Monday, 31 May 2010

Vignettes from Jerez: The (mainly) fish market

The Spanish love their fish and whilst it's obvious that big cities like Madrid and Barcelona will have great fish markets (Madrid's is second in the world to Tokyo's) I hadn't banked on a diminutive little town like landlocked Jerez having anything special.  I'd walked past the large covered market building the evening I arrived and had imagined a mixed meat, fish, fruit & veg, and olive market the next morning but not the biggest show of fish I'd ever have seen.
Dozens of mongers with their neat little shops in rows were selling a bewildering array of prawns, shrimps, squid, hake, cod's roes, whelks, langoustines, tuna, the odd John Dory and skate, and a few sharks, big and small.  The customers, mainly older women, were expertly choosing exactly the fish they wanted, sometimes getting the mongers, a mix of men and women, some fairly young, some veritable old fish wives, to pick fish from the bottom of the pile or even doing it themselves.  The mongers would then fillet and cut in the flash of an eye with a very sharp knife.
What a shame that on an island like Britain most towns do not possess one single fishmonger (let alone a proper food market) and that the supermarkets where most food is bought anyway provide a pathetically small choice of fish, most of it ready filleted or smoked or 'previously frozen'.  
The central part of the Jerez covered market is totally devoted to fish.  In the stalls around the periphery there are butchers selling a little fresh meat including the odd (wild) bunny and sausages and plenty of preserved meat (in the form of hams and more sausages).  There are greengrocers selling notably knobbly fruit and vegetables, nothing too perfectly smooth and shiny like in the UK.  The odd frutos seccos shop selling nuts and dried fruit and honey too.  And one lone baker selling crap bread, Spain being a curiously bread challenged country.  Here, the Brits might have the edge, Sunblest and Hovis notwithstanding.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Chateau Musar

Chateau Musar from Lebanon was my favourite red wine when I was a student and today, several years later, I still devote a corner in my cellar to its wines which seem to last forever.  My favourite column in Private Eye then was Auberon Waugh's weekly diary where he would rave about Musar as being the ideal, bargain basement wine for impecunious claret or Burgundy lovers (though the wines are more Rhône-like than either, if one must compare).

The property is at 1000 metres high up in the Bekaa valley near Beirut and wine has been made here by the Hochar family since the 1930s (though wine was made here hundreds of years BC by the Phoenicians).  The red wine for which the estate is famous is from a blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon and yet, even if these grape varieties are familiar to many wine drinkers, the resultant wine is so distinctive as to make it one of the world's easiest to spot in a blind tasting.

One distinguishing characteristic of the wine is the prominent amount of volatile acidity (or VA) which is caused by acetic bacteria when fermenting or recently fermented wine is exposed to air. If left unchecked, the wine turns to vinegar.   VA which is not excessive gives wine extra fragrance and a slight sweet and sour character which is very appealing (think of your best balsamic vinegar).  In most properties in the rest of the world grapes and wine receive doses of sulphur to protect them from the air to keep VA to a minimum but at Musar VA is encouraged and helps make the wines unique.  

Other taste characteristics of the wine include a distinct gaminess, especially as the wine develops in older vintages, and a strawberry fruit which varies from tinned to fresh and wild!  The wines never have much tannin (they are never released before 7 years) and yet seem to age very well without changing that much in character.  Where most age-worthy reds continue to improve with age and then decline gradually, Musar is ready to drink when it's released and then appears to stay on a plateau for years and even decades.  It goes well with roast game birds, the relatively lighter vintages with pheasant and partridge, the bigger, older ones with grouse.  

Doubting Thomases who say that VA can destroy a wine have not tasted Musar vintages going back several decades which still taste vibrant.  Indeed, Spain's most revered, age worthy wine Vega Sicilia (I have enjoyed the 1962) also has copious amounts of VA in its mix as does arguably the twentieth century's most highly regarded claret, château Cheval Blanc 1947, still drinking well now (so I hear).

When the Musar 1995 was released a lot of tasters apparently condemned the wine because of its very high levels of VA; that vintage is now regarded as the best of the 1990s (it has a VA level of 0.8g/l, 1.2g/l being the maximum desired).

