Wine Tasting Guided by Pilar García-Granero Makes for a Festive and Illuminating Course Finale

Earlier this month we celebrated the completion of our USAC-BCulinary Club course with a sensational wine-tasting session guided by Pilar Garcia-Granero — wine expert, teacher, Director of the Escuela Navarra de Cata, former president of the Regulatory Board of the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) Navarra and technical coordinator of the Basque Culinary Center’s Máster en Sumillería y Enomarketing.

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Pilar García-Granero presenting wine to the group

I think it’s safe to say that as a group, we were completely captivated by Pilar’s ability to verbalize the layers of flavor contained in our glasses. She encouraged us to recognize and classify our tasting sensations as she masterfully and elegantly led by example — swirling, smelling, swishing, sipping, savoring….

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Learning to swirl, smell, swish, sip and savor wine with Pilar García-Granero

First we tasted my favorite beverage from this region: traditional Basque cider. Sagardoa (in Basque), or sidra (in Castillian Spanish), has a low alcohol content (4-6%) and is produced through the natural fermentation, with no added sugars or flavors, of the juices pressed from a variety of native apples.

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Varieties of apples used to make traditional Basque cider, at the Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea

Pilar explained that the apple varieties are selected to carefully balance the final product’s characteristic flavor profile – dry, tart, fresh, vaguely musty, gently fruity, with tones of apple and citrus, and ever so slightly tannin.

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Our cider was produced by the cider house Zapiain in Astigarraga, a town at the heart of the Basque cider-making tradition and home to numerous traditional cider houses, or sagardotegia, as well as the fantastic Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea.

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Learning to make cider at the Sagardoetxea

Pilar showed us how to examine the cider visually in the bottle, observing its characteristic cloudiness and bits of natural sediment, as well as in the glass, noting the golden yellow tones, the opacity, the slight carbonation. She reminded us that if cider is left in the glass without being consumed in the proper “all-at-once” fashion, the color deepens as the cider oxidizes and loses its fresh flavor.

She demonstrated the distinctive cider pour (a thin stream from a height of at least 20 cm and up to a meter) into the appropriate glass (not a wine glass, but a tumbler, typically 12 cm tall and 9 cm wide across the mouth).

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Traditional Basque cider pour; photo from www.seaslugandtheturtle.blogspot

Pliar explained the history of the Txotx, the dramatic tasting ritual of the cider houses during the cider season. From January to April, when the previous year’s cider is ready to be consumed, cider is poured at intervals, when “Txotx!” is called, straight out of the barrels known as kupela.

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Txotx! Photo by Jon Urbe, www.argia.com

Historically cider houses did not serve food, they simply opened their doors to buyers to offer tastings of cider before it was bottled. Buyers would bring their own food items to accompany the cider — walnuts and cheeses, simple salt cod dishes, and, if the cider house was equipped, large cuts of meat and fresh, whole fish to cook over a parrilla, or grill.

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Idiazabal cheese, sweet quince paste and walnuts on a cider-house table; photo from http://www.sabrosia.com/

Eventually the cider houses recognized their opportunity — they conditioned their kitchens, built out their dining halls, and began to offer what is now the celebrated, traditional cider-house meal: a tender salt cod tortilla (omelette), salt cod with sweet green and red peppers and onions, or salt cod al pil pil, an enormous grilled txuletón (aged rib-eye steak) or a whole, grilled fish, and dessert of whole walnuts, Idiazabal cheese and quince paste.

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Enormous steaks awaiting their turn on the grill at Petritegi; photo from http://www.euskoguide.com/

After the cider, we tasted a white txakoli (pronounced “cha-ko-li”) wine, a Getariako Txakolina, D.O., the most widely known type of txakoli.

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Zac and Niko examining the txakoli

The majority of Getariako Txakolina is produced in the coastal towns of Getaria and Zarautz in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, and there are several vineyards scattered throughout the nearby mountains.

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La Ruta del Txakoli – The Route of Txakoli; click the image to link to an interactive map of Txakoli vineyards, presented by the Regulatory Board of the Getariako Txakolina Denominación de Origen

Pliar explained that here in Gipuzkoa, nearly all txakolis are made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, a white grape resulting in a crisp, tart, slightly sparkling wine with a pale greenish-yellow color and a moderate alcohol content (9.5-11.5%).

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Hondarribi Zuri grapes; photo from www.viveroslucea.com.

