My Spain…

Back into the swing of things here in London and with Summer finally here, my holiday blues are subsiding. Leaving Spain for me however, is always hard…

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Arcos De La Fronterra is a little Spanish town near Jerez, that I can happily call my second home. If you want to discover typical Andalusian culture then this is a good place to start. It is surrounded by olive groves but towering high above the surprisingly lush landscape are elaborate churches, family run tapas bars and Moorish inspired homes and dwellings built into the rocks. There is a wonderful little vineyard called Bodegas Marascal, right next to Arcos town which is a simple hobby to its owner Marco (& a real treat for those locals who get to taste the wines!) We visited last year and got to see this working vineyard in action, followed by a thorough tasting whilst snacking on cold meats and cheese.

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Just by the reservoir 10 minutes from Arcos is a town called Bornos and this is where I experienced Caraquoles for the first time. ‘Caracoles guisados en caldo’ (snails stewed in broth!) is an apertivo typico for the Province of Cadiz. I spotted the gentleman on the table next to me devouring this peculiar looking delicacy as we sat outside a Tapas bar a couple of weeks ago. My only experience of Snails before now, has been stabbing at big, garlic escargot in piping hot ceramic dishes ‘the French way’. Drinking down the grey liquid then carefully picking at the little caracquoles with my teeth was a new venture. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised and washed down with a chilled glass of Cruz Campo, I can see why this herbacious and well seasoned broth is popular despite its daunting appearance.

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(top tip: avoid the black sack at the base of the snail….!)

On June 23rd, we celebrated Midsummer in honour of San Juan (St. John the Baptist). Led by a group of Spanish friends it was a day of good food and very good wine as well some fantastic ‘Spanglish’ conversation- we were really stuck on the word ‘Host’ and this escalated into a rather hilarious game of language-charades. Needless to say, the Spanish dictionary was coming in handy. At 12am the fireworks started and out came a banquet of sweet treats; traditional Spanish cakes and desserts.

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The sun setting over Arcos de la Fronterra

It is a celebration particularly prominent to some of the coastal towns of Spain (Alicante for instance consider it their most important Fiesta) and they spend their day preparing huge bonfires, which become the focal point of the night when revellers jump over them to “purify and cleanse the soul”. We kept it a little more low key but toasted to the shortest night of year with copious amounts of Cava, whilst releasing lanterns into the sky.

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Cucumber & Mint Salad: Light, fresh salads are essential lunches for scorching hot days

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I take my Cruz Campo with a slice of lemon!

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The train from Jerez to Seville is very simple and well worthwhile. It takes just over an hour and gets you right into Seville about a 15-20 minute walk from the centre. Seville won my heart over the first time I visited on a lone expedition 4 years ago. With very little planning I jumped on a bus from Algerciras on the southern coast (next to Gibraltar) and made a journey with nothing but a map and a camera. I have returned every year since with friends to show them this magical place.

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A visit to the Alcázar is a must when visiting Seville. This Royal Palace, encased by the most enchanting of gardens, is still in use and houses the Spanish Royal Family when they are on trips to the city. Peacocks strut in between cooling water features & ancient foliage whilst tourists stagger around in awe of the Palace’s fine detail, inside and out. Good food and drink isn’t hard to come by down the many cobbled streets surrounding the Alcázar and horse pulled carriages wait patiently at the Cathedral to lead you further afield.

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To really, really experience the true heart & soul of Spanish life however, you must find and witness the passion of its Flamenco. Last year my boyfriend and I were near hypnotised behind the big wooden door of Tablao El Arenal; sweat was flying, heeled boots were clicking and hands were clapping during this deeply emotive performance, that has stayed with me ever since…

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Now, tucked away in the Sierra Morena mountains just outside of Seville, is another little piece of heaven. This year Isaac and I were lucky enough to spend the night in the perfectly rustic ‘Trasierra‘ (owned by Charlotte Scott) which is the ultimate escape.

