August 06, 2012

Mushrooms...Glorious Mushrooms...

Did you ever wonder how and why certain foods became classified as edible? For instance, who was it that first decided they would try milking a cow after watching a newborn calf suckle, reaching under, squeezing out a bit of milk from an udder and then deciding to taste it? Now that's a 'foodie!' We have many brave pioneers to thank for paving the way for the plethora of culinary excursions and delights we now enjoy.

Well, I've always wondered the same about mushrooms. After all, it is a fungus, usually found growing on or under tree roots. And, only certain ones are edible, with some psilocybic types, or 'Shrooms,' sending anyone who eats them on a psychedelic trip into mind numbing hallucinations. It has long been held that Alice's trip through the looking glass started with a mushroom. "Go ask Alice....when she's ten feet tall."

Yet others are so toxic and deadly, they can kill you with just one nibble. How did they find the edible ones? For instance, back in Egypt, who drew the short straw when, upon finding this little darling growing on a tree stump, they all looked at each other and said, "Who, me? No way! Pharaoh schmaroh, I'm not putting that in my mouth!" Did they try them on 'subjects?' Was there a checklist, so that when Harry, the tester, dropped dead after eating this new variety brought in from the forest, we documented it? Talk about a position with no job security.

Whatever the reason for trying them, thank God someone had the courage to eat these little beauties, transforming them into the well loved staple of stews, soups, and the now many and diverse applications, from liqueurs to dusts, that we all enjoy today.

What I found amazing in my research was that, most people think of a mushroom as the fungi, when it actuality it is the 'fruit' of the fungi. The mycelium , the main body, is subterranean, or lives on dead trees and living tree roots and it can vary in size from a few inches to several miles wide! When they absorb a large amount of water, they can grow amazingly fast and their fruits sprout out of the ground overnight. Have you ever woken up, gone to get the paper and gazed out at your front lawn after a good soaking rain only to be confronted with an invasion of mushrooms that have miraculously appeared overnight? Well, they were there all along! You can put that mystery to bed...I know it's been bugging you....Now you know.

These little fruits, mushrooms, are the delicacies that we humans enjoy. There are over two thousand types of mushrooms, but only 2 ½ - 5 % are edible. The rest are highly poisonous and can masquerade as the edible ones, which is why if you are going to try your hand at foraging for wild mushrooms, make sure you do it with someone who is qualified in distinguishing the real deal from the pretenders. It's a risky and sometimes fatal
business. Who would of thought of mushroom foraging as a "Deadliest Job?"

Some 'shrooms' contain enough toxins to immediately kill the person who eats them, like the Amanitas strain. Historical records reveal that Claudius II and Pope Clement VII were both killed by enemies who poisoned them with this deadly variety. Buddha died, according to legend, from a mushroom that grew underground. Buddha was given the mushroom by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy.

Mushroom Facts
  • Mycophagy is the act of consuming mushrooms and dates to ancient times.
  • Mushrooms have been an essential in Chinese medicine for centuries, containing vitamins B, C and D. They are known to lower both blood pressure and serum cholesterol.
  • City of Hope, a cancer research facility, has suggested that mushrooms may help prevent cancer.
  • The living body of the fungus is a mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source.
  • A mycelium may be small enough to fill a single ant or large enough to cover many acres.
  • The branching hyphae can add over a half mile (1 kilometer) of total length to the mycelium each day!
  • These webs live unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, “bird’s nests,” “corals” or other fruiting bodies.
  • Mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds, and a single mature mushroom will drop as many as 16 billion spores!
  • Some of the oldest living mushroom colonies are fairy rings ---> growing around the famous Stonehenge ruins in England. The rings are so large that the best view of them is from a plane. 
Mushrooms through the ages....
Dancing Shaman.
Man's use of mushrooms extends back to Paleolithic times and for the most part it seems that the first uses for this fungi was medicinal and spiritual. They played pivotal roles in ancient Greece, India and Mesoamerica. The oldest archaeological of mushroom use discovered so far is probably a Tassili image from a cave which dates back 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. The artist's intent is clear. Mushrooms with electrified auras are depicted outlining a dancing shaman.

