My infatuation with sherry started a little over 4 years ago, at the ripe age of 21 when I was working in the service industry in Philadelphia. The owner/sommelier of the restaurant devoted one particular staff training session to sherry and only sherry. I was sceptical at first, remembering sherry as a cooking ingredient rather than a drink. After an introduction to the vast variety of sherry, some information about the solera system and a taste of oceanic Manzanilla, I was hooked. Last October, while I was living in Germany, my infatuation only grew stronger when my boyfriend and I took a trip to Andalucia. Vibrant, lively, quaint little Jerez was our favorite stop on our tour of the region. A quirky, beautiful town full of passionate sherry lovers and the sweetest people I’ve met in my travels. It is the only place I’ve ever visited where the vast majority of the locals speak less English than I speak Spanish. Yet somehow, we made friends I will never forget, a deal sealed by the locals buying us a bottle of sherry to thank us for our interest in their city. So I’ve decided to continue my relationship with Sherry here in Los Angeles. While I know Sherry will never be as good as it was in Jerez, where the local cuisine and culture is built around it, I will try my damnest to find the best pairings here in LA. The goal of this experiment is to find dishes in this city that pair well with each style of sherry as well as learning which ingredients complement those styles. Eventually I will be able to choose the appropriate dish, wherever I may be, when the urge for a glass of sherry strikes me. This week is part one of my sherry experiment.
For our first experiment we used little half bottles of Fino and Manzanilla. In the most basic terms, Fino is a style of fine, delicate sherry that is fortified to about 15% and aged under a naturally occurring layer of surface yeast called flor which protects the sherry from oxidation. Manzanilla is made in the same style, but is from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, wherein its close proximity to the Atlantic imparts a salty characteristic to its wines.
The fino: El Maestro Sierra Fino $14.99 [bottled January, 2014] a small boutique producer, now owned by three women, a rarity in the world of sherry.
At this stage, this delicate fino has subtle notes of pecans, fresh apples, pie crust, and toasted pumpkin seeds with a mildly salty palate of butterscotch, almonds and bitter orange peel.
The manzanilla: La Cigarrera Manzanilla $11.99 [bottled January, 2014]. With manzanilla it’s all about location! This bodega is in the ‘barrio bajo’ or the ‘low quarter’ which is at sea level, where the moist sea-breeze gets trapped, providing a great climate for flor.
A true manzanilla with a bouquet full of oysters, clams and salted toffee. A flavor intense palate of oceanic salt and seaweed, peanut butter, bitter almonds and squash.
We started out with a spread of some typical accoutrement you might pair with sherry; some rosemary seasoned marcona almonds, mixed olives from the Armenian corner store on my street, some aged Manchego cheese and we threw in some creamy blue cheese for fun.
And so we dug in, some people were so eager they couldn’t wait for me to take a picture:
La Cigarrera Manzanilla paired wonderfully with the mixed olives, these briny olives complimented the oceanic qualities of the manzanilla. The sweet marcona almonds contrasted nicely with the salty manzanilla and the manzanilla actually stood up to the blue cheese, cutting through its fats.
El Maestro Sierra Fino went perfectly with the Manchego. The oils and fats from the Manchego were a good match for the alcohol and acidity of the Fino, but was still delicate enough not to overpower the flavors of the sherry. The marcona almonds complemented the fino nicely but there was no contrast in this pairing. The olives and blue cheese were both far too strong for the fino and ended up overpowering its delicate nature.
We weren't satisfied with our choice of foods with the fino so we decide to add in some other ingredients. Grilled asparagus with smoked sea salt and rosemary, and a fresh salad of heirloom tomatoes and basil. Both paired excellently with the fino. The fresh basil and rosemary really brought out the nutty quality in the fino, while the acids of the tomatoes created an illusion of a fresher fino. The classically difficult to pair asparagus has finally found a companion in fino sherry. I can’t put my finger on exactly why these two obscure flavors pair well together, but it’s a combination not to miss.
The end game of the evening was to try the sherry with some ceviche from the Peruvian place down the street, which shall remain nameless. We decided to try the Ceviche de Pescado, done spicy, with raw fish mixed with lemon juice, marinated onions and an array of Peruvian spices. To no one's surprise, the manzanilla stole the show in the pairing contest with the fresh fish. The salty, tangy qualities of the manzanilla matched so harmoniously with the tender raw fish. Initially I was worried about getting the dish spicy, afraid that sherry couldn’t hold up to the spices, but this more macho style of Manzanilla held its own, working wonderfully with the Peruvian spices. If you want to try something different with Manzanilla or simply don’t have the money to spend on oysters, try grabbing yourself some ceviche from any of LA’s Peruvian institutions, and it certainly won’t disappoint.
Stay tuned for part two...