“Bulli” For Me!
Posted: 1st December 2016
The big treat this month was a dinner at the excellent Iberica restaurant in Canary Wharf. Iberica has been spreading its wings of late, opening in Glasgow and Leeds, but, as ever, letting the chefs in each location put their own spin on things. What remains a constant is the use of excellent materials and of course before anything else that means iberico ham – the greatest in the world!
The other sine qua non is Nacho Manzano who controls the menus in the various branches of Iberica as well as running his own Michelin Two-Star, Casa Marcial in the Asturias. In November, however, he welcomed three former right-hand men from Ferran Adria’s famous – and now even more famously defunct – El Bulli to London and Manchester: Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, the owners of the restaurant Compartir in Salvador Dali’s Cadaqués and Disfrutar in Barcelona. Together with Manzano they prepared an eight-course menu moistened with wines, beer and cider from the Asturias.
I never made it to El Bulli, but I know it was all about bites of food, novel taste experiences and intense flavours. There was a lot of ‘foam’ and bubbles of olive oil ‘caviar’, and all sorts of test-tube wizardry that might or might not have worked as an alternative to a slap up feast. Adria’s most famous disciple here is obviously Heston ‘Bloomers’ Blumenthal.
So I was prepared for little things: a beetroot and strawberry salad with an ajoblanco – white garlic – sorbet (Compartir); clams, parsley juice and seaweed emulsion from Casa Marcial; Iberico red tuna (Compartir); tongue and lentils with mole sauce, a caramel-coated onion, pickle gel and marshland herbs (Casa Marcial); Crispy egg yolk on mushroom jelly (Disfrutar); sardine with monkfish liver and saltmarsh herbs (Casa Marcial); cheesecake with raspberry sorbet (Compartir); and finally celery panna cotta with fennel slush (ugly word), apple soup and seaweed (Casa Marcial).
There were plenty of – mostly fishy – flavours. The clams, the sardines and the monkfish liver made big demands on the sommelier’s skill, not everyone at my table was happy with the food: some wouldn’t eat shellfish, others didn’t like offal etc. Fortunately, I have no qualms about this sort of thing. The thinly-sliced raw red tuna was a highlight, scattered with a few ‘bubbles’ of olive oil (‘Caviaroli’), and this will now join the menus at all branches of Iberica.
“The runny egg yolk – in the middle of a crispy deep-fried white and served in an eggshell on top of a mushroom reduction, reminded me of the very many recreated eggs with truffles and sea urchins and Lord knows what I scoffed as a gastronomic critic in the old days. I enjoyed a rather Proustian moment as I lapsed into culinary nostalgia.”
The sommelier had known to vary the drinks – there was Alhambra beer, for example, and a sort of ‘ice-cider’ (Diamantes de Hielo) to go with pudding. In between there was the sharp, untannic red called La Fanfarria (Mencia and Albarin tinto) and a properly chunky Emporda 5 Fincas which blended Grenache with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. It was also a pleasure to run into a few old friends, such as Maria-José Sevilla from the Spanish promotional body who drove me up to Jabugo to worship at the Temple of Ham, and the lovely manager of Iberica Portland Place, who once carved ham for my infant son, pushing the pieces at him with a huge and terrifying knife, an experience he has never forgotten.
A tasting of Douro Boys wine in London’s Poland Street stirred up memories of The Man from Uncle. We went in through a large shop selling records and then, right at the back, was a utilitarian staircase leading down to a roomy subterranean space filled with wine, old friends and a close relative. Almost my first stop was the Prats & Symington stand. I was sceptical about the venture at the beginning, as I didn’t feel Bordeaux was the right model for the Douro, but the wines seem to have really blossomed and they are anything but claret-like now. Both the 2015 and 2014 were superb, and the 2014 Post-Scriptum possibly the best of the lot. Also in that English stable is Churchill’s where I much admired Johnny Graham’s 2013 Grand Reserve and an absolutely stunning 2014 port.
Other wines that stood out were the 2015 white Reserva from Duas Quintas and an incredibly good value (€4) 2014 Tons from Duorum (I know it’s the Latin name for the Douro, but it always sounds like a medical condition to me). I must look to see if Manu has that at the Wine Cellar in Kentish Town. I also liked the well-structured 2014 Quinta Nova Reserva, which should keep an even keel for several years yet.
One small cooperative which seems to consistently make super wines is the Lavradores de Feitoria. Particularly good are the Três Bagos, Meruge and Quinta de Costa das Aguaneiras.
The Quinta do Val do Meão is an old favourite. It has to be one of the half dozen best estates in the Douro Valley by anyone’s reckoning. I should be happy with any of the wines from the simple Meandro to the Monte Meão or the Quinta do Val do Meão itself. Another front runner is the Quinta Vale D. Maria owned by Cristiano van Zeller. Here 41 different grape varieties and vines with an average age of 60, contribute to the complexity of the wine. The best for me was the Vinha do Rio, where the Tinta Barocca grapes are a century old. Even here there are 29 cultivars. This diversity is a big step forward from the efforts made a generation ago to whittle down the number of grape varieties in Portuguese vineyards. The estate’s top wine is Curriculum Vitae. The 2014 was certainly one of the best wines in the tasting. Van Zeller was previously responsible for the Quinta do Crasto too where I loved the 2014 Superior Syrah and the Reserva wines.
On the 8th there was a tasting on non-aligned Germans looking for representation in Britain. There were only a few surprises: Heitlinger from Baden (a VDP estate); Rauen (the Auslese in particular), Dahm (2005 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Auslese) in the Mosel; lovely dry and sweet Gewürztraminers from Oberhofer in the Pfalz; the well-known August Eser (a sensationally powerful 2015 Rauenthaler Rothenberg), Corvers Kauter, Bickelmaier and Schumann-Nägler in the Rheingau; Alexander Gysler, Frey and Jean Buscher in Rheinhessen; but above all my friends Nick and Annette Köwerich in Leiwen, whose wines have made such a huge leap forward in the last few years.
And for the rest I have been “keeping the cold at bay with a sweet, treacly grain whisky” – Haig Club. It comes in a vulgar blue bottle, is endorsed by a football player, but hell! It keeps out the draft in this windy old house.