In the winter of 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps came across the well preserved remains of a man who died over 5,300 years ago, approximately 200 years later than the Tassili cave artist. Dubbed the "Iceman" by the news media, he was well equipped with a knapsack, flint axe, a string of dried Birch Polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and another yet unidentified mushroom. The polypores can be used as tinder for starting fires and as medicine for treating wounds. Further, a rich tea with immuno-enhancing properties can be prepared by boiling these mushrooms. Equipped for traversing the wilderness, this intrepid adventurer had discovered the value of the noble polypores. Even today, this knowledge can be life-saving for anyone astray in the wilderness.

Mushrooms, the plant of immortality? That’s what ancient Egyptians believed according to the Hieroglyphics of 4600 years ago. The delicious flavor of mushrooms intrigued the pharaohs of Egypt so much that they decreed that mushrooms were food for royalty and that no commoner could ever touch them. This assured themselves the entire supply of mushrooms. In various other civilizations throughout the world including Russia, China, Greece, Mexico and Latin America, mushroom rituals were practiced. Many believed that mushrooms had properties that could produce super-human strength, help in finding lost objects and lead the soul to the realm of the gods.

Mushroom Varieties

Black Trumpet
Color can vary from purply-gray to death-like black. Lily shaped, thin flesh, delicate taste. Available fresh fall through spring.


Bland taste compared to other mushrooms. Available fresh year round.

Also called Polish, Porcini or King Bolete. Bulbous stem with brown, rounded cap. Rich, musty flavor and very perishable. Available fresh in fall, dried and frozen year round.

Curved trumpet or vase shape, color varies from bright orange to apricot gold. Some say it imparts the smell of apricots. Available fresh during fall and winter, dried year round.

Cremini, Button and Portabellas are related. Cremini looks like a button, but is a bit larger with a brown cap. When growth is unchecked, it becomes a Portabella with more complex flavor and texture.

Dainty, Q-Tip shaped. Cultivated and available fresh year round.

Squash colored and slightly bitter tasting. Substitute for Chanterelles. Trim stems. Hedgehogs have small “teeth” on gills and break off in other foods, leaving gold flecks.

Also called Pine mushroom. Spicy, woody flavor. Available fresh in fall.

Spongy looking but hollow. Color is tan to dark brown. Intense, earthy flavor. Available fresh in spring, dried year round.

Cultivated, fan-shaped. Color varies from light tan to gray. Mild flavor. Available fresh year round.

Also called Chinese, Black Forest or Oak mushrooms. Chocolate brown, fibrous, woody stems. Available fresh and dried year round.

Rubbery texture, flat, woodsy aroma. Imported from China. Available dried year round.


Fragrant member of Chanterelle family. Gray-brown color with muted gold stem. High water content.

Earth's Largest living Organism...The Honey Mushroom
People have known about the "honey mushroom" for some time, but were not aware of how large and invasive this species of fungus could be. The fungus was investigated more closely by researchers when they realized that it was responsible for killing large groves of evergreen trees. When foresters cut into an infected tree they would find spreading white filaments, mycelia, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus.

Researchers collected samples of the fungus from a widespread area and analyzed the DNA. A large sample of the specimens they collected turned out to be from a single organism. Until August of 2000 it was thought that the largest living organism was a fungus of the same species (Armillaria ostoyae) that covered 1,500 acres (600 hectares) found living in the state of Washington.

Mycology experts surmised that if an Armillaria that large could be found in Washington, then perhaps one just as large could be responsible for the trees dying in the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Researchers were astonished at the sheer magnitude of the find. This most recent find was estimated to cover over 2,200 acres (890 hectares) and be at least 2,400 years old, possibly older.

To go into the forest where this giant makes its home you would not look at it and see a huge, looming mushroom. Armillaria grows and spreads primarily underground and the sheer bulk of this organism lies in the earth, out of sight. Occasionally, during the fall season, this specimen will send up golden-colored "honey mushrooms" that are the visible evidence of its hulking mass beneath. Scientists have not yet begun to attempt to estimate the weight of this specimen of Armillaria.

