We had the opportunity, invited by Casa Rojo, to learn how one of the most prestigious wines in its family of products is produced and shaped. Casa Rojo is one of the most interesting wineries in recent times. Interesting for their youth, for their courageous way of entering the market, but special, and this is the most important thing, for the commitment they have acquired to make a wine that is nothing more than that: wine. Wine of an excellent quality, produced with all the love of the world.

The Alexander vs. The Ham Factory project is a high-end wine born from the union of two families, Casa Rojo and the Miguel Sanz brothers. Out of a unique terroir, this project unites tradition with modernity, trying to present the world with a new way of understanding this prestigious Denomination of Origin: Ribera del Duero.

This is how Alexander vs. The Ham Factory was born, a red wine in the heart of Ribera del Duero, on the property that the winery has there: 12 hectares distributed over 4 vineyards, 10 of Tempranillo, and 2 of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, with an age of around 20 to 45 years. The layout of the vineyards in different forms makes it possible to approximate the Tempranillo harvest with the French varieties and thus make this process easier for the winery.

In Casa Rojo they have it clear, and the vineyard is not about a bunch of grapes that are drained of juice and then fermented. There is a feeling for doing things properly and all the elements that are part of the wine equation are taken into account: the date of harvesting, the time of day, the grape selection, the barrels where they are going to be left… A care that will make the final product something very special.

The prestigious winemakers Patrick Meraz and Begoña Miguel Sanz are the people behind all the decisions that shape ‘Alexander’. Patrick has consolidated his prestige in Bordeaux, and his hallmark seems to be present in the typically French varieties that join the Tempranillo grape, adding a touch of distinction that can be appreciated in the final result from the very first moments. The Malbec variety has almost been lost in Bordeaux, but has been recovered in Argentina.

The year 2017 has been difficult climatologically and the yield of the vineyard has been low, but the criteria for selection of the grapes in the creation of’ Alexander’ are strict and yet bunches have been left on the plant. But although production has been low, the result looks promising. In situ we witnessed the traces left by last year’s late frosts on the harvest: complete rows of vineyards burned by the ice. It was not a classic frost, but movements of a lot of cold air that destroyed everything in their path, like a beam of light under a magnifying glass that burns everything it passes through.

The vineyard now rests after a full season under the Ribera sky and the naked vines reveal small bird’s nests that settle in the twisted trunks: undeniable proof of the organic certification they have. Enrique Pascual, president of the Regulatory Council of the Ribera del Duero Designation of Origin, accompanies us on our visit. He looks at the sky and silently prays for rain, or snow, because he knows like no one else that the climate is the best ally for the producers in the area, but sometimes it can be the worst enemy.

But these extremes are the ones that endow ‘Alexander’ with its beauty; extremes that are translated into flavours, to which we must add thyme, rosemary, even acorns, and which we come across in our walk around the farm.

It is easy to damage a great grape if the harvesting process is neglected. And everything influences it. Including the transport of the vineyard to the winery once cut, which is done with boxes of 10 or 15 kilos, which won’t crush them. The grape is a fruit that starts to oxidize from the first minute and keeping its skin intact helps us stop this process.

The first selection is made in the plant by a team trained to collect only the promising bunches. A second selection is then carried out in the winery, before entering the destemmer, where the stalks are eliminated, and from there they enter the winery by gravity, entering the OVI.

They don’t crush the grape, they leave the grape as it is. Gravity is what does its job to transport the grapes to the tanks, where they ferment. Cold and hot water pipes keep these tanks at the right temperature to accompany the juice in its transformation. Thanks to a bridge crane, gravity can be used as a method of transporting grapes from one side to the other. In this way, the grapes are not broken aggressively, leaving unwanted flavours in the final product. This produces the velvety tannin so characteristic of’ Alexander’.

Finally, ageing must be done with respect for the wine you want to obtain. With the quality level of the terroir and the wine that is made, Casa Rojo has opted to let the wine rest in French oak barrels, from 150 years old trees. A wood of the highest quality that adds personality to this high quality wine.

The result can now be enjoyed by everyone. A wine that transports us to another level and that perfectly accompanies a good roasted lamb cooked slowly in the oven, or with some cured meats, such as the famous Burgos blood sausage. With food the wine achieves its maximum expression.

