• October 29, 2013

Mission: Authenticity

How do you like that feeling when you are slightly but not hopelessly lost in a new city or country, when the signs don’t make sense, and nothing looks nor smells familiar? I, for one, adore it. Forget the map app. I just try to enjoy the sensation of new territory, because it smacks of adventure. Our hunter-gatherer brains tell us to be wary of new terrain and all its foodstuffs for there may be danger lurking behind every street-food vendor and each barely-marked hole in the wall eatery, but I relish this sensation. I do not claim to have evolved much from my hunter-gatherer past. To the contrary. I just like to relax into the dumbness of my cerebral cortex and follow my nose. The frontal lobe of my somewhat-evolved brain may say to me “Street food here? Utterly devoid of any sanitation principles? Unrecognizable victuals? Don’t do it! Belly turbulence guaranteed!” But I let my reptilian brain stem override this reasoning and I buy the food on a stick with the stinging sauce that two pairs of hands (that I saw, anyway) touched. I eat it with the thrill of several senses. It’s colorful. It’s fatty. It’s warm. It’s spicy. It’s new and different! And that un-marked closet-cum dining spot? I venture in. No one understands me, I understand no one. I point, I hold out some crumpled cash, and wait for whatever arrives while savvier customers jostle me and slurp. I savor my plate of the new and unknown, noodles in some animal’s broth with vegetables I cannot name. I am nourishing my body with different foods and forging more neuron paths in my brain as it grapples with the new.

You see, authentic food experiences force us up and out of the grooved rut. The tongue feels wowed, and the brain expands a tiny bit (I’ll take that, even if it’s the tiniest of tiny bits). In my Spanish restaurant Taberna de Haro, open since 1998, I aim to bring you some thrill - and perhaps some neuron expansion, too - through truly authentic food. A dish may not be what youare expecting. And that’s a good thing. ‘Tortilla’ for example, is a pan-fried omelette containing so many potatoes and onions it is 3 inches tall. Those potatoes and onions have been simmered in real (read: expensive) olive oil, so the wedge you are served is perfumed with olive oil, sweet with well-cooked onions, satisfying with the soft starchiness of potatoes - some crispy brown on the edges- and juicy with perfectly cooked eggs. Oh, I could boil thosepotatoes in water, use cheap vegetable oil, and buy commercial eggs (which require full cooking) rather than free-range, but then Taberna de Haro’s tortilla would not be authentic. You wouldn’t feel Spain in your midst. You wouldn’t have an extraordinary, rut-busting experience.

In world booby-trapped with chain restaurants that guarantee sameness and no new neuron paths, I live for authentic food experiences. In the lunar landscape of the pre-made and the predictable, I crave an original dish or five, and I bet you do, too. Therefore, my mission as chef-owner is authenticity. Take the griddled cuttlefish with black allioli. Cuttlefish is the plumper, squatter cousin of the squid, and he needs to be cut into little cubes before being browned on our flat griddle, called a ‘plancha’ in Spain. Planchas are ubiquitous in tapas restaurants for their unique ability to brown food. That black allioli on your cuttlefish, ‘sepia’ in Spanish, is made by mixing mayonnaise, raw garlic, and squid ink, which costs $30 per jar. I could just serve you white mayonnaise, but that might remind of the chicken salad you had for lunch. Not my goal. I want to delight you with the adventure of something new, the irresistible sensation of black, garlicky mayonnaise on thick squid-like pieces of sweet sea critter, lightly caramelized.

When authenticity is your mission you resist the temptation to buy commercial olives and you import them from Spain, higher price and shipping costs be damned. You stick to traditional recipes you learned during your years in Spain from hard-to-manage sous chefs whose heads were filled with grandeur - and their moms’ traditional recipes! You don’t jump on the chuck wagon of food trends to be hip, rather you keep on your menu the anchovies, the frogs legs, and the saffron salt-cod balls you’ve always had. You make stock for your paella that takes hours, never even considering canned. You peel and cut potatoes by hand rather than using the frozen kind with so many ingredients on their labels. Shouldn’t fried potatoes be just that?

Authenticity to me means staying the course of my ambassadorship to the traditional food and wine of Spain, a place to which I am forever indebted for rocking all my neurons with her flavors and uniqueness for over 30 years now. Imported black-hoofed pig ham. Rich green Spanish olive oil. Dozens of sherries by the glass. Exquisite and costly cheeses that Issan of Formaggio’s Kitchen chooses with as much passion as rigor. 330 different wines from Spain and Spain only. Black paella, using that squid ink again! Piquillo peppers and guindilla peppers. Raw salt cod in your Catalán salad, roasted baby pig once a week, perfectly fried chicken thigh pieces in an audacious amount of olive oil, and naturally raised beef at twice the cost to bring you ten times the pleasure are all examples of my commitment to authenticity. I humbly offer a little foray into Spain’s flavors without the transatlantic journey. I may not be able to offer quite the adventure of that street food vendor in Mexico city with the food on a stick, nor that shoebox noodle spot in the Japanese neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil, but I do deliver authentic.