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We drankRosé by the pool and were treated to a typically Spanish spread for lunch; fresh salads, almond gazpacho, braised sausage & lentils. Homemade cakes & mint tea are served in the afternoon, post siesta and by night, you can enjoy a three course dinner under fairy lit trees in the courtyard of the Cortijo. Sleep was easier here than I have found it to be in years, no doubt the fresh white linen sheets and rare silence of the night had something to do with that. Sounds pretty idyllic doesn’t it…

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The warm breeze is perfumed with Jasmine and around every corner, set against white washed stone are dashes of colour from the lavender and rose bushes. Come here to relax. Be barefoot and carefree. Read. Eat, drink and surrender to this rural way of life.

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There is no doubt that I am truly in love with Spain. The culture, food, drink and hospitality. The weather is glorious and it continues to fill my soul with goodness each and every time I visit. It also beholds many more little secrets and adventures which I can only hope to indulge you in on countless other occasions…

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For more information on Trasierra you can LIKE their Facebook page, check out their website or give them a Tweet @trasierra
http://trasierra.eu/
https://www.facebook.com/trasierra?fref=ts
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Be My Guest!

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I love hosting and entertaining, getting friends together and enjoying food & drink in an intimate environment is my ‘happy place’! On Friday night, I held a dinner party for a group of my oldest girlfriends from school to celebrate Valentine’s day.

About a month ago, when I first emailed the gang to get a date in the diary I had just bought Supper Club, which is all about the joys of entertaining in your own home. Kirstin Rodgers however, entertains strangers with her Supper Clubs. She is a skilled cook, with much experience in catering for large groups of people, unlike me! She is also responsible for getting the Underground Restaurant craze fired up in the UK! However much I love to cook and bake, a group of more than 5 can come with it’s complexities and in turn, result in lost sleep leading up to the big day. So I came up with some pointers below, that help make the process a whole lot more efficient and enjoyable from start to finish.

In Advance

  • Invites! I personally email my invites to guests, as that is the most reliable form of communication with a large group of friends. As much as I would adore to use pen and paper at all times, it is not always viable time wise and can be expensive. My mum introduced me to the fabulous ‘Paperless Post’ which is ideal for any occasion. You can also see when the mail has been read and the guest can respond by the click of button. It adds charm & ease right from the start of the organising…
  • Putting your menu together– firstly, I would find out if there are any dietary requirements within your party. No point finding out once it’s too late and throwing you into a panic! When you have confirmation of this, start piecing together your seasonal menu using books, magazine tear outs, Pinterest…Keeping in mind your own level of skill and experience (I should mentioned my first attempt at making fresh ravioli on the day of was daring to say the least and resulted in a few fails, disaster! Read my next blog on pasta to hear ALL about that).

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(For Friday night, I printed out my menu’s and on the back of each one I put a different Love poem. Adding a romantic twist!)
  • Music- make a playlist that last lasts at least 4 hours, so you don’t have to worry about fiddling around with the ipod during the night. Bear in mind that this music is for your guests too and so you have to think about what they would enjoy? Choosing something like ‘Death Metal’ wouldn’t be everyones cup of tea for instance…
  • Shopping lists- a few days before the party I go through all the recipes and make a note of ingredients, I then go through the cupboards and start crossing off anything I might already have. Once I have a list of things to buy, I split the list into 3; ‘Fresh Produce’, ‘Supermarket’ & ‘To Drink’. Doing this keeps it all clear and concise and ensures that nothing is overlooked! 

The Day Before

  • Start Shopping– Head to the Supermarket with that list you have made and buy your condiments, juices, dairy produce etc. 
  • Got Everything? Do a count of all your crockery, glassware and cutlery to make sure you have enough. I realised the day before that I was short of one set, so lucky I checked! Phew!

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  • Your table- get your table ready and arrange your seating plan. Name places are lovely ‘extra detail’. Think about who should be next to who, things in common, any newcomers to the group? It is important to give this some thought so that you get the dynamic right.

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  • Drinks– Go on a booze run to your off license with your ‘Drinks’ list; having decided on your menu at this point, go for wine’s that compliment the meal. I asked the lady in the shop near me to recommend good wines having told her my menu and she was unbelievably helpful. We got the task done in under 15 minutes! A bottle of prosecco or champagne as an apreratif is a good starting point, 1 glass each as people are arriving is a nice gesture. 3 bottles of red & 3 white’s for the table for a group of 9/10 people (it is roughly 5 glasses per bottle by the way!) and there is nearly always at least 1 beer drinker in the group, so I like to have a 6 pack in the fridge just in case.