Alexander vs the Ham Factory is not a fortuitous coincidence, it is the result of the stubborn determination of José Luis Gómez and Laura Muñoz to do things well.

 


One of the things that might attract the visitor’s attention most is that in Spain canned food has a consideration beyond subsistence food, military grub for dangerous missions or student flat food. It is a product of quality and luxury, whose price can sometimes reach striking figures. Enter a gourmet supermarket when you visit one of our provincial capitals and you will see what I mean. In Spain there is a long canning tradition. The variety is overwhelming: Santoña anchovies, foie gras, piquillo peppers, asparagus, bonito del norte, mussels and a long list of others.

The canning industry alone generates more than 250,000 tonnes of fish per year, some of which is exported – around 50%, and 80% of this is consumed in the European Union, where its quality is highly valued.  

But where does this tradition come from? In addition to being a country with a great deal of fishing and farming activity, it dates back to the 18th century, when death by scurvy on ships that spent a long time sailing on the high seas had become a real problem. It was Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who observed that foods boiled at more than 80ºC, and not exposed to air, lasted longer without spoiling.

The food then began to be packed in airless containers, which were later sterilized at temperatures to eliminate bacteria and other microorganisms. The result: a longer-lasting, tastier and more nutritious foodstuff.

It was not until the 19th century that the production of packaged food would take place industrially, first in glass jars and later in the popular tin containers.

The result not only prevented the spread of certain diseases, but also brought enormous health benefits. Protein, fatty acids of marine origin and polyunsaturates, omega-3…

For many people eating canned food is not at all glamorous, but canned food can reach levels of excellence as high as any other meal prepared for hours. But welcome to Spain! Here the preserves have rightly been given their place in the most demanding and exquisite pantries, so they deserve to be treated and combined with an appropriate wine, which enhances all their virtues.

Fish preserves combine perfectly with young wines: don’t be afraid, open a tin of sardines and enjoy it with a garnacha, a monastrell, a mencía or a rosé. On the other hand, if you prefer tuna or any of its relatives (bonito, melva…) choose a white wine with body, maybe some barrel.

Don’t forget to try our seafood preserves: the delicious clams, razors and cockles from northern Spain. If the seafood is packed in natural packaging, they will be perfect with the wines of the area: Rías Baixas or Ribeiro. If they are packed with sauces or fried, try a sherry.

Do you like anchovies? You can’t imagine the pleasure of savoring them accompanied by a Txakolí.

Have you ever been told that asparagus and artichokes are the great enemies of wine? Nothing could be further from the truth. A Sauvignon Blanc will put the sulfuric flavors and aromas of these vegetables in their place. In my case, I love artichokes and it’s always been a headache to find them a good companion. Here you have it: Amontillado wine.

And finally, I don’t want to say goodbye without mentioning the foies. Although I’m not a fan of them they marry spectacularly well with Pedro Ximenez.

Don’t hesitate. On your next visit to Spain let yourself be carried away by the fascinating world of canning. You will be pleasantly surprised, as well as discovering a new and wonderful souvenir to take home, for you and your friends.

 


A must for anyone who wants say that they have been in Madrid is a visit to the Museo del Prado. If any of our readers or listeners do it, I’m sure they would like have a different perspective when visiting its rooms. Join me on a brief tour of this great art gallery through the eyes of a wine lover. We will not do a thorough scan of all works that in some way or another have wine as protagonist; that would be impossible. This is a personal proposal, sometimes a bit whimsical, but I think quite significant.

Let’s start our tour honoring the god Dionysus, or Bacchus as the Romans called him, the God of Wine, who we have already spoken on other occasions. Let’s stop in front of the marble bust of the beautiful and serene Antinous of Bithynia, the young man who was elevated to God by Emperor Hadrian himself, who was his lover, and on this occasion is represented as the god Dionysus. A little hint: see the small horns coming out of his forehead representing him as a faun or satyr, meaning therefore ‘of god’. Although the museum has many other representations of Bacchus, this is certainly my favourite.

