in the land of orange groves after all. (Casa Montaña Flick’r Photoset)
After lunch, we hopped back in the car to continue the long drive down to Alicante, where we paid a visit to Paco Torreblanca, his wife, Chelo, and their son, Jacob, at their taller and International Pastry School in the town of Petrer. We were treated to some cava and Paco’s fabulous and justly famous panettone as well as a personal tour of his production facility by Paco himself including an incredible 3-d food printer and other marvelous technological devices that allow larger scale production of the spectacular work of the man and his family.
Our final destination of the evening was the city of Alicante, where we checked into a lovely small hotel, Les Monges Palace, before alighting to Taberna del Gourmet, the award winning tapas bar of the whirlwind María José San Román and her daughter Geni Perramón San Román. There we enjoyed some stellar, fresh sea urchin, jamón, croquetas with a sensational aioli and wonderful gambas rojas de Denia a la plancha. These deepwater prawns are some of the most sensational one will find anywhere and these didn’t disappoint. In addition, Maria José, who dives into culinary projects with a fervor that ultimately benefits everyone, showed us her system for preserving the freshness of olive oil. Much like a wine preservation system, she keeps and dispenses oil from a machine that maintains a constant, cool temperature with no light or air to oxidize the oil. The results were amazing. She made her reputation as an expert on saffron, but has expanded it to olive oil (she did a presentation on olive oil at this year’s Madrid Fusión Congress) and most recently Spanish rice varieties and cooking methods. The woman has amazing energy and a wealth of knowledge as well as some of the finest restaurants in Spain. (Taberna del Gourmet Flick’r Photoset)
The next morning we awoke to the abundant sunshine of southern Spain and walked over to the main Alicante food market for a visit and a fateful breakfast at an outside bar. Gerry and I sat at the counter and ordered a couple of things that looked good including albondigas and sausages. When the albondigas arrived steaming from the microwave I dug into one. It was tasty, but still ice cold despite the external steam. The barman placed them back in the microwave and blasted them, this time successfully.
We proceeded to finish the breakfast and moved along to the market to see Gerry’s friend and master of mojama and other cured seafood products that date from Phoenician times, Vicente Leal, of the renowned Salazones Vicente Leal, with whom we shared a coffee and some lottery tickets Gerry purchased from a man who came by hawking them. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful seaside city, but it was time to move on. (Mercado Central de Alicante Flick’r Photoset)
Bodegas Salvador Poveda is a winery in Monóver in Alicante that produces a number of lovely wines that fit the Gerry Dawes style including a bright, delicious Rosado, Rosella, made from Monastrell grapes, and another made from Monastrell, of wonderfully intense character and history, aged in old barrels for years before it is released. This wine, Fondillón, is a masterpiece of the winemaker’s craft and was the first wine to travel around the world (with Magellan) and was mentioned by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. Thanks to the winery owner, Rafael Poveda Bernabé, I was lucky enough to taste the wine directly from a cask of the 1944. The tasting was accomplished in the style of tasting sherry with a caña dipped into the barrel and then poured into a glass. I also had the honor and pleasure of signing a barrel from my birth year. (Bodegas Salvador Poveda Flick’r Photoset)
From there, Gerry, myself and Rafa took some wines with us for a short drive to one of the finest arroz restaurants in Spain, Restaurante Elias in the small hamlet of Xinorlet. Unlike Valencia to the north, in Alicante, they don’t use the term paella. Instead, for the variety of dishes served, the term is simple, arroces, which just means rices. In this part of Spain, the classic arroz is one made in a thin layer with rabbit and snails cooked over a fire made with grape vine cuttings. The star of the meal was certainly the sensational arroz, but it was not alone in delighting us. We enjoyed grilled mushrooms, artichokes, snails and more along with some other wonderful, local specialties like a gazpacho unlike any other and a gachamiga, a special kind of bread often made by the shepherds in the fields. The icing on this particular cake, however, was a couple of house made licores including their Herbero de La Sierra de Mariola, a totally unique, delicious and haunting digestif made from wild, local mountain herbs and flowers and a sensuous and seductive Cantueso, made from thyme flowers. (Restaurante Elias Flick’r Photoset)
We left the restaurant feeling stuffed and satisfied and made our way to the evening’s hotel in the town of Cocentaina, the home of one of Spain’s best fine dining restaurants – chef Kiko Moya’s L’Escaleta. This was a meal that I had been looking forward to for some time. L’Escaleta is a true destination restaurant located in the Alicante countryside not particularly close to any major city. Valencia and Alicante are the closest, but to properly enjoy the restaurant, an overnight stay in the area is fully indicated. Our hotel, the Nou Hostalet, though simple, was quite clean, solidly built, commodious and delightfully inexpensive.
Neither Gerry nor I were particularly hungry when we arrived at L’Escaleta. I had hoped that my sense of satiety would wane, but it hadn’t. We were seated at the kitchen table and regretfully had to inform the chef of our condition. Despite the truly beautiful and delicious plates coming our way, including some extraordinary woodcock, as the meal continued, I could do no more than taste each plate. The food was creative, beautiful and magnificent. Not being able to eat more made me feel sick, but of course, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to eat more because I had become sick. We abbreviated our meal and returned to the hotel, where, unfortunately, I spent the better part of the night running back and forth to the thankfully clean and sound-proofed bathroom. (L’Escaleta Flick’r Photoset)
It proved to be a largely sleepless and miserable night wondering whether I had come down with the flu. Fortunately, as the night progressed and I could expel no more, my condition eased and I managed to get some sleep in. By morning, I wasn’t ready for food, but I was no longer feeling sick. I was now sure that what I suffered from was not the flu, but food poisoning, the most likely culprit being the cold albondiga from the market that I had sampled and sent back before Gerry had a chance to eat it. Fortunately, this was a Sunday, a travel day and the most lightly scheduled day of the trip. We were off to Madrid. Gerry drove. I slept. By the evening, I wasn’t ready to go out to enjoy Madrid, but I did manage to wolf down a light meal from room service. The next day, I was happily back in action.