Well there you have it, mushrooms in all their glorious forms. Hope you enjoyed it. After all. what's a little fungus among friends,?

Bon Appetit,

August 01, 2012

Chef Michael Colletti: The Whitehouse, Wutang & Grilled Octopus...a recipe for success....

Chef Michael Colletti began his culinary journey at a young age growing up watching his grandparents and father, who migrated from Sicily, preparing the family recipes with home grown ingredients. Delicacies, such as figs, cardoons and persimmons. He remembers, "I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother or my father, or in the garden with my grandfather. You know it's funny, we ate back then the way people are eating now, farm to table. Whatever my grandfather was growing, or whatever was in season, that's what we ate. At Easter, my grandfather would be in the basement butchering a goat to breakdown for Easter dinner. I always had a love for food and culture and of course, eating," he laughs.

Michael's first culinary job was into the family business. His father owned a bagel shop and he studied bagel-making at his father’s side, also doubling as a short order cook. He then learned more about the hospitality business at his cousin's pizzeria, Villa Borghese. The discovery of his natural palate and affinity for cooking led him to attend the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, NJ.

I asked him what led him to the Asbury Park school. He stated, "Well, I applied and was accepted at Johnston & Wales, but just before I started school my dad passed away and I just couldn't leave my mom all alone, "he remembered, "I transferred to the Education Center in Asbury Park so I could stay at home and be there for her. Once I got out in the work force, I realized, after having worked alongside those who attended so called 'more formal' culinary schools, we all learn the same basics, no matter the school. And truly, school only teaches you the basics, we chefs all learn by getting on the line at a busy restaurant and getting our asses kicked."

"My first real restaurant gig outside the pizzeria,' he explained, "was a restaurant called Aqua in Bound Brook. I was basically moving from station to station. I then moved myself up to Sous Chef. Brian Walter was the head chef, he had just come from Le Cirque, and we received 4 stars from the Star Ledger. We did great Italian food with French technique. All homemade pasta, super seasonal, super fresh." I asked him what was the biggest thing he learned from his first true commercial kitchen. He answered immediately, "Speed and organization." I then asked him what surprised him the most going from his cousin's pizzeria kitchen to Aqua. "Doing 200 covers and having to get the food out." he laughed, "You were responsible for your station and you needed to be on your game and get your food out. But, it prepared me for for my next gig, so it was a good first experience."

From Aqua, Colletti then moved on to work with New York restaurant icon Sirio Maccioni of the world renowned Le Cirque. Not bad for a young chef's second gig. He expounded on the experience of working in the high profile restaurant's kitchen. "At Le Cirque, it was a bit more slow paced, but much more exacting with regard to technique and presentation. I learned a lot about the science behind food and it made me more detailed. Sirio is old school, so I learned about the tried and true ways to prepare food. It was there that I met Spike Mendelsohn. We worked side by side and really got along well. Spike decided to move on to a new restaurant being opened by Drew Nieporent and Michael Bao, Mai House, also in NYC."

He explains, "I did not really know much about Vietnamese cuisine and I thought, you know, always thinking of building up my resume and experience as a chef, that this would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge." During Chef Colletti’s tenure as Chef de Cuisine at Mai House, the restaurant was awarded two stars by Frank Bruni of The New York Times and named among the Top 10 Best Restaurants in New York City by The New York Times. He spent more than two years at Mai House; during which Colletti traveled throughout Vietnam for several months to study the local food and culture and was chosen to guest chef at the 5-Star Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He talked about the experience.

Chef Colletti's Day Boat Scallops
"When you go to any place, to cook like the locals and learn the why of the food, once you come back, you have such a better understanding of the cuisine and the culture, it broadens your base. When you are there, you see them making rice paper, you're going to that stall and you're learning. I was there for three months and it was almost overwhelming. You eat so much," he laughs, "cause you don't want to miss a bite." I asked him what was the most memorable experience being there. He responded, "The freshness! You're at a stand, eating clams that just came out of the water, right there on the beach. It's a total immersion into the everyday lives of these people and it all revolves around the freshest ingredients, the freshest food. And simple, not complicated. The food speaks for itself." 