Although representations  of Bacchus have not always been so flattering. The anonymous Baco accompanied by nymphs and satyrs, XVII century, shows an obese and deformed being, almost repulsive, like the one Cornelis de Vos shows in The Triumph of Bacchus. Or in Autumn of Mariano Salvador Maella, where we have a Bacchus with heavy eyes, raising his glass and saluting the audience. On his face we can notably feel the effects of a monumental binge.

But if there’s a painting of the God of Wine that you should not miss, it is The Feast of Bacchus by Velazquez. The main character is Bacchus, one of the artist’s first male nudes, dominates the composition with the brightness of his body and his clothes. On his left a naked satyr raises a fine crystal goblet and places us in the world of myths, while on the right a beggar and four men in brown cloaks, with leathery faces and tipsy expressions, constitute a truthful and realistic counterpoint. Before them is the figure of a young man, kneeling as he is being crowned by the God, perhaps receiving the gift of the artistic creation. Isn’t wine a way of creation? Wine not only has the ability to brighten the spirits of men and lead to non-rational states, but is a stimulus for creation, a vehicle.

As we know, the followers of God celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and the sacred liquid in what is known as Bacchanalia. The effects of wine in the body induced Dionysian ecstasy, as we can see in the Dionysian Dance, a marble relief that describes the cult of Dionysus. It was considered something dangerous but its value as a means of escaping for a few hours from the strict discipline of civic life was also appreciated. The maenad’s ecstatic dance and the leaping satyr playing with a glass of wine are impressively rendered. A similar event was painted by Titian in The Andrians in the XVI century. Gods, men and children join the celebration of the effects of wine. My favourite character is the young man who observes the wine against the light, a classical wine tasting. Enjoy the scene: naked bodies, frolicking, dancing, drinking … is there a better plan for a Saturday night?

Be sure not to miss the chaotic The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Pieter Bruegel “The Elder” (16th century), the Bacchanal by Nicolas Poussin (17th century) or the two canvases Offering to Bacchus and Bacchanal of Michel-Ange Houasse to see how the wine world and its pernicious effects are celebrated.

One piece that always jumps out at me is the politically incorrect Children Bacchanal by the Dane Keil, 17th century, who shows in this canvas three children who seem to be indulging in the pleasures of wine. Look at the bottle, covered with straw or esparto rope from the base to the neck, known as a Pilgrim bottle, precisely because it’s particularly easy to carry and to accompany pilgrims during the long way. A little later, from the porcelain Factory of Niderviller, we have a piece, also called Infantile Bacchanal, showing a group of children naked or with sheepskins on their back, crowned by garlands of leaves and carrying bunches of grapes, playing happily.

Although if  you want to face a real politically incorrect topic, see this painting by Luca Giordano: Lot intoxicated by his daughters, where due to the lack of men on earth, the daughters intoxicate their father to lie with them and ensure offspring to propagate the race. Hey, just a moment, it’s not me, it’s the Bible: Genesis 19, 31-35.

But let’s keep our feet on the ground and leave aside these mythological scenes. Let’s use the museum as a time machine to transport us to ancient times to see how the townspeople enjoyed wine as the great master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, or just ‘Goya’, did. Goya painted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In his The Grape Harvest or Autumn, we can see how the harvest should be in those days. A young man dressed in yellow, offers a bunch of grapes to a young lady, a child tries to catch it, but it seems that these are reserved only for adults. As children we all felt that same curiosity for the precious liquid. Behind them is a peasant carrying a basket full of grapes on her head. In the background, peasants working in the fields, busily collecting the fruit. The silhouette of the mountains in the background reminds us of the Sierra de Gredos. Is that one of the very first Wines of Madrid or perhaps it’s from Méntrida? Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla y León, perhaps?

Goya also left us The Drinker, where a young man sitting in the shade of trees is drinking wine from a boot with certain gluttony, while the boy accompanying him, looking thoughtfully at the viewers, is eating a turnip. Not a very solemn moment, but very significant of the society of the time, hungry and thirsty, roguish and somewhat shameless. Remember when I told you that my grandfather kept wine in a boot? Well, here it’s a clear example that Spain has been doing it for a long time. Moreover, in Still life with melon and figs, apples, wineskin and snack basket in a landscape by Luis Egidio Meléndez, you can see one of them in much more detail.