We learned that there is also a lesser-known red txakoli grape variety in Gipuzkoa, known as Hondarribi Beltza, from which a relatively tiny amount of wine is produced, and that in the Basque province of Bizkaia (Biscay in English), there is a type of txakoli produced from a mix of both red and white grapes. Txakoli wines are also produced on a small scale in the Basque province of Araba/Álava and in the province of Burgos.

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Hondarribi Beltza grapes, photo from www.viveroslucea.com

People usually drink txakoli as an apéritif, before a meal, and often while taking part in a txikiteo (also known as a poteo) — the custom of going from bar to bar with friends, usually in the early evening, to drink small glasses of wine or cider (referred to as txikitos or potes), or small glasses of beer (zuritos), accompanied by small appetizers known as pintxos (in the Basque Country) or as tapas (throughout Spain).

Pilar pointed out that the aromas of our txakoli, immediately after being poured into the glass, were reminiscent of green apples, yet once the wine was agitated and aerated in the glass, the aromas expanded, evoking sweet, golden apples. This wine was a big hit with our group!

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Mia, Brittany, Martiza and Simone examining the txakoli

Next we sampled a pair of Rioja wines made from Tempranillo grapes, the predominant grape of the Rioja region to the south of (and slightly overlapping with, in the province of Álava) the Basque Country.

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Map of the Rioja wine regions; image from http://www.riojawine.com

Pilar talked about the four major Rioja wine styles (Rioja, Crianza, Rioja Reserva and Rioja Gran Reserva), their technical definitions and their overall characteristics. This Wine Folly piece also does a great job.

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Rioja wine styles defined and average prices in US$; image from www.winefolly.com

First we sampled a young Rioja wine, characteristically aged under two years, with little or no time in oak barrels, and with a relatively high alcohol content of 13.5%.

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Niko pouring himself a taste of Rioja wine

Thin, fresh and fruity, young Rioja wine is typically enjoyed as a pre-meal apéritif. Traditionally these wines were labelled as vino joven (young wine), though most present-day winemakers label them simply as Rioja.

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Mia pouring herself a taste of Rioja wine

We moved on to a satistfying Crianza. The Spanish word crianza has several meanings: it can refer to the upbringing, nourishment and education of children, to the breeding, care and nourishment of animals, and to the aging and maturing of wines. While vinos jovenes, or young wines, are sometimes referred to as sin crianza, Crianza wines are by definition aged for a minimum of two years, including at least one year in oak barrels, and have an alcohol content of 13-14%.

In comparison to the Rioja we sampled, we found our Crianza to be much fuller bodied, ripe with tears, with deeper flavors of red berries, hints of clove, overtones of oak, and a slower finish.
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Mia, Lauren, Brittany, Maritza, JaNon, Simone and Caroline…pleased with the Crianza!

After our guided tasting with Pilar, we continued our session by exploring how our wines and cider paired with the various components of our pica-pica spread: cured anchovies, olives stuffed with anchovies, guindillas de Ibarra, semi-cured Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheeses (smoked and unsmoked), Cabrales cheese (a rich blue cheese made from cow’s and sheep’s milks), raw local oak forest honeydulce de membrillo (sweet quince paste), bonito tuna with olive oil, walnuts and almonds, pa amb tomàquet.

Some stand-out, classic pairings we enjoyed: txakoli with anchovies and with bonito; Rioja and Crianza with our cheeses, cider with nuts, quince paste, Idiazabal cheese…and a bit of everything with everything!

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Our pica-pica spread

To cap off our evening, students were awarded their certificates for completion of the course. Well done, everyone! Glasses raised to you all! Chin-chin! Zorionak!

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Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Zorionak eta Urte Berri On!

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Juicing Loads of Oranges this Winter? (If Not, Maybe You Should!) And Don’t Toss the Peels, Candy Them!

Here in the Basque Country, and all over Spain, December marks the start of the winter citrus season, and sweet, juicy oranges are the superstars. Freshly squeezed orange juice is a basic part of everyday life. Virtually all bakeries and cafés, along with many restaurants and bars, offer freshly squeezed juice, and many people prepare it at home each morning.

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To put a figure on it, according to data from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs, in 2009, people in Spain drank 138 million liters of freshly squeezed orange juice, 40% of which was prepared and consumed in bars and cafés.

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Juice machine poised for action a café in the Basque Country

Throughout the winter season, many people order boxes of sweet oranges from growers in Valencia, Spain’s primary growing region.

