I have to thank Steven Olson (bow three times to the East at the mention of the August Name) for introducing me to a new, and now eternal, love. It was at Aspen Food & Wine, oh, about 5-6 years ago and the subject matter of his workshop was ‘Sherry and Spanish Cheeses’. The room was packed and I had to sneak in the back to find the last seat. The world has never been the same since.
Up until that point, my main experience with sherry was to hit the bottle of Taylor Dry Sherry whilst concocting some-odd culinary creation. (A. Don’t knock it! That cheap Taylor Dry, at about $4 a gallon, is actually a pretty crisp little quaff, especially on the rocks with lemon...has a bit of a Dubonnet Blonde flavor to it, and B., it tastes great added to any kind of beany or pea-y soup, and C. at virtually nothing a bottle, use it to steam shellfish instead of water..yum!)
But sneaking pulls of the cookin’ sherry was pretty much it until the world opened up on, lo, that fateful afternoon. Steven had a variety of interesting noshes and a complement of different styles of sherry and proceeded to walk us through the combinations, in that inimitable combination of knowledge and humor that is his trademark. (...though it is hard to taste wines when Steven is talking. It just doesn’t taste the same when it’s shooting out your nose...)
For the uninitiated, sherry is one of the great fortified wines of the world. Fortified wines have the addition of a neutral grape brandy to increase the alcohol content, body and flavor. True Sherries are made in the Andalusian region of Spain. There are five types: Manzanilla (dry), Fino (dry), Amontillado (medium dry), Oloroso (sweeter) and Cream (sweetest). The dry sherries are great as an aperitif, on the rocks or neat; the sweeter ones, alone after dinner or with vanilla ice cream, raisin or nut cakes or desserts with figs or dried fruits in them. They are also surprising wonderful with food, especially cheeses, nuts and pears.
While I love the citrusy crispness of the Manzanillas and Finos, and the smooth creaminess of the sweeter cream sherries, there is a particular soft spot in my heart for the medium weight Amontillados and Olorosos.
So, buoyed by Steven’s creative approach to pairings, I set out to do a little experimentation on a group of unsuspecting stoog-..er, I mean friends for whom I was doing a wine class. I was telling them about sherry and how well it pairs with food when I thought we’d pair an Amontillado with a Point Reyes bleu. I stated, in all my oenological certitude, that I thought the strong, distinct flavors might compete rather than complement, but what the hell, let’s give it a go.
(Here, kindly insert an ethereal version of the Halleluiah Chorus, complete with angelic arias and harps. And some cherubs. And maybe a kitty...)
What I thought might be a war of strength and style became one of the most sublime and delicious parings I have ever encountered. The creamy, musty bleu and the integrated sweet, figgy, nutty flavor of the sherry was so unexpectedly perfect that we were struck dumb for a few minutes while we absorbed this new sensation. As you know me well by now, you know it had to be amazing to clap my trap.
But new fans were made that day, with a little known libation that deserves a renewed place in the pantheon of potables. Thanks to that workshop by a guy who would make dirt seem fascinating, I was able to discover a new love and to share it with my friends, none of whom have even a hint of blue hair.