Goya left us countless scenes of those times, a great way to discover how the Spanish people of the late 18th century lived. Look at The Threshing Ground or Summer painting. Goya depicts this season with a scene of harvesters recovering from the summer heat by sitting beside a pile of recently harvested wheat sheafs. On the left a group of peasants try to inebriate another character whose clothing and stance define him as a typical character: the village idiot.

Or stop in front of The Picnic, also Goya’s. You’ll see how young people enjoyed to go picnicking by the banks of the Manzanares River on the outskirts of Madrid, eating, drinking and smoking. Yes, believe it or not, that’s Madrid.

One of my favourite pictures reflecting the Spanish society of late 19th is the painting by José Benlliure y Gil, Smalltalk and drink, a close and honest representation of the very reality of a country, its people and their customs. Four old peasants, dressed in the traditional way, chatting quietly around a jug of wine. I see on their faces serenity, experience and sacrifice.


It is also seen in the face of
The drinker, by Maximino Peña Muñoz. The old man grabs his jug of wine (we also talked about that, remember?), while reading the newspaper El País..

Let me also tell you about the canvas ‘Till I see you, my Christ!! of Jose Garcia Ramos, also from the late 19th century, early 20th. A beggar bearing an image of baby Jesus quaffs a glass of wine until he sees at the bottom an image of crucified Christ, under the watchful eye of the innkeeper and a customer. To drink until you see Christ. That phrase never made more sense. I love the sign hanging in the window: “Today we do not sell on credit, but tomorrow”.

Already stuck in the 20th century, Inocencio Medina Vera left us a painting, Romería de San Eugenio, which shows the feast that was celebrated on the first or second Sunday of November in the El Pardo hills, near Madrid. I have included this work to show you how the way people consume wine is evolving, this time wine is carried in a glass jar or bottle, what the Italians call frasca. As you can see wine is always naturally present in these events.

Although we could go on for hours wandering through the many rooms of the museum, discovering more details about wine and its history, I will be ending because I know you will be already looking forward leaving the museum to enjoy a delicious glass of wine. That’s why I invite you to see one last painting with me. It is Smoking and drinking monkeys by David Teniers, painted c. 1660. Four monkeys smoke, gathered around a table; one of them raises his glass to toast. Another is asleep and rests his head on a bench. The painter is reminding us that we are nothing but animals, who somehow don’t look too far removed from the grotesque image of apes around a table.

Since starting our tour through the museum, we have seen how wine brings out man’s real nature and depths, their weaknesses and their passions. Wine opens doors, but also exposes our more human and authentic side. Do not miss it. Find it out. Let yourself go.

And now it’s time to go for that well deserved glass of wine. Thanks for joining me. Do not forget your backpack at the locker.

All pictures are copyrighted by MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO.


Cheeseburger

Cheeseburgers are probably the first things that come to my mind when I think about American food. They are not my favourite, but I must confess I’ve succumbed to temptation on more than one occasion. It’s that perfect blend of meat and cheese that makes them irresistible. As much as people now want to complicate them, their preparation is very simple. It is a classic that can not be missed at any summer barbecue. In fact the numbers speak for themselves: 13 billion units were served in 2009 in the United States. Moreover, it is only the first step towards a world of infinite combinations with tomato, bacon, onion, pickles, lettuce, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard… And so, to infinity and beyond.

My proposal is to combine this king of the kitchen with the king of wines in Spain. I would go with a red Rioja. Besides being an easy wine to find, I think the classiness of the wine contrasts with the irreverence of the cheeseburger.

Mac and Cheese

If you want to see an Italian writhe and squirm like a slug on a handful of salt just give him this recipe. It is a recipe that could not be further away from conservatism of the famous and sacred Italian pasta. But between you and me, who can resist the delicious combination of pasta and cheesy cream?

And what better to combine with the sweet flavour of this dish than a dry wine like Manzanilla. It’s one of those combinations that is, by its contrasts, really interesting, but tends to balance out both flavours. Sherry wines are recommended for combining with rice, seafood, white fish, soft cheeses and even ham, and now, why not, Mac and cheese.