By Deborah Hansen

Chef-Owner-Sommelier

Taberna de Haro

999 Beacon St.

Brookline, MA 02446

617-277-8272

tabernaboston.com

 

What I Drank on my Summer Vacation

Didn't you love this back-to-school ritual, the essay on What I Did on my Summer Vacation? Here's my big girl adaptation.  

The "Aperitivo" Movement

If I were to start a movement, it would be to import the notion of the aperitf - aperitivo in Spanish - into our bustling North American lives. Too sensitive for politics and too cowardly for seismic social reform, I would prefer to have a little impact on our quality of life. Food and wine are the fodder and dew that sustain us, and if we'd just spin less and savor more, we'd be happier and healthier. The Protestant work ethic runs deep in my veins, but my recent trip to Jerez showed me how acutely we need some peace injected into our eating habits.

Before lunch and dinner, the Jerezanos, like many Europeans, enjoy an aperitivo, the little drink and nibble that precedes a meal, meant to open the appetite. They've never heard the term localvore, but they know to drink the gorgeous wine of their land, sherry. A light and dry sherry such as fino or manzanilla, cleans the palate with its sea-spray salinity and preserved-lemon acidity. The tangy and yeasty notes make it unique and satisfying. Both pair fabulously with challenging foods such as cured ham, olives, anchovies, vinaigrettes, asparagus, artichokes, and salt cod to name a few. Most wines wither and writhe when faced with such intense foods, but fino and manzanilla shine. If the day is cool, an amontillado would serve the same appetite-inducing, nosh-pairing purpose.

I have been in love with manzanilla since I lived in Madrid in the 90's. It is slightly lighter and more saline than fino, which I also adore and crave almost daily, especially since my above-mentioned trip. They are special, and here is why. After harvesting the palomino grapes and fermenting them in the usual way, the light wine is added to a set of barrels known as a solera system. The barrels are piled 3 or 4 high, and form long rows. Each year after bottling some of the sherry from the bottom barrel, (the solera barrel, named after suelo, which means floor in Spanish), the empty space is refilled with sherry from the barrel just above. This barrel is refilled with some sherry from the barrel above it, and so on. The uppermost barrel, known as the first criadera, will receive the sobretablas wine, the wine made from the most recent harvest. I love the idea that I am drinking tiny amounts of extremely old sherry, fed and flavored by the thick layer of spent yeasts on the bottom of barrels that are almost never cleaned. It feels so healthy to my system to be moistened by an enzyme-laden wine from a solera system!

A miracle happens in these barrels. A layer of bloomy white yeast forms on top of the wine in each barrel. It is called flor, and it can survive only if winemakers take great care. The humidity levels must be kept at 65% minimum, and temperatures must be maintained between 69º and 72º F, which requires much activity in the bodegas. The earthen floors are watered to keep humidity levels high, and the windows in the cathedral-like structures are opened or closed depending on the sun, the time of day, the exposure, and the season. The flor also needs to be fed with new wine every few months,which is called the riego.

The flor confers upon the sherry special qualities. It renders the wine impenetrable by oxygen, so even after years in the barrels, finos and manzanillas are a very pale color since no oxidation is happening. The flor feeds on the alcohol, which means the sherry needs further fortification (with neutral grape spirits). Finos and manzanillas have about 15.5% alcohol. The flor also feeds on glycerol, and the absence of glycerol bares the wine, leaving it lean and racy. In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the proximity of the Atlantic keeps the temperature and humidity pretty constant, the flor stays thick and vigorous on the surface of the wine. Since Sanlúcar de Barrameda is where all manzanilla is made, manzanillas end up being the more saline, pale, and bright of the sherries. Finos, mostly reared inland where flor waxes and wanes a bit more with the seasons, tend to be ever so slightly more golden, nutty, and intense.

Both are a stunning prelude to a meal. Rich in enzymes, they offer nutrition. Bright with acidity, they start the digestive juices flowing. Complex with minerals and briny notes, they are compelling and enhance your every salty treat.

It's a relaxing, civilized habit to have an aperitivo before a meal. It's always done with friends and family, in bars and cafes, sometimes even at home. It puts a little space between the work and the feast, and allows for a real (as opposed to virtual) social opportunity. Surf less, convene more!

Jerez-Xerés-Sherry-Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda is the name of the D.O. where sherry is made. A lofty title, and worth every dash and letter, I assure you. Next week I'll write about the other sherries, also thrilling: amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, and pedro ximénez.

 

 


Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence