I have posted below about a vertical tasting of Pedro Ximénez, or PX, sherry—a very sweet dessert wine—from Bodegas Toro Albalá. Since I posted here seeking advice on what to pair with the PX for the tasting, I think a report on the outcome is in order on that topic as well.
Once the bottles were finally on order, I turned my attention to the “menu” portion of the event. I have been to many wine tastings but never to a sherry tasting. Certainly never to a tasting of something as unusual as PX. I began to research. I looked on the internet, I read books, I spoke to people. Certain items—blue cheese, dried fruit, dark chocolate—were regularly recommended. Others—poured over vanilla ice cream, nuts—were occasionally mentioned but didn’t quite engender any enthusiasm on my part. Then it occurred to me that I might post in the most logical of all places, food sites. So posts went up on LTHForum, eGullet, and Chowhound. And the recommendations multiplied. Salt caramels, poured on vanilla ice cream, flan, fresh fruit, Snickers bars….Okay, maybe not Snickers, but the rest of it and more. I began to read cookbooks. Wine pairing articles and books. Spanish culinary histories.
One couldn’t just have a tasting of PX, after all. As was pointed out quite appropriately, a light meal afterward would probably be a good idea for any of a number of reasons. And if a light meal after was advisable, perhaps I ought to begin with a few small plates to line the belly and whet the appetite. So cookbook research began in earnest. Should I focus on Spain? Yes. Should my choices be limited to Andalucian food? No—but only eventually. So recipe choosing began to take up larger and larger proportions of my days. And evenings. The planning was beginning to assume a life of its own. A good life, but a life nonetheless.
Then I made a fortuitous connection. As a result of one of my postings, I was fortunate to correspond with several posters, most notably Maria Lorraine Binchet. Based in California, she’s a professional food writer with—fortunately for me—an expertise in wine and food pairings! We covered a wide range of ideas in our correspondence (some good (hers), some not so good (mine)). I posed questions, she graciously deflated my test balloons, offering along the way, a series of well-thought-out, time (and taste-) tested ideas. And I spent a little less time reading and a little more time thinking. Ms. Binchet also had the innovative idea of suggesting (no small shock to me at the time) that I actually open and taste the bottles themselves to get a better notion of where I wanted to head. Simple suggestions are often the wisest.
So I began to pare down my ideas for before, with, and after. I always knew that the tasting would be small and open (as opposed to blind)—ideally no more than half a dozen people. The serving logistics (not to mention the number of glasses) were too daunting for a larger group. Although I briefly flirted with the idea of getting a room in a restaurant and coping with the use of professionals (or even hiring professionals to take care of things at my own home), I eventually decided that simpler was easier and more fun. I knew I would enjoy making the dishes and that I wanted to be at the table, not running around in the kitchen during the tasting. So, slowly, the dishes almost chose themselves. I opted for recipes that “aged” well. Things that, prepared in advance, would mellow or improve with a day’s aging. The “before” items were also chosen for simplicity’s sake.
To take the items in order, let me first offer a few quick translations. Boquerones are very mild, white anchovies preserved not in salt but vinegar. Piquillo peppers are uniquely Spanish, mild (a little sweet), and scrumptious. Serrano ham is…well, serrano ham. Sliced very thin and aged like prosciutto, but not quite like prosciutto in taste. A true delight, though. The canape was a spread made the day before of “regular” canned anchovies, finely diced, along with pimiento, onion, and parsley. Those disinclined to anchovies would be disinclined to like the spread. Spanish chorizo is, unlike Mexican, a much firmer sausage, tasting noticeably of paprika to my palate and available for us both in “regular” and hot. Everything here was designed for ease of handling (there was plenty of LaBrea Bakery baguette slices) and maximum flavor.
What to accompany the PX remained the hardest of choices. I realized very quickly that there had to be something to clear the palate, a water of some sort, and I agreed with the suggestion of several to serve a straightforward soda water. In the event, the bubbles and slightly basic pH were the perfect foil. And the rest of my choices, as you can see from the list, were pretty much the classics: dried fruit, chocolate, and cheese. I chose to serve one cheese, Manchego, on the side with homemade carne de membrillo (quince paste)—a quintessential Spanish dish. The other cheeses were chosen, with the benefit of considerable advice, to represent the classic (Roquefort and Valdeón, a very different French and Spanish blue), the offbeat (Fiore Sardo is a pecorino from Sardinia), and a more accessible option: Idiazábal. It’s a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, a little nutty, buttery at the same time and, not coincidentally, also complemented by the membrillo.) The blues were served, as Ms. Binchet (and others) recommended, with a dark honey (in this case, one of my favorites, a thyme honey).
Dried fruit is a—indeed, perhaps, the classic accompaniment to Pedro Ximénez. Like virtually nothing else, the fruit complements and magnifies single notes in the wine. Fig is the best known, but hardly the only fruit to do so. My first assignment was to find a purveyor whose quality I could rely upon. Despite a helpful multiplicity of recommendations, I ended up choosing a company in California that delivered even better than I could have hoped. The Bella Viva Orchards (http://bellaviva.com/Dried-Fruits-and...) offered a wide selection of fruits in a different weights, making the ordering much easier. (Again, recommended unhesitatingly: luscious, highly flavorful dried fruit.)
