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Vinum Optimum Signatum

I recently managed to get hold of a few bottles of really serious sherry.  Not that most of the styles I’ve been consuming lately haven’t been flicking my switches in their own ways, but this aged stuff is big time, taste wise.

When the package arrived and I’d taken them out to survey my bounty – one amontillado, one oloroso and a PX – I decided the best thing to do would be to arrange a tasting, chez moi. Three styles to muse over, three different kinds of sherry to distract us with all those rounded nuances and nutty aromas.

I put in the call to the three friends I knew would appreciate it the most – Ruth, Giles and Gwen.  They all accepted with relish – even Gwen’s boyfriend was keen what with having heard the tales of this most refined sherry – of solera systems whose origins can reach back as far as the 18th century, of endless tasting and analysis by Jerez’s Consejo Regulador, all so that us sherry lovers can know an authentic oenological treasure.

I set the table with wine glasses, pencils and paper and the tasting commenced. First off came Harvey’s Fine Old Amontillado – a V.O.S (Vinum Optimum Signatum, or Very Old Sherry if you’re British). This has been aged in the bodegas for a minimum of 20 years. Amontillado is my favourite of all the sherry styles so I was really excited to try it. It had a much rounder finish than a non-aged kind, sending out notes of cherry, citrus and buttery nuts.

Ruth decided that the tannins of the wine would go really well with calves liver; complementing the iron-rich meat perfectly. I agreed – especially given that this amontillado was a touch sweeter and would therefore lend the match a whole other delectable layer. Other aromas found were of cloves and pinecones.

We pressed on to the oloroso, a 15-year-old Dry Sack from Williams & Humbert. Not submitted to quite as intensive regulations as the V.O.S and V.O.R.S, this system is nevertheless submitted to an oxidative or physico-chemical aging process, which ensures the highest levels of quality. After a few sniggers about the name we buried our noses into our glasses and entered a world of sweetness and warmth – the perfect antidote to the horizontal rain attacking the kitchen window outside.

It smelt of treacle, prunes, and dates. Gwen thought it was like smelling the inside of a Crunchie bar – and with each sip it was like tasting the barrel itself. All 15 of those years seeping into the aged barrel and returning, carrying flavours from decades ago. I love this about wine; how you can almost taste time. Time and experience and the magic of tradition.

We glugged water hungrily, gearing up for the big hitter – the PX 1780 Garvey V.O.S. By this point Gwen’s boyfriend seemed truly enamored by the world of sherry and when he tasted the PX it was as though this was the final validation he’d been looking for. If the last sherry was like honeycomb treacle this was deep, dark, molasses, seeping out of the cane in syrupy rivulets. We wanted to have it with chocolate, ice cream, blue cheese! It was viscose, offering hints of soaked raisins, liquorice and marinated prunes. My whole kitchen was lousy with the aroma of aged sherry; a drifting caramel swirl that curled around us, bundling us together in a cosy, satisfying, sherry loving huddle.

It’s been a great year for sherry and me – and things are looking very interesting for 2009. Have a great Christmas (top tip for pre-lunch snacks: smoked mackerel pate and chilled dry oloroso)

Inspired by the delicious sherry-compatible and – for Heston – user-friendly recipes of the other week, I decided to give a few a whirl myself and invited some friends round to experience the DKP action. It was brilliant; for once I had a whole afternoon to prepare a supper so I was really able to enjoy getting it all ready. I headed off to Borough Market on Saturday on my slightly rickety bike (must get it to the mender’s) armed with my shopping list of items that would help me pull off this exciting feast. I bought stilton from Neal’s Yard, pata negra and marcona almonds from Brindisa, gouda from Mons and crab meat from Applebees – a fine booty of gourmandese if ever there was one!

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I had imagined that if Heston said something was easy then this meant it was probably on a par with one of Nigella’s more verbose recipes, so I approached the info with caution…but there, staring me in the face was recipe after recipe of perfectly achievable sounding dishes. I decided to start with the gruyere and fino fondue. I’d never made a fondue before but was so inspired by the deliciousness of the one we had at Shoreditch House the other day that it was a must. The lovely Bridget from Franco Manca in Brixton lent me her fondue set and, just to be on the safe side, I had Heston right there in the room with me talking me through the whole process. It bubbled away in that pale yellow, glossy way it has. My guests started to arrive – Ruth, Sam, Will and Vee – all consumate food fanatics and all keen on discovering the symphony created by putting together certain foods with certain sherry styles.

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Fino, super-chilled accompanied the fondue. We drank, we dunked, we moaned in delight. Next up I thought a salad may be in order – speciafically a pata negra, peach, almond, balsamic and rocket salad. I had already roasted the marcona almonds a little with some salt and pepper and the pata negra was nestling nicely into an acorn-aromatic room temperature; a bit of slicing and tossing and suddenly there was a salad of lip-smacking complexity. We ate it with my favourite sherry of all – amontillado. Oh my! How those nutty, buttery, fruity flavours dwelt together. Sam hadn’t had many dealings with amontillado before but was very vocal about how successful (and how surprising) was the pairing.

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Onto the fish course. I have always been a fan of crab on toast since first trying it at the Anchor & Hope years ago and liked the way Heston wanted to harness the compatibility fish has with a manzanilla. The toast was warm, the crab unctuous and redolent with coriander and paprika and the sherry came alongside this voluptuousness like a sea spray on a baking day. Everyone loved it.

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Finally came the star of the show: eccles cakes with stilton sherry butter and to be served with a cooled cream sherry. I had picked a bottle up at Somerfield’s having heard that the supermarket white labels are amongst the best sherries on the market. The eccles cakes smelled amazing as they came out of the oven – the aroma of butter, sugar and spices made us all feel better about the imposition of winter – and when served with the stilton butter; cool blue butter on warm, sweet buttery cakes – and washed down with the best cream I’ve found yet, life felt pretty well-rounded for all concerned. Thank you Heston for bringing us further into the DKP circle!

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Heston pairs ’em up

Peach and pata negra salad

Peach and pata negra salad

Back in London after a busy ‘summer’ at the festivals and delighted to discover Heston’s latest discovery. He’s been in the lab again, toying with his favourite wine (what a proponent!) and has worked some things out that may never have occurred to the rest of us. It’s a ‘umami’ thing. I’ll attempt to explain – Heston and his science mentor, Professor Don Mottram, have found a group of compounds known as diketopiperazines (DKPs) in sherry. When paired with certain “umami-rich’ foods like cheese, meat and fish the idea is that it accentuates the flavour like nothing else.

So they’ve been busying away in that lab together in order to create the perfect combinations of DKP + umami = a taste sensation of complete and utter harmony, bar none.

When I found out about the event held at Shoreditch House on Monday night to unveil this magic I threw on my heels and hotfooted it over. It was all very exciting, ascending in the lift with a Master of Wine – like being escorted to the Pearly Gates by Mother Theresa, almost. In we swept to a sea of food and wine afficionados all eager to experience this taste nirvana. The place was abuzz with anticipation and when Heston took to the stage the room fell silent as we drank in this sacred knowledge.

“These are all dishes that can be made at home” he reassured us, “no need for the dessicator”. And he then tantalised us with promises of peach kernels, pata negra, rosewater coriander – all to be found reverberating off one another in both wine and food. All night long.

The trays came swooping round in no time. Dazzling identical glasses of pale, chilled manzanilla and accompanied by crab with paprika on toast. It was like some kind of Willie Wonka wonder: the manzanilla spoke of the crab and the crab spoke back. Food in mouth, wine in tastebuds, aromas bouncing around and then circling back to this melifluous moment. I dug it and was eager for the waiter to return with the next pairing.

This came in the form of a really good, clean fino matched with magic on toast. It was actually gruyere melted with cloves. And it was phenomenal. The cloves rounded out the cheese which was sliced through beautifully by the fino. Heston would say it was to do with the presence of eugenol in the sherry that is also a key molecule in cloves. I just really loved it and will dream about it for a long time to come.

On we sallied, enjoying amontillado with pata negra, peaches, almonds and balsamic, oloroso with good and then meaty smoked mackeral rilettes laced with coriander seed. A surprise hit came with the pale cream and Scotch quails eggs. Wow, que maravilla! Juicy packages of pork wrapped around soft boiled dainty little eggs. Everyone of us had at least three. We couldn’t get enough of the way the pale cream’s fruity aromas slunk along so nicely with the caramelised meat.