On The Day

  • Get cooking! Anything you can cook in advance and put in the fridge, then do it! I made the fresh ravilioli & filling, chocolate puddings and herb crust for the lamb as early as I could, that way I had an organised mise en place and was ready to go once guests have arrived.
  • Flower arrangements- do it yourself! It is a really nice touch to have fresh flowers on the table and I like to buy a few bunches from the market and put little posies together myself. I think 3 different flowers, with some sort of greenery works perfectly. Old jam jars are the perfect vase for a small arrangement and add a rustic flavour…buy flowers on the morning of, otherwise they will start to look a little sad.

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(I used Anenomies, Hyacinths and Roses brought together with Solidago. It’s colour theme was romance but that hint of yellow remind us that spring is on its way!)
  • Fresh produce-Your 3rd and final list. It is so much more cost effective to buy all your fresh fruit and vegetables from either a green grocer, or if you are lucky… a fresh fruit & vegetable stall in a local market or farmers market. On the day, I wake up at 7am and get straight to my local to pick out the best before it goes. You can sleep tomorrow… so an early rise is definitely necessary to get everything done.
  • Hoover! I am a messy cook, so once everything is set, it is essential that I hoover the kitchen/living area and make sure the kitchen is looking acceptable (especially as my kitchen and living room are all in the same space). Get rid of any bin bags and dirty tea towels too, very off putting.
  • Atmosphere. Just before the guests arrive and once you are dressed and ready, it is time to get everything just right. Music on, not too loud. Turn the lights down a bit and get  some candles going (just be careful not to put them in any precarious places).

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Now It’s Showtime!

We Ate…

Starter

Beetroot Ravioli with Ricotta & Sage Butter

Main Course

Herb Crusted Lamb with roast potatoes, Kale & Beetroot Top

Dessert

Molten Chocolate Pudding with Amaretto Cream

&

Cheese Board with Chilli Jam

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We Drank…

Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial

Glorioso, Reserva 2006 & Cosme Palacio, Rioja 2008

Pazo Do Mar, Ribeiro Blanco 2010

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We Listened…

My love-themed playlist starting with 1940’s early blues, moving onto 1950’s (Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone…), then the swinging 60’s with Elvis & Ray Charles. The tempo progressively became more energetic, which coincided perfectly with the gradual volume increase and liveliness of my guests.

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We Played…

‘Apples to Apples’ provided by my friend Parker, the Games Master. A hilarious game, especially when tipsy.

P.S. It definitely helps to know your opponents in this one!

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And One For The Road…

Mmmm, Amaretto Sours

(Made by me but special thanks to my friend & colleague Chris who kindly text me the recipe, on demand, at 01:00 a.m. Gotta love him!)

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Why don’t you let us into some of your dinner party secrets….

Thank you Molly, Emily, Parker, Charlotte, Simon, Rupert, Lara & Skippy for being wonderful guests.

(Readers, I apologise for the lack of quality and of photographs but I was having far too much fun to snap!)

Excellent Choice, Madam.

Two of my favourite wines from a selection tried in January. Enjoy!

A Gulp of Spanish Red…

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Bodegas Palacio, Glorioso Reserva 2006

Region: Rioja, Spain.  

Classification: DOCa Rioja

Grape Variety: Tempranillo

ABV: 13.5%

Vintage: 2006

Initially discovered at Christmas thanks to my dad, Glorioso Reserva really was the wine of the festive period for me. Quaffing it along with cheese platters, foie gras and red meats but really very perfect on its own too. From the Bodegas Palacio in Northern Spain (not far from Pamplona- famous for the running of the bulls!) it is aged in Bordeaux style barrels of French Oak. I stopped to pick a bottle of it up last week on my way to a friends for dinner and she was a huge fan. It is so easy to drink, silky smooth and really coats the whole mouth with a welcomed warmth. Dark, fruity and delicious.