Chicken casserole

This is probably one of my favorite dishes in American cuisine. I discovered it whilst diving mouth first into the world of Amish food. A lot of their recipes are based on these casseroles, all of them delicious, but especially this one with chicken. I’ve seen several variations on it that include peas, carrots and even corn. One of my dreams is to one day open a restaurant in Madrid where only Amish food is served.

In either case, my proposal is to pair this dish with an elegant wine from Rías Baixas; it would be the perfect companion. These wines are very versatile, they have a very balanced acidity and allow you to combine them with multiple dishes. The fruity hints of the wine will blend perfectly with the delicate flavours of the chicken casserole.

Hot dogs

Along with the burger, hot dogs are, by popular acclamation, one of the greatest dishes of American gastronomy. Popular all over the world, it is a very easy meal to eat while walking down the street, which explains why one of its most popular points of sale are those street kiosks. But let us bring the hot dog to a higher context, imagine that we are at home enjoying a movie or an interesting football game: it’s time to have a delicious hot dog.

Besides bread and sausage, the variety of seasonings and toppings that can be added is vast: ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, fried onions, cheese… Everything seems to work well with that simple recipe of bread and sausage.

And if hot dogs are another star of American cuisine, I will propose to match them with one of the other kings of Spanish wines that I think works perfectly: Ribera del Duero. Two strong and different personalities that work perfectly together in your mouth.

Fried chicken

One of the most interesting contrasts that can be sampled in the world of Spanish wines is the one between bubbling cavas and especially greasy meals. It’s not surprising that one of the foods that better combines with this sparkling drink is the Iberian (Ibérico) ham. This is the reason why I have dared to pair fried chicken with this bubbly wine. Bring a bottle of Cava with you to your next picnic. The harmony is perfect between the fat-fried white meat of chicken and the acidity of the Cava. It does nothing but extol its flavours in perfect harmony.

Ribs

It’s time to get your hands dirty. And there is no better way than to eat delicious ribs painted with that sticky and scrumptious barbecue sauce, cooked as slowly as possible. In contrast with the rushed and fast-food image of burgers and hot dogs, it’s not easy to find an American recipe that requires so much time and pampering as the famous pork ribs.

The combination of seasoning and mustard and barbecue sauce requires a wine with character, so I opted for a wine from Toro, a big and elegant wine, linked to the soil and traditions, to empower the timeless flavour of the ribs. Try this combination: it has a powerful mouthfeel and is simply delicious.

Meat Loaf

Finally, to close our round of pairings, I propose the classic dish of meatloaf. I love recipes whose base is ground meat. A similar dish to this, more European, is the famous shepherd’s pie. Occasionally, I cook it with Luke, guided by his wise and very British advice. Undoubtedly, however, American meatloaf has much more temperament, and the result is, perhaps, far more powerful.

Therefore I propose a wine that balances the powerful taste of the meatloaf, let’s try it with a red wine from Priorat. Sun-dried red and black plums, black cherry, and cassis will pair perfectly with those countless flavours exploding in your mouth.


I love cooking, it relaxes me, it helps me to escape from this busy world. Even cooking under pressure, for a number of guests or against the clock, I enjoy the art of food processing. Cooking is also a way to take control of things, once you get to cook you must decide the ingredients, flavours, recipes, textures… You have to unleash your creativity from the first minute to the last.

I admit that not everyone shares that passion for the kitchen, but that should not be a reason to stay away from it. By choosing some simple recipes you can enjoy your Spanish wines paired with tapas that have come out of your own hands.

Cheese and ham

No doubt the easiest to prepare, but not for that reason is it any less popular. It’s as easy as cutting some cured cheese and ham. The magic of this tapa lies in two elements: the quality of the raw material and the cutting technique.

Ingredients:

  • cheese
  • Iberian ham
  • bread or breadsticks

Cured cheeses should be cut in wedges or triangles. Those with stronger flavors, such as Manchego, Zamorano or Mahon, should be cut into wedges or bars with a thickness of 5 to 10 millimeters. Cut the creamy or soft ones into small slices but always with a minimum thickness of 5 mm. Because they are difficult to cut, it is recommended to introduce the knife blade into a bowl of hot water, so that it easily slides through the cheese. Cheeses like Cabrales can be presented in small blocks so diners can take it directly with the help of a knife. For moldy crust cheeses we cut the slices with the rind intact. And spreadable or cream cheeses, such as the famous Torta del Casar, are served directly to the table with no slicing. As you can see, a good cut can enhance the shape, flavour and presence of cheeses.