After five years in New York, he decided to join Mendelsohn in Washington D.C. at the Sunnyside Group. There he would play a vital role in the conceptualization of Chef Mendelsohn's restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, located in Capitol Hill. He explained, "Spike's parents opened up a spot in DC and Spike asked me to join him. I was really into the conceptualization of the place. The decor, the menu building." During this time Spike gained national acclaim with his being on TV. With the national success of Good Stuff Eatery, Chef Colletti was invited to participate in Food Network’s 2009 Food & Wine Festival's “Rachel Ray Burger Bash,” in both Miami and New York, where he earned back-to-back victories for his creation of the “Colletti Smokehouse Burger." Food Network then invited Chef Mendelssohn and Chef Colletti to compete in an episode of Iron Chef America, where they would “Battle Prosciutto” versus Chef Michael Symon. The episode that aired in March 2010.

Chef Colletti was then given responsibility for opening and overseeing operations at the second Spike Mendelsohn venture, We, The Pizza, also in Capitol Hill. It became an instant sensation and within three months of opening was voted one of the “Top 50 Best Pizzerias in America” by USA TODAY.

First Lady Michelle Obama, a frequent visitor and supporter of both restaurants, requested Chef Colletti participate in preparing several White House luncheons serving the President and staff members. Through this affiliation, he became part of the “Lets Move!” campaign created by Mrs. Obama to combat childhood obesity. In addition, while living in Washington, D.C., Chef Colletti was proud to be involved with Horton’s Kids Foundation and D.C. Central Kitchen. As a result of his supportive efforts, Chef Colletti was asked to attend the 2011 Capitol Food Fight, in which he was awarded second place by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio and José Andrés.

After three successful years in Washington, D.C., he decided to move back to his home state of New Jersey to pursue his own restaurant vision with his cousins. The resulting collaboration is VB3 Restaurant and Bar  located in Jersey City in The Monaco, a luxury apartment building on  Jersey City's waterfront. Carrying on the important garden to table tradition of his family, the restaurant features Chef Colletti’s creative, Modern Seasonal Italian cuisine, based on family recipes using locally-sourced ingredients. "From the moment I decided to do this it was a blast," he said excitedly. "My own concepts, my own menu, falling back on my roots and my heritage. Taking the old Italian classics and making them into this modern cuisine, using French techniques." He continued. "I was thrilled to be back in NJ. It's my home. Friends and family are here. My roots."

About the VB3 direction and concept he told me, "We spent a lot of time figuring out the concept," he continued, "what the area  needed. We decided on serious food with serious nightlife. VB3 has 80 seats in the dining room and 30 at the bar. We're open till 3AM Monday through Sunday, so our philosophy is; 'Come for the Food...Stay for the Party.' It's a very relaxed atmosphere, not stuffy at all, but with incredible food coming out of the kitchen. Most patrons are quite surprised, but that's a good thing. The menu is seasonal and focused on local, fresh farm to table ingredients. It (the menu) speaks for my cooking style. At the same time it has to be accessible to the main stream dining public. We're flanked by two hotels, so while I'm doing fresh, exciting interpretations of classic dishes, it's still recognizable to what we all know as comfort food."

Actually friends, take my word for it, it's amazing.

Bon Appetit,


July 23, 2012

How do you do? I'm fond of Fondue. How about you? Do you like fondue? (props to Dr. Seuss!)

Good friends, sitting around a table laughing, creating memories and enjoying the communal bond that comes with sharing a meal. It's special.

Though this was not the impetus for the creation of fondue, when introduced to America, that is indeed what happened. In the Sixties and Seventies, fondue parties were all the rage.In the Eighties and Nineties, we 'Boomers' became 'too cool' to do fondue.That was our mother's and father's generation. Beehive hairdos, polyester leisure suits, platform shoes.

Happily though, in recent years, in America, fondue is making a comeback. There is even a restaurant chain dedicated to the concept. In its country of origin, Switzerland, it remains a staple of Swiss cuisine and throughout the world there are many different forms and versions.. From traditional cheese fondue, to the chocolate decadence of dessert fondue, to the actual cooking of meats in a pot of oil or broth, fondue continues to be a fun way to share a meal with friends and family. Personally I am very fond of fondue. I have been known to make it just for myself. Come along with me as we take a look at fondue and its origins, then go out get yourself a fondue set and have a party. Just don't forget to invite me. I can never get enough!