Bodegas Palacio, Glorioso Crianza 2007 is also worth a try and in my opinion, a wine best enjoyed with food. Also medium bodied, fruity and elegant with a touch more tanin about it than the last.

Interesting Fact: Spanish Wine

Spain’s strict wine laws ensure cultivation, production, ageing and quality of wine is maintained in the ever growing industry. There are two categories that Spanish wine’s may fall under; ‘Table Wine’ or ‘Quality Wine’, the latter generally being held in the higher regard.

DOCa stands for Denominación de Origen Calificada and is the credit given to wines that have achieved the highest quality over a long period of time. The only two regions to be considered worthy of this status are Rioja and Priorat in South West Spain.

…and a Splash of French White!

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Domaine La Condamine L’Evêque

Region:  Languedoc, France. 

Classification: IGP Côtes de Thongue

Grape Variety: Viognier 

ABV: 12.5%

Vintage: 2010

Produced by a family run vineyard in a village called Nezignan L’Eveque in the Rhone Valley, Southern France, this Viognier was recommended to me in my local wine shop. I was really looking for a dry white to go with fish and this full bodied, aromatic wine did fit the bill.  If you aren’t keen on rich, heady wines that are more yellow in colour, then this is probably not for you and my boyfriend and I both agreed that while this is a wine we loved with food, perhaps we wouldn’t necessarily chose it as an aperitif.

Having never heard of it before, only a few days later I found it again on the wine list in my local Pan-Asian restaurant and I felt very confident in choosing it with this meal. Turned out it was an absolutely perfect match for spicy tuna, seabass sashimi and  fragrant chicken curry.

Interesting Fact: The Viognier Grape

Pronounced ‘Vee-ohn-yay’, this varietal is a real challenge to grow! It is susceptible to disease and unpredictable so the producers work hard to get it right and this can be an expensive & timely process. It is because of this that it is considered one of the most prized varietals. 30 years ago,  this wine was almost extinct but in the last few years has become a more fashionable, popular choice.

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I bought both the Rioja Reserve (£13.00) and the Vin de Pays/ Viognier (£9.50) from Oddbins

http://www.oddbins.com

Fancy A Drink?

I adore wine. Red or White and sometimes Rose (but did some damage with cheap bottles & sunshine as a teenager so it’s no longer my first choice!) I can’t say I have a favourite bottle at the moment but definitely have my ‘go to’ options. That is getting a little boring though and I am now at the point of wanting to move on from the norm.

My dad has great taste in wine, so I have always been around the good stuff. It wasn’t until recently that I wished to explore the different grape varieties and viticulture to get to know what I love, appreciate and dislike in some rare cases. I long to confidently recommend a bottle when at a restaurant with friends or pair the perfect glass when I am cooking a meal. I started the year planning a wine course and am currently looking into options for tastings around London as well doing my own research and I have come to realise that you can really learn a lot from simply stepping into a nice wine merchants and asking a few questions. Tell them what you are eating? What you like? What you don’t? If they are working there for the passion of it all then most likely they will be keen to offer advice and this will definitely help to get you off the usual suspects and try something new.

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In my local off licence just yesterday I picked up a nice bottle of Rioja and as I was talking to the very informative chap at the counter I spotted this book, ‘DRINK ME!’ by Matt Walls. It was immediately appealing, not only because of the recycled-look, cool cover and graphics or reasonable price but because Matt states in the first paragraph that it is “a guide for people who drink a bit and know a little but would like to know more.” – simply put, that’s me!

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I can already recommend grabbing a copy from a local book shop or on Amazon, especially if you are a newcomer to all of this and petrified at the thought of tucking into the heavier read that is the ‘Wine Encyclopeda’ which believe me, I have attempted.

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Matt's blog is also a good platform to start picking up helpful hints and recommendations without much effort involved on your part. He keeps it concise and leaves out the gumpf.

Hopefully this is the start of a wonderful (& potentially boozy!) journey and I look forward to sharing some of the treasures I find along the way.

Find out more about the book, the blog and the expert here-

http://www.mattwalls.co.uk
@mattwallswine