I prefer the cured ones. Sometimes I add some honey, quince, some jam or marmalade; depending on your favourite flavour.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to find jamón ibérico already sliced, but if you want to cut your own ham I advise you to watch a few tutorials on YouTube beforehand. Remember: you must cut the ham into thin slices, almost transparent, covering the width of the piece but not very long, 6 or 7 cm. The cuts should be always parallel and done in opposite direction to the hoof, always leaving a flat surface without grooves.

Which wine can we have?

A Cava or a Sherry is the perfect accompaniment for this simple dish. The acidity with play well against the fattiness of the cheese and meat.

Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp)

Ingredients (for two people)

  • 400 g of frozen or fresh shrimps
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • parsley
  • olive oil
  • Salt
  • chili pepper

I learned how to cook this recipe in a Madrid bar where they have been preparing it since the days after the Civil War: Casa del Abuelo. The preparation is so easy. Preferably in a clay pot, put a little olive oil with chili pepper, then heat and roll the cloves or chopped garlic around in the oil with a little chopped parsley. We toss in the shelled shrimp, up the heat and add salt. Voilà. A minute later we remove it from heat and we bring it to the table, hot as Sun, being careful not hurt any of our guests or burn the table. To avoid such catastrophes, we can underlay the pot with a plate and protect the table where it’s going to be served.

Which wine can we have?

A white Verdejo from Rueda or youthful and fresh white Viura form Rioja will pair nicely with both the heat of the dish and slip in between the salt and garlic.

Chorizo a la sidra (Chorizo with cider)

Ingredients:

  • Fresh chorizos
  • cider
  • boiled potatoes (optional)

We pulled off the string from the sausages and put them on a deep pan. We prick them with the tip of a knife so the chorizos don’t burst and also release their juices during cooking. We cover them with cider and cook them on a high heat.

The cooking time depends on the freshness, size and quality of chorizo, but after about 15 or 20 minutes the alcohol will have evaporated off and the liquid reduced, leaving a sauce in the bottom of the pan. Serve immediately.

Eat them with some slices of artisan bread, or with a baked potato, which fuses perfectly with chorizos.

Which wine can we have?

A red wine with personality, perhaps a bold and spicy Tempranillo red from Toro or Ribera del Duero.

Lacón cocido con patatas (Cooked lacón with potatoes)

Ingredients (for two people)

  • 100 gr of lacón
  • 300g potatoes
  • paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

Lacón is a cured front leg of the pork, though less than the more typical jamón-style paletilla. Specifically it’s cured for just 35 days. The process however is the same: the piece is salted, washed to remove excess salt, dried or settled and matured.

This recipe is very easy. Ready? Boil the potatoes, peel them and cut into thick slices about a half centimetre in size. Cover the dish with them and finish with sliced ham. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle a little spicy paprika and drizzle with a dash of extra virgin olive oil.

Which wine can we have?

An Albariño will go nicely. A full-bodied and aromatic Galician white to match the porky potatoes.

Huevos rotos con jamón (Broken eggs with ham)

Did dare buy a jamón ibérico? Well, here you have another idea of how to use it. This is one of my favourite tapas.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 or 7 slices of jamón ibérico.

Fry the potatoes, previously cut into slices, not sticks. Place them apart. Then fry the eggs, making sure that the yolk is soft. Place them over the chips. Now drape the jamón slices over the eggs. Surprise your friends with this beautiful dish. But wait, that’s not all: before anyone can stick a fork in it, confidently cut up the potatoes, eggs and ham, four or five times, mixing it up. Let the yolk flow over ham and potatoes like lava. And now, eat.

This dish has many versions where you can replace the jamón with sausage, black pudding, chorizo or any other flavour that fits well with the potatoes and eggs.

Which wine can we have?
A young red will pair nicely. Nothing too overbearing. A juicy Mencía from Riberia Sacra or Bierzo perhaps.