This warm cheese dish originated in Switzerland and more specifically, in the Canton of Neuchatel. The dish consists of at least two varieties of cheeses that are melted with wine and a bit of flour and served communally out of pot called a "caquelon." Long forks are used by each guest to spear a cube of bread then the bread is dipped into the cheese and eaten.

Fondue dates back to the 18th century when both cheese and wine were important industries in Switzerland. This simple to prepare meal utilized ingredients that were found in most average homes. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin mentioned fondue in his 19th century writings. However, fondue really hit its heyday in 1952, when Chef Konrad Egli, of New York's Chalet Swiss Restaurant, introduced a fondue method of cooking meat cubes in hot oil.

Swiss communal fondue arose many centuries ago as a result of food preservation methods. The Swiss food staples bread and raclette-like cheese made in summer and fall were meant to last throughout the winter months. The bread aged, dried out and became so tough it was sometimes chopped with an axe. The stored cheese also became very hard, but when mixed with wine (You see! Everything is better with wine!) and heated, it softened into a thick sauce. During Switzerland's long, cold winters, some families and extended roups would gather about a large pot of cheese set over the fire and dip wood-hard bits of bread, which quickly became edible.

As Switzerland industrialized, wine and cheese producers encouraged the dish's popularity. By the 20th century, many Swiss cantons and even towns had their own local varieties and recipes based on locally available cheeses, wines and other ingredients. During the 1950s, a slowing cheese industry in Switzerland widely promoted fondue, since one person could easily eat half a pound of melted cheese in one sitting. In 1955 the first pre-mixed "instant" fondue was brought to market. Fondue became very popular in the United States during the mid-1960s after American tourists discovered it in Switzerland and through Chef Egli.

The Swiss Tradition
Each component of a traditional Swiss fondue plays an important role. "Traditional" Swiss style fondue is a combination of two cheeses, Gruyere and Emmenthaler. These two cheeses are combined because each cheese alone would produce a mixture that was either too sharp or too bland. The cheeses are most commonly melted in a dry white wine which helps to keep the cheese from the direct heat as it melts as well as to add flavor. Anyone from Switzerland will tell you, "Making fondue without wine is not actually fondue, it's just melted cheese." The Kirsch (a clear cherry brandy) was added if the cheese itself was too young to produce the desired tartness. The garlic was for additional flavoring, while the flour or cornstarch assists in keeping the cheese from separating.

The Traditional Pot (Caquelon)
The traditional fondue pot is called a "caquelon" or "câclon" and is made of a heavy earthenware. Other variations include glazed, ceramic or enameled iron. All variations are heavy, to help promote even heat distribution and heat retention. The fondue is heated on your cook-top in the caquelon over low to medium heat then transferred to the table and placed over an alcohol burner or a hot plate.

Given fondue is a "communal" meal, there are a few basic guidelines to follow. To eat cheese fondue, spear a piece of bread using a fondue fork and dip it into the pot. Twirl the bread cube gently in the cheese to coat it. You'll want to let the bread drip a bit before you put it in your mouth. This will allow the excess to drip back in the pot and also allow time for cooling. When you put the bread in your mouth try not to touch the fork with your lips or tongue because the fork does go back in the pot. We suggest always using a dining fork to slide the bread off the fondue fork then eating it with the dining fork. To eat meat fondue, spear a piece of meat and plunge it in the hot oil. Allow it to sit until the meat is cooked to your liking. Remove the fork and place it on your plate. Use your dining fork to slide the meat off the fondue fork. Also use your dining fork to dip the meat in the sauce as desired.

A "no double-dipping" rule also has sway: After a dipped morsel has been tasted it should never be returned to the pot or dipping sauce. In longstanding Swiss tradition, if a nugget of bread is lost in the cheese by a man, he buys a bottle of wine and if such a thing happens to befall a woman, she kisses the man on her left. Lately, rather more humorous twists on this have shown up in Switzerland such as young diners diving into the snow whilst clad only in underwear. Children will sometimes fight over the cracker-like la religieuse left at the bottom of the emptied caquelon.