And then came the sweetness. Not that you really need sweetness by now as everything that had come thus far seemed to fulfill criteria for every kind of flavour combination. But we couldn’t ignore the tenacity of the Eccles cakes with stilton and sherry butter. Joder! Sweet, sticky dried fruit enveloped by the creamy acidity of the stilton – and with a cool cream to transform it.

The last spot belonged to the rosewater sherry trifle coupled with a PX. By this time we had had to carry ourselves up to the rooftop to regroup. And as our tastebuds reflected on their sensory safari, our eyes fell onto the magical view of the city by night, in turn reflecting back on us the magic of our sherry and omami-led evening.

What happened was that I fled London in my choc-mobile. I wanted to get out there and see what the rest of Britain had to offer and how well we’re all eating and drinking. Of course I never travel without a touch of shez and the fridge in the back of the van has been utilised most efficiently along the way: a spot of PX for my Venezuelan truffles, some palo cortado to have with snacks under the sinking evening light, an oloroso with my Craster kippers….always once the van is parked up for the night, mind.

So the on the road reverie has rendered me a little blog-shy. But I must get over this minor hurdle because there’s work to do! I need to continue spreading the good word of shez and there’s plenty to holler about. I was up in Aviemore the other week, for example, and was blown away by the smooth way that my roast pheasant went with the pale cream that was perched proudly on the table. It’s a new one on me – I would ordinarily have favoured more of a nutty aroma to pair with this game old bird – but its sweetness rallied my senses in an altogether more refreshing way.

And then there was the art teacher I met in Durham who told me of his college days penchant for sherry and lemonade. He was keen on all sorts of styles for this strange sounding concoction, but did confess to leaning towards the drier sherries to combat the sweetness.

I will check in shortly with more news from the frontline of sherry experimentation – it’s a jungle out here and I’m loving the adventure!

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I went to meet my new friend Maggie yesterday evening. As a wine writer I knew the very mention of the ‘S’ word would have her heart racing and she was behind me all the way when I suggested The Marquis of Westminster in Victoria.

Someone who knows about this sort of thing had told me that if I ever found myself roaming around Pimlico and felt a calling for my favourite tipple then this was the place to go. This part of London has always intrigued me. It’s so very back there in time, almost unreal with its white fondant facades, bowler hat sightings and wine bars that look as if their clientele have had no change in lifestyle since the ’70s. They make me want to head on in and have a really epic, boozy lunch, culminating in Withnail-esque measures of brandy and endless cigarillos…

The pub was a welcome sight after a good lag along Belgrave Road. I swung through the lighter-than-I’d-imagined doors and was confronted with a few faces shocked at my zealous entrance. Luckily it’s a modestly lit place and I was able to find my way to the bar more or less under cover of darkness.

“So I hear you do a fine line in sherry” I enthused, already salivating at the thought of the bounty of choices about to be laid before me. The barman looked a bit dead pan but decided to play along, “Ah yes, we have Manzanilla!” he declared with a finality that caused me immediate concern. “And…?” I asked. “And only that, but it is very good”.

Well of course I went for it despite feeling like I’d been a bit scuppered. Maggie turned up and we got two glasses – they both arrived in little thimbles and I had to request a decant. This, along with never being given enough ice, is an ongoing battle I have in pubs all over the country.  An enormous jar of glossy olives provided some distraction and soon Maggie and I were glugging back a fine, salty drop of sherry whilst throwing back feta-stuffed green olives.

We had decided to meet to discuss my tour. I’m planning a big trip round Britain in my chocolate van and Maggie had some ideas. The plan is to take to the open road and discover how hospitable we are as a nation. I am seeking people to host me for dinner and I’ll provide the (chocolate) dessert. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I first bought the van – to explore Britain and to make and sell chocolate along the way, writing about it in my blog.

It wasn’t long before I needed some kind of immediate fix – brownies with ice cream! A slab of warm brownie arrived in extra quick time with a ball of Walls-like vanilla ice cream on the side. The brownie wasn’t anything amazing – more a piece of cake than anything – but it was chocolatey enough and anything served at that temperature can cover a multitude of sins.

I’ll definitely head back to the Marquis for a drink  – they have some really great wines, all served by the glass – but for a piece of the sherry action I’d have to bring a large hip flask and swig it discreetly in one of the pub’s many plunging shadows.