Orange grower in Carcaixent, Valencia, Spain; photo from http://50km.blogspot.com.es/

This past week, several of my English conversation students (teachers themselves) were eagerly awaiting the delivery of a massive order of oranges they had organized through their school. Naturally, we discussed the ways in which we generally enjoy oranges, and fresh juice topped the list.

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Oranges ready for distribution at the school; photo by Larraitz Artetxe

I grew up drinking orange juice, like many Americans, out of a carton, or reconstituted from a small tube of frozen concentrate. Mixing up that 3:1 water-to-concentrate ratio was a domestic ritual I took great pride in. Check out this (admittedly nostalgic) video clip from the 1968 short film, Bottled Sunshine…A Juicy Story.

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Reconstituting orange juice from frozen concentrate; image from the 1968 film, Bottled Sunshine…A Juicy Story.

My brother and I debated which was better, more “real” tasting: Tropicana (owned by PepsiCo Inc.) or Minute Maid (owned by The Coca-Cola Company). If you are interested in pondering that debate in mind-boggling, unnerving detail, visit Tropicana vs. Minute Maid: The Ultimate Fight!

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Infographic comparing which brand is more associated with which usage; image from http://tropimaid2012.blogspot.com.

What my brother and I didn’t know was that for more than 20 years before our first sips of any kid of orange juice, the American orange industry had been on a mission to make it almost impossible for anything but juice made from concentrate to form the basis of our opinions about orange juice. In fact, our experience with “real” – freshly squeezed – orange juice was almost nil.

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In 1966, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer John McPhee wrote a short piece about oranges and orange juice in The New Yorker, which blossomed into Oranges, his 1967 masterpiece of narrative nonfiction and one of my favorite reads of all time.

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McPhee explains that just after the Second World War, scientists in Florida developed the first commercial orange-juice concentrate (“…orange juice that has been boiled to high viscosity in a vacuum, separated into several component parts, reassembled, flavored, and then frozen solid”), and changed the course of American juice history.

Concentrated orange juice began to set the standard for what people expected and preferred, like so many food products of its time — a laboratory-generated formula, consistent, predictable, universally available, aggressively marketed…branded.

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Before the development of juice concentrate, says McPhee,

People in the United States [consumed] more fresh oranges than all other fresh fruits combined, but in less than twenty years [since the development of orange-juice concentrate] the per-capita consumption has gone down seventy-five per cent, as appearances of actual oranges in most of the United States have become steadily less frequent.

McPhee describes his quest for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice during his visit to Florida’s Citrus Ridge, one of the most productive orange-growing regions in the world, historically outproducing Spain and Italy combined.

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Vintage Florida postcard

In a restaurant on the Ridge whose parking lot was shaded by fruit-laden orange trees, a waitress informed McPhee that freshly squeezed juice was not available.

There were never any requests for fresh orange juice, the waitress explained, apparently unmindful of the one that had just been made. ‘Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,’ she said. ‘Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.’ She seemed to know her business, and I began to sense what turned out to be the truth–that I might as well stop asking for fresh orange juice, because few restaurants in Florida serve it.

At some point in my adolescence, around the time I started my seven-year stint as a vegetarian and began to shun industrially processed foods, I got sucked into the “not-from-concentrate” myth. I believed, for example, that when I guzzled my sweet Tropicana Pure Premium, I was basically drinking boxed (?), freshly (?) squeezed (?) juice.

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Deep down I knew that it was somehow different from the freshly squeezed juices I had tried over the years, but my critical thinking seemed to shut down when all I had to do to quench my teenage thirst was open the fridge and pour myself a tall glass of “100% Pure Squeezed Florida Sunshine.”

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In her eye-opening 2010 book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice, Alissa Hamilton explains why my 59-ounce container of “not-from-concentrate” Tropicana Pure Premium, while boasting that is “has 16 fresh-picked Florida oranges squeezed into it” is not quite what it seems.

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Bottles of Tropicana Pure Premium juice, Tropicana juice processing plant, Bradenton, Florida; photo from Bradenton Herald, May 15, 2013.

In reality, it may have the rough equivalent, in liquid measure, of juice from 16 oranges, but that juice was poured into my container from a massive, homogeneous juice ocean that is essentially “heated, stripped of flavour, stored for up to a year, and then reflavored before it is packaged and sold.