The Bread
A baguette works very well although any crusty French or Italian style breads will do. When you slice the bread, make sure that each piece includes a bit of the crust. This crust helps keep the bread on the fork after it is placed in the cheese.


Three-Cheese Fondue with Champagne
Yield: Makes 2 servings
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (about 7 ounces)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups dry (brut) Champagne
1 large shallot, chopped 1/3 cups grated Emmenthal cheese (about 5 ounces)
1/2 cup diced rind-less Brie or Camembert cheese (about 3 ounces)
Generous pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground white pepper
1 French-bread baguette, crust left on, bread cut into 1-inch cubes

Stir cornstarch and lemon juice in small bowl until cornstarch dissolves; set aside. Combine Champagne and shallot in fondue pot or heavy medium saucepan; simmer over medium heat 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat. Add all cheeses and stir to combine. Stir in cornstarch mixture. Return fondue pot to medium heat and stir until cheeses are melted and smooth and fondue thickens and boils, about 12 minutes. Season fondue with nutmeg and white pepper. Place over candle or canned heat burner to keep warm. Serve with bread cubes.

Dessert Fondue
Dessert fondues became very popular in the 1970's. Chocolate fondue was a favorite used for dipping ripe fruits such as bananas, strawberries and tangerines. Some recipes suggest dipping some cubes of angel food cake as well. Other dessert fondues include caramel, coconut and marshmallow.

White Chocolate Fondue
Serves 6

1 cup heavy cream
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 packages (12 ounces each) premier white morsels,

Fresh fruits - bananas, strawberries, grapes, tangerines, pears, apples, raspberries. Fresh fruit should be ripe but still firm enough to not dissolve while dipping.
Dried fruit - apricots, dates, figs
Cakes or cookies - Bite sized pieces of angel food cake, pound cake, lady fingers or crisp biscotti

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine cream and butter. Bring mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat. Add white morsels. Stir until melted and smooth. Cool slightly. Transfer to a fondue pot, chafing dish, or ceramic bowl. Serve with apples, bananas, strawberries, cookies, pretzels, and pound cake.

Other Fondue Styles

Broth or Bouillon
Shabu Shabu is the Japanese version of fondue using vegetable broth or boullion. This makes a lighter, less caloric meal than the cheese or hot oil versions. Potatoes as well as other vegetables or small bits of seafood are cooked in the simmering pot of broth.


Fonduta is an Italian dish similar to Fondue made with Fontina cheese and egg yolks.

Fondue Bourguignonne
Also referred to as Beef Fondue. A mixture of half butter and half cooking oil is combined and heated in a cast iron or enamel fondue pot. Small pieces of lean meat and vegetables are speared and cooked in the hot oil. It is particularly important to use a stable fondue pot for this type of fondue.

Bagna Cauda
This is a wonderful dish from the Piedmonte region of Italy. The name comes from bagno caldo which means "hot bath". It is made by combining butter, olive oil, garlic and anchovies. The mixture is heated and guests use wooden skewers or fondue forks to spear a variety of fresh vegetables, meats and seafood which are dipped and warmed.

This is a Dutch dish (cheese dip) similar to the Italian style fonduta.

I've only one more suggestion: If you decide to have your own Fondue party....make sure I get an invite!!! Thanks for taking the dip into Fondue with me...

Bon Appetit,


July 03, 2012

Spanish Wines

Most people are quite surprised to hear that Spain has the largest amount of wine producing acreage of any country in the world. I know I was. My guess as to why this fact might not be so well known is probably because, when we measure the total volume of actual wine produced per country, it ranks third on the list behind Italy and France. Most experts are inclined to agree that this is most likely due to the geography. As we discovered in another article here this month, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe behind Switzerland, another thing most might not know. Don't you just love it when you learn something at the same time you' re enjoying yourself?