The 1984 vintage took 5 days to reach the winery because the vineyard was in a battle zone and so the grapes started fermenting in the back of the truck.  The resultant wine, which has not been released, had a VA level of 1.2g/l but according to the family is now eminently drinkable.  Indeed, Serge Hochar claims it is the 40 mile journey from vineyard to winery by truck that 'inoculates' the wines against oxidation giving them great longevity and helps create the Musar style.   

At a tasting last week at the London International Wine Fair we tried the 2003, 1997, 1980 and 1977.  All were good (though the 1977 was suffering a bit on the nose probably because of a faulty cork), the younger wines intensely, sweetly strawberryish and fragrantly 'volatile', the older wines more leathery and tarry but still spicily fruity.

The 'second' wine which is called Hochar Père et Fils was also on show from the 2003 vintage; it spends less time in barrel and is fruitier (with an added dash of Grenache) though still has that characteristic twang of VA.  The reds were mainly served from decanters as they are not filtered or fined before bottling and form quite a sediment.
Some members of the Hochar family were present at the tasting including the founder's sons, Serge (who was Decanter Magazine's first "Man of the Year" in 1984) and Ronald (named after the late Ronald Barton, a family friend, of châteaux Léoville & Langoa fame, who convinced the founder to take his wines seriously);  their respective sons were there too,  Gaston (named after his grandfather who founded the winery) and Ralph.

They switched from good English when addressing the audience (with much self-deprecating banter from Ronald) to perfect French when talking amongst themselves (reminding us of Lebanon's relatively recent colonial French heritage). When challenged about VA Ronald asked, rhetorically, what would Musar be without volatile acidity... and how would it age (or not).  

The red wine style is resolutely old fashioned and old world.  French oak is used to age the wine but the château wine never stays longer than a year in barrels, few of which are new.  The Hochar Père et Fils spends 6 to 9 months in oak as do the whites; we tried the 2003 and 1990 which were big and bold, in a slightly oxidised style reminiscent of old style white Rhône or mature dry white Graves though with perhaps less acidity.  In fact, my first thought on smelling the 2003 was of Ygrec, the dry white Bordeaux from château d'Yquem.

The whites are made from Obaideh and Merwah grapes which are indigenous to Lebanon and allegedly the origins of Chardonnay and Semillon.  The lack of acidity and quirky flavours don't lend themselves to any obvious food pairings though I wouldn't say no to a rich lobster or crab dish... and would drink the house Arak spirit with the traditional Lebanese meze!

my thanks to Richard Hunt of Chateau Musar (UK) Ltd. for squeezing me in to this heavily oversubscribed tasting, full of loyal Musar customers, or "friends", as the Hochar family prefer to call them.  For those who just don't get the eccentric, unique wine styles of the estate there is a new range of unoaked, more modern wines for immediate consumption called Musar Jeune in white, rosé and red. They are not so modern however that they have screwcaps (perhaps in 50 years time quipped Ronald) or upfront, zesty, juicy fruit: they remain quite savoury.  

One unanswered question for me is why the label eschews the circumflex (â) on château.... just in case any of you wanted to correct my spelling above!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Brandade de Morue (Salt Cod Mash)

Before refrigeration was invented fish would go off really quickly.  Those lucky enough to live on the coast could eat that day's catch.  Those inland had to eat meat and two veg.  And then one day salt (conveniently from the sea) was found to preserve fish.  Not only that, it preserved fish and allowed it to develop its flavour.  Salt cod (morue in French) was born, would last for ever and could be exported inland and overseas.
Salting food extracts the moisture which in combination with bacteria leads to spoilage.  So salted food, in this case cod, needs rehydrating to soften it, reduce the salt content and make it edible.  
The drier and saltier the cod the more soaking it needs.  I soaked my piece here (bought from Garcia) for 18 hours and changed the water 4 or 5 times.  Salt cod in London can be found wherever there are Spaniards, Portuguese or West Indians living in any number.  So, the northern end of Notting Hill is good as is Brixton.  Otherwise, it's difficult to find.  The French adore it and every fishmonger in France worth his salt will have it on sale.  It's a gift to mongers because it's practically the only fish that won't go off.  In Portugal they even have shops that won't sell anything else.  And in the Caribbean the daily white rum aperitif is usually accompanied by salt cod fritters (ti punch & accras de morue on the French islands).
The Portuguese have hundreds of recipes for bacalhau (bacalao in Spanish) but the French just have the one,  brandade de morue.  Brandade comes from an old verb "to beat" and once the rehydrated fish has been poached for a few minutes in milk and or olive oil it is skinned, deboned and beaten into an emulsion, often with added potato.  
It's not a dish for those who like mild flavours.  As the fish has been aged it has quite a strong flavour  in  a similar way that meat goes high when it has been hung.  When I poach the fish I add whole garlic cloves and pepper.  I use the poaching liquor to mash the boiled potatoes.  The fish is much easier to skin and debone when it's still warm; if you do this when it has cooled down it really sticks to your fingers (after all, the first glues were made from boiled fish).  A sprinkling of parsley at the end is all it needs though this is my embellishment; brandade in even the smartest Parisian brasseries usually comes in an earthenware crock and looks like, well, mash.
As brandade is quite strong it's a challenge to match with wine.  Here, we started off with my favourite foodie beer (Meantime India Pale Ale) which copes with any strong food that is thrown at it (the style was invented for curry).  And as brandade is salty it's good to have something thirst quenching.  We continued with old fashioned white Rioja (Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva 1998), aged for 32 months in cask and with the guts and acidity to cope.  I had leftovers the next day with another old fashioned Rioja, but this time a Tondonia rosado 1997 from López de Heredia, aged 4 years in barrel.  It's not often one comes across a 13 year old rosé wine that is still drinkable but again lengthy barrel ageing makes these wines pretty indestructible and gives them an almost sherryish, big oxidised flavour that allows them to cope with extremes of salt, savouriness and spice.  
I sometimes make brandade without potato and spread it on bruschetta.  In this case, I would probably serve a Fino Sherry or Manzanilla Pasada.  

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Roast Mutton & Flageolet Beans

On Easter Sunday we thought we'd vary the usual lamb dish and go for mutton.  We'd spotted some the day before at the excellent Snape Maltings Farmers' Market.  Mutton is basically older lamb, ie sheep, and so has more flavour though is less tender.  It is technically at least 2 years old, lamb being under 1 and hogget in between the two.  The advice from the farmer was to roast it at a lower temperature and a little longer than for lamb.  
The cut we bought was from the top of the leg.  I put it in a roasting pan and laid some anchovy fillets underneath and used the olive oil from the jar to smear over the meat.  I poured a bottle of red wine into the bottom of the pan and roasted the joint in a fan assisted oven for a couple of hours at about 150'C.  

After allowing the joint to rest with the oven switched off the meat turned out to be really succulent and tasty without being too high and sheepy.  I boiled down the remaining wine in the pan to make a thin sauce having added some thyme and rosemary from the garden.  The anchovies added some umami body and richness to this sauce but absolutely no hint of fishiness.  I served the mutton with flageolet beans, the traditional accompaniment to lamb in France.  Mashed potatoes would have been more British I guess.  And capers too.

As I wasn't sure how sheepy the mutton was going to be I'd prepared two different wines, one stronger and gamier than the other.  

In the end we had the Rioja Imperial Reserva, rather than the Lebanese chateau Musar, which is my usual wild game wine; it was perfect, its tannins and acidity cutting through the richness and its marked oaky flavour echoing the herbs (and perhaps fancifully, the bottle of Rioja that went into the sauce).  It was more than a match for the mutton.   Young lamb is the traditional accompaniment to ancient old Rioja in northern Spain (and to claret, especially Pauillac, in Aquitaine).  Whilst young lamb is an excellent foil for these wines, allowing them to show at their best, I think that a vigorous, younger wine like this 2001 is best partnered with the stronger taste of mutton.