After more dithering, I chose Mission figs, Bing cherries, white nectarines (for the acid), and pluots. The last is a cross between a plum and an apricot. I had toyed with buying apricots for some time, but also find myself personally drawn to plums (not prunes, plums). Why not split the difference? I bought a pound of Dapple Dandy pluots. (Okay, so the variety’s name leaves something to be desired. I dare you to taste them and utter anything except superlatives.) Were I to plan another tasting (not inconceivable, all things considered), I’d drop the cherries and the nectarines, I think. What I would go with in place of them—if, indeed, anything at all—remains an open question. Apricots, perhaps. Dates, also a possibility. Prunes…not out of the question either.
Pan de higo almendrado is another Spanish classic: fig cake with almonds. Since figs are one of the most common descriptions of a flavor note that the PX would evoke, anything fig-like made sense. So I offered both the dried fruit and the cake. In the event, the cake tasted (again, to my palate at least, mostly like dry figs. I got little to no almond flavor and found the dried fruit far moister and redolent than the pan de higo).
Choosing chocolates was more of a challenge. My own personal preference leans toward the lower percentages of cocoa in the chocolate. So, given a choice between a 50% dark chocolate and a 70%, I’ll go for the lower percentage every time. But I wasn’t sure what would work best with the PX. Or even whether something that would work with one would necessarily work with another. And so I looked for—and fortunately found—a range. (In fact the best part of the chocolate shopping was that I somehow, inexplicably ended up with another six or eight bars that I couldn’t use for the tasting and will be forced to eat as naked, unadorned chocolate. Darn!)
I wanted more things. I wanted to have salt caramels—both for their own sake and to see if they worked as well as some people swore they did. I wanted to try flan (orange, vanilla, maybe something else) to see how well it might complement the PX. I was curious to see how fresh fruit would work—or if it was simply the wrong choice. But after weeks and weeks spent studying, reading, corresponding, and thinking, it occurred to me that if I didn’t start planning for an actual date with real live people, the tasting would become a Platonic event, an obsession to rival Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud.”
So I started to narrow down the dishes, before, during, and after. I knew that eating something afterward would be wise, as several people had suggested, but again the problem was what. What would be reheatable? What would work with what we had just had? What would be appropriate? And so I chose the series of dishes listed above. (Actually, the original menu included two more dishes, but in the event although they were ready to go, I chose not to serve them: ensalada a la Almoraina and atún escabechado. The former is a salad of escarole with a tomato-based cumin dressing that is Andalucian in origin, or so my cookbook promised me. The tuna escabechado was simply white meat tuna marinated with oil, vinegar, capers, parsley, and onion. It tasted exactly like it sounds, although over time the capers pretty much disappeared from the taste and you got mostly vinegared tuna.)
Gazpacho is gazpacho, or so I naively thought. My cookbook (in this case, Penelope Casas The Foods and Wines of Spain) labeled this version Andalucian. I don’t know enough about regional cooking in Spain to identify what is peculiarly Andalucian about it (tomato, green pepper, onion, cucumber, one garlic clove, vinegar, and a little tarragon—no oil, no bread) but it was excellent. For the acelgas I used swiss chard (Casas also recommends collard greens) which is cooked down with pine nuts and raisins and, fortuitously, benefits from being made ahead. Even the albondigas, meatballs from seasoned ground pork, deep-fried, reheated easily and well. If I had it to do again, though, I would have made the baby lima beans [habas con jamon] just beforehand. This Spanish dish brought to mind a Roman one made with favas and prosciutto; I made mine with frozen baby limas (a real revelation to me in terms of taste and zero work compared to preparing fava beans!) and the diced Spanish ham. It did not overnight or reheat particularly well, but the combination was, at least to me, a true delight. (Though, in truth, I may have been overly influenced by the opportunity to taste the dish as I made it…over and over again!)
In retrospect, I have one regret: I did too much. As the time for the tasting approached, I began to fear that my enthusiasms had overtaken my common sense. Though I think everything turned out well, it was indeed too much. Having something before, during, and after, was wise and I would repeat that plan. But there was simply too much food with the sherries and, quite possibly, afterward. I think I’d probably serve the same items again before the tasting. They helped set the mood, offered a variety of items, and indeed lined the belly. The tasting itself should focus on the PX; the accompaniments should complement, not take over. I offered too many things. I’d eliminate the pan de higo and I’d serve only, perhaps, two or three dried fruits at most (figs and plums, most likely). I’d also serve only two or three cheeses (definitely blues and definitely include the honey option). No manchego and membrillo (though, boy, was it good!). Only two chocolates. As to the post-tasting food: I think the individual dish choices were good, but again too many. We didn’t really miss the tuna or the ensalada a la Almoraina. They were fun to learn about but I had so much fun planning that I did too much. The dishes were well chosen for variety and also well chosen for ease of service, all of them being made the day before (with the single caveat on the limas).
I thank all here who so thoughtfully responded to my initial inquiry. I learned a lot from all of you and I learned a lot from the tasting. With so much PX left, I may have no choice but to do it again!