The History
Because the culture of Spain is such that it has been influenced by centuries of invasion and the subsequent insertion of foreign customs, Txomin Etxaniz Vineyard in Getaria foods and beliefs, today's Spain is a vibrant and alive country with many diverse sides.

That said, I'd like to give you a brief glimpse into how Spain came to be the wine producer it is. Keep in mind though, that a good many things we understand about the culinary side of this nation are intertwined. For example, cheeses are developed specifically to go with age old wine traditions and the same can be said in in the opposite order.

First, let's talk grapes. Some were cultivated between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the wine culture of the Phoenicians came to Cadiz around 1100 BC. After that it was the Carthaginians. When the Greeks came in 700 BC, they introduced the culture of extensive vineyards. A few centuries later the Romans developed viticulture in the country further and following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoth invaded Spain and wine production went into decline. Later, the Arab conquerors tolerated wine production without actually encouraging it. That is eight, uniquely disparate countries and cultures over a 4000 year span, if you count the indigenous population. But wait... there's more..

The Moors were subsequently defeated and Christians took over. With colonization, Spain developed markets in its South American colonies, as well as, wine trade with England. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the growth of popularity with Sherry, Malaga and Rioja wine. The end of the 19th century saw the emergence of Spanish sparkling wines, with Cava in Cataloña. Then came the beginning of the Denominación de Origen system (D.O.) first developed in Rioja in 1926.

The Spanish Civil War in the 50s, saw many vineyards neglected or destroyed, but the final political stability created new export opportunities for bulk wine. This facilitated the creation of many cooperatives. Sherry was rediscovered in the 60s, while Rioja wines were again in demand from foreign markets. Gradually, Spain has moved from producing low quality bulk wines, to focusing on top shelf, quality wines.

The D.O. system was revised in 1970 and now has similarities with the French and Italian systems. In 2007, there were 67 D.O.'s. in Spain. The Spanish have also addeed a top class of D.O., the Denominación de Origen Calificada. This status is given only to D.O.'s that have a consistent track record of quality. There are two D.O.C.; Rioja and Priorat.

So as you can see, Spain's food, wines and attitude have all been shaped over the centuries into a melding of the culture you have today. It explains quite a bit as you start to delve into the nation, its culture and its cuisine. To really get an understanding of a country and its people, you have to think, eat and drink like they do. I wholeheartedly agree. To find out more about the regions and culinary history of Spain, check out Spain...A Culinary Day in the Life. Lastly, no discussion about wine in Spain would be complete without talking about the time honored tradition of drinking out of the Porron.

El Porron
From Wikpedia: "Porron (Catalan: porró) is a traditional glass wine pitcher, typical of Catalonia, but famous throughout Spain. It resembles a cross between a wine bottle and a watering can. The top of the bottle is narrow and can be sealed off with a cork. Stemming upwards from the bottom of the pitcher is a spout that gradually tapers off to a small opening. It is shaped such that the wine stored inside it will have minimal contact with the air, while being ready to be used at all times. The idea originated as a replacement to Bota bags. Porrons are most commonly filled with regular wines, either white or red, but are also used to drink Cava. A smaller version, filled with dessert sweet wine, is common in Catalan restaurants."

Now that we have covered a brief history of the country's wine making origins, rather than give you a huge list of wines, I have chosen three outstanding D.O.'s for you to try and enjoy.

Bodegas Bleda, Murcia
The Winery
Bodegas Bleda is a family owned bodega that was established in 1935. It was one of the very first bodegas to individually bottle wine in this region, where until the 1980's was primarily used to produce bulk table wines. It is also one of the most important and historic Bodegas. Its ever-increasing presence in various reference guides and awards in international competitions are Christopher Gilar of Bodegas Bleda testimony to the quality and focus of this bodega, and the success of their extensive regional grape varietals - primarily the Monastrell (or Mourvédre in French). Their wines are bottled and aged under the most modern and technologically advanced conditions in line with the new Jumilla, while maintaining the long traditions of the bodega.