Pinchito…at last!

I headed East to Whitecross Street the other day – to give my friend Simon a hand in his Mexican food van. The business is called ‘Luardos’ but the van’s name is Jesus – it’s what everyone says when they see it because it’s such a stunner. ‘Jesus!’ they cry as they surge towards the counter for a slow-cooked pork burrito.

These burritos are what I dream of when I’m far away – so after a few hours of chewing the chipotle with the punters I was ready and rearing to devour that great meaty package. A bit of washing up soon worked it off and then along came my friends Jemma and Sam from Crumbs & Doilies (cupcake Co. extraordinaire FYI) to rescue me from the refried beans pan and off we sped to Pinchito round the corner…

I’d been meaning to check this place out since it opened last summer. Everyone had been raving about it and I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t have to house that fear of ‘will there be any sherry there and if there is will it be served at the right temperature?’

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We stepped up into the place, a bricked, low-lit…joint – it’s definitely a joint – that seems perfect for the night times. It was early but already many of the bar stools running along the three sides were occupied. We gravitated towards the alluring lit up counter, full of montaditos – piled high crostini with tortilla, jamon, pollo picante, manchego, piquillo peppers. We sat there, Sam and Jemma and I, faces lit up by the canteen yellow glow of the counter – pouring over the menu and gasping for something really good to wash it all down with.

Tobias – the resident cocktail expert and partner in both Pinchito and Brighton’s Pintxo People – strode over to us. I smiled at him and a faint recognition breezed over his face. ‘We met at The Perfect Marriage sherry tasting’ I said, ‘Aah yes! You seemed to be enjoying your amontillado verree much!’. It’s true, I can’t lie – I am enamorata totalmente with the nutty number. It’s like having a really sound friend around: Straight talking, full of substance and formidable as hell. On that note we ordered a half bottle of the ’93 Vina AB Amontillado Palomino and set about choosing food to go with it.

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Of course we had to have some pimientos de padron – I had prepared some the other night in fact, in my new shiny white kitchen. As I tossed the little rascals into the pan there was a raging response. With no fire blanket in sight, common sense completely abandoned me whilst the flames surged dangerously high and I stood staring at them, immobilised and aghast… my friend Fe let out a long-winded scream but at least had the nouse to advance on the chillis and pull them to safety.

Anyway, I was delighted not to have to risk an olive oil skin peel and skipped straight to the munch. God they’re tasty. We had ploughed halfway through them before our sherry was even ready – and when it was the entrance was ceremonious. I love the drama of a bottle being opened by someone who cares. Along came Tobias all ice buckets and long stemmed glasses, speaking of the flor and the oxidisation process. My cupcake companions were tuning him – quite reverentially I thought – but I could tell all they really wanted was to get to the bit where they got their pork belly. This arrived in three fat, glistening tranches on a tiny plate which was empty in seconds. The cold amontillado knocking around my taste buds with that unctuous pork made me feel…complete.

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Also delicious were the boquerones. These are something that are always good wherever you go but rarely that different – Pinchito’s though are meatier, glossier and more tart. We tried lots of other dishes – “pa amb tomaquet” (Catalan bruschetta), Escalibada (roast veg salad), paprika and lemon fried squid, jamon Iberico and then some unforgivably bad churros con chocolate (which was knocked off our bill at the end) and I just wasn’t that excited by them.

What did get me going though was the sherry menu. It was listed right at the beginning of the wines – under ‘Vinos’ – taking prime position and sure to tempt anyone with its depth and range. As Tobias told us (very poetically I thought) – we must think of sherry in terms of white, red and sweet, and to start with the ‘white’ (fino/manzanilla), then move on to the ‘red’ (amontillado/palo cortado/dry oloroso) and finish with the ‘sweet’ (PX, cream, sweet oloroso). A sherry bonanza! Brilliant, must try it sometime. I could have sat there all night, focussing solely on the sherry menu and the pork belly but had to rush to catch my friend Lettie singing at Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. I’ll be back though because, despite some corner cutting in the kitchen Pinchito has the glow-factor – when I think of it something in me goes ‘MMmmm’ – and that’s priceless.

Click on the video below to view Heston in Jerez as part of his BBC ‘In Search of Perfection’ series, where he talked up his fondess for Andalusia’s finest as part of his Christmas food and drink season.

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