A fortnight in Spain. Very British, and something I’d never really done, or at least not as an adult, though something clearly a lot of British people do. It’s about the sun.
I’m European – I don’t do big culture shifts – and spend most of my time abroad in France for obvious reasons (food and wine in case they’re not). But I do like a bit of culture: something which was, well, missing a bit in Spain.
There is an irony here. Until the late-ish 1970s or so we (the Brits) didn’t drink a lot of wine. Or at least not the working-to-middle classes. Beer, whatever, accompanied a meal. Not everyone recognises that the proliferation of wine drinking in this country is largely down to the package holiday. We came back from our fortnight in the sun not just sunburnt, relaxed, maybe hungover or worse, but also with a taste for wine, and the realisation that a glass of wine with dinner is an impossibly civilised thing. So we nicked a bit of culture, and Britain is now a more civilised place for it, I think.
Being British, we then decided to do the job properly and raped much of our destinations of their cultural character, creating Elephant & Castles by the sea. Have a crack at getting some decent Spanish food whilst you’re on hols there: it’s not easy. The town that I stayed in had a number of Italians, a couple of Germans, plenty of characterless trash restaurants, an Indian, even a Thai, but Spanish restaurants? Nope. And this in a relatively classy town.
The further irony is that on my return I tasted some of the very best from Spain, some real Spanish culture, something I couldn’t find in Spain itself, in Charlotte Street, W1. A rarely impeccable meal at Fino, enjoyed with these nice chaps. The food was quite simply perfect: Iberian Pork, the Chorizo, everything. Just impeccable. I am seldom impressed by restaurants but this did it. Not just the food – the service was Wilton’s-esque in its efficiency, just a tad friendlier.
We had three bottles, all worthy of note but the first two were Spanish so they come first: from the list a white Rioja: 1991 Vina Tondonia Blanco Reserva, Lopez de Heredia. It said 1989 on the list but my knowledge of white Rioja vintages is such that this could mean either over and under or side by side and I would be none the wiser. What it was was simply lovely; as one of my companions observed, “proper” Riojas seem to taste younger as they get older, so harsh is their upbringing. It’s like they’re recovering from the oxidation in the safe vessel of the bottle.
Bottle number two was red: a 1981 890 Gran Reserva from La Rioja Alta. This too was equally special, and one of those wines that needs no examination: the second you put your nose in the glass it just seduces. There was no evaluation, no dorky criticism of this – we just loved it and said so. Proper, old wine. I could drink bottles and bottles of this and, if you want an example of something that really is worth the money (no speculators or point-chasers following this one) then this was just perfect.
Bottle number three was a complete change of scene: 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Ch. Rayas. I’ve never had a Rayas before because I’m (a) deeply suspicious of Rhone wines that Parker likes and (b) I’m permanently skint. This again was a cracker. Vinous melted milk chocolate with edge. Just brilliant again where too many 1998 Chateauneufs just taste of burnt raisins and make you want to fight with your wife (I once found 1998 Beaucastel to be the vinous equivalent of Stella, much to the disadvantage of my fellow passengers on the last train back to Guildford…).
And to finish a glass of PX. 1982 (again I’m clueless as to whether that is good, bad, hot, cold) Don Pedro Ximenez Gran Reserva, Toro Albala. I was a little too well-oiled by this stage to give a full note, but this did the trick.
Not quite sure what the point is here but it does seem a little odd that you can get better Spanish food over here than over there. Odd, and a shame. We really did the full number on the Spanish coast. Back to France next year. Back to Fino soon.