The Wine
Current Vintage: 2005
Grapes: 95% Monastrell, 5% Merlot
The grapes come from 50 year-old vineyards of Monastrell 95% and Merlot 5%, hand selected and harvested during the first week of October 2005. There is a long maceration of the skin for 21 days. Crianza of the wine: in new French oak barrels (Allier) during nine months.
Very intense and deep cherry red color. Nose of intense blackberry, blackcurrant and light anis, with a pleasant vanilla note of elegant Allier wood. In the mouth it is tasty, rich and with balsamic notes. Meaty, fresh and balanced structure, very powerful with good acidity and noble with well-joined tannins integrated with wood. Ample and persistent finish with tobacco & toasted notes and bright retro nasal aroma.

The Bodegas Berceo of Rioja
The Winery
Bodegas Gurpegui Muga was formed nearly one and a half centuries ago, where the first member of the Gurpegui family inspired the creation of what is today, one of the most important wine producing grupos in Spain. The respect for inherited tradition and a deep love of wine are still recognized as the prominent features of their identity.

Bodegas Berceo is the oldest and most historical bodega of the group located in Haro (Rioja Alavesa) on the historical street of Cuevas de Haro, and was established in 1872. One of two bodegas located within the actual municipality, they originally located the bodega on the side of town with the steepest incline, as it was one of the first to use the gravitation process advantage to produce wine, which at the time, was considered a revolutionary technology. It is still functional to this day (but not used for production). In the old cellars and ancient facilities of Bodegas Berceo, the traditions of old live side-by-side with the most innovative wine production systems, such as the new Luis Gurpegui Muga Bodega, a splendid 21st century building incorporating the latest wine-making technologies, located at the edge of the Navarra region which borders Rioja Alavesa. Today, they are part of a Riojan group called Grupo Gurpegui Muga, which utilize a wide variety of wine-producing estates in a number of areas. The Bodegas Berceo of Rioja and Luis Gurpegui Muga of Navarra wines are highly respected and well established in the Spanish and international markets, along with continuing international accolades and recognition.
The Wine
Current Vintage: 2001
Grapes: Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo
The bunches were hand picked, whole, clean and leaf free. Vinification was carried out with the traditional fermentation method, not exceeding 28 °C during the first fermentation. After a very light sulphite process, skins were cleared from the must at a denisty of 995 gr/L, completing afterwards malolactic fermentation. Once completed, a further sulphite process was carried out at 2 fr/hl, after which the aging process began, keeping the wine in oak barrels (both French and American) for at least 1 year. The wine was then filtered and cold stabilized at -5 °C, prior to bottling.
Clean and brilliant ruby red color.
Perfect balance between the vanilla and spices from the oak and plumy, red berry fruit aromas. Smooth, well rounded, good backbone and a long, persistent finish, with nice, well integrated acidity which will help keep the wine, improving for a further 3 to 4 years.

Adega Almirante, Rias Baixas
The Winery
The birth of Albariño and its relation to Portas dates historically back to the XII Century above the river Umia, which ends in Portas, about one-third of the way between Pontevedra and Santiago de Compostela. Adega Almirante in a very short time, has become one of the most important bodegas (Adegas) in Rias Baixas. Located in the borough of Portas within the province of Caldas de Reis, which is located in the northern portion of Val de Salnés. This is the closest Albariño region to the Atlantic west, allowing for a later harvest and increased grape maturity. The over 35 hectares of vines are owned by the five principal owners of Adegas Almirante. Therefore the quality of the grapes and reputation of the wines are controlled by the owners. This quality is evident as reflected in the new state of the art facility and growing techniques, which is resulting in the rapid success of their Albariños locally, and now, internationally. The late harvest maceration provides the wines with brilliant color, freshness, elegance, and intense flavors.
The Wine
Current Vintage: 2006
Grape: 100% Albariño
A nose that is surprisingly complex, elegant ripe fruit - apricot, banana, apple, giving way to delicate floral tones and a subtle herbal background.
Clear, brilliant, intense straw color with golden reflections.
A flavorsome Albariño, which stands out for its body and complexity, due to the second, temperature controlled Maceration process. This elevates the fruity overtones, while at the same time, Maccerato is characterized by its finish, rounded quality and acidity. Through the retro-nasal passage, there is a balanced structure that makes this an especially unique Albariño.

Bon Appetit,