In an interview in The New Yorker, Hamilton explains:

Freshly squeezed orange juice tastes fresh naturally, and some supermarkets do sell it. However, “from concentrate” and most “not from concentrate” orange juice undergo processes that strip the flavor from the juice. The largest producers of “not from concentrate” or pasteurized orange juice keep their juice in million-gallon aseptic storage tanks to ensure a year round supply. Aseptic storage involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so the juice doesn’t oxidize in the “tank farms” in which the juice sits, sometimes for as long as a year.

Flavor packs are fabricated from the chemicals that make up orange essence and oil. Flavor and fragrance houses, the same ones that make high end perfumes, break down orange essence and oils into their constituent chemicals and then reassemble the individual chemicals in configurations that resemble nothing found in nature. Ethyl butyrate is one of the chemicals found in high concentrations in the flavor packs added to orange juice sold in North American markets, because flavor engineers have discovered that it imparts a fragrance that Americans like, and associate with a freshly squeezed orange.

Incredibly, the Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to list these mysterious flavor packs, or their components, as ingredients of concentrated or not-from-concentrate juices.

Curious to know what industrial juice processing actually looks like? Check out this amazing window into the industry: the Juice Stabilization and Preservation chapter of an article entitled, Principles and practices of small- and medium- scale fruit juice processing, published in the Food and Agriculture Organization‘s Agricultural Services Bulletin in 2001.

So?, you may retort, Who cares?! You love your processed orange juice (like this blogger), and you always have. It just tastes right to you; it reminds you of home, of your childhood, and you come down fiercely on one side or the other of the “which-is-better” big-brand debate. Furthermore, you may say, so what if the flavor is extracted and then added back in, if that’s what they have to do to fix it up after making it ‘safe’ by pasteurizing it? Or maybe you just think making fresh juice is too messy, expensive, or time-consuming, and you don’t even have a juicer…. Well, I understand. I’ve been there. Taste, after all, is personal, right?

But sometimes we may not realize how much our taste preferences have been shaped by industry needs and objectives, rather than by what we might truly need or enjoy. Far too often, we are, in fact, tastewashed by the food industry, and the messes, costs and lost time we worry about…well, we simply trade one set of those for another less immediately bothersome set. My feeling is that what comes around goes around, but I’ll bite my tongue on the rest of that diatribe…for now!

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Maybe you agree that making your own freshly squeezed juice on a cold winter’s morning is the closet thing to sunshine in a glass you could ever taste (and I’m not talking about a cocktail here!). And maybe you accept, and even enjoy, the fact that to every thing there is a season, and that a little unpredictability and variety in your juice glass can be a good, interesting, stimulating, healthy thing!

Or maybe you think that all sounds great but you haven’t got the gear, the material, the routine. Don’t hold back! The season is upon us! Get a juicer! (A good manual model, like this one, does a great job for under $10, and a basic electric juicer, like this one, shouldn’t set you back more than $20.) Get some quality, reasonably-priced oranges by ordering them online (in the U.S., try here or here; in Spain, try here) or buying them from a wholesaler)! Now get juicing! It’s good for you!

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So whether you just received your giant box of oranges from Valencia, or you’re otherwise stockpiling fresh oranges and supercharging your days with juicy sunshine, you may be looking for ways to incorporate fresh juice into recipes. Some of these on Yummly look tasty.

But what about all of those leftover rinds? Don’t throw them away! Make candied peels!

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During my time as an intern at Chez Panisse, I fell in love with candied citrus peels. We made them from the rinds of grapefruits, lemons and oranges that had been juiced for various savory and sweet dishes.

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Candied orange peels, apricot and cherry galette, apricots and cherries, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA, 2004

With the holidays just around the bend, you can give candied peels as gifts just as they are (perhaps dipped in chocolate!), or you can add them to your holiday fruitcake or cookie recipes, decorate your roscón de reyes, garnish your arroz con leche, accent your cheese plate, perfume your tea…use them anywhere you are looking to add a bit of sparkle.

I adapted this recipe from the one I learned from Claire Ptak, former Chez Panisse pastry chef and owner of Violet, a beloved East London bakery. I added some spices that remind me of my mom’s Greek holiday cookies.

I used some gorgeous, enormous, organically grown navel oranges I found at my local market, but you can use the same recipe to candy the peels of any of the thicker-skinned citrus fruits.

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RECIPE: CANDIED ORANGE PEELS

Ingredients:

12 large orange halves, after they’ve been juiced (from 6 whole oranges)
1 kilo (5 cups) granulated white sugar
1.5 liters (6 1/3 cups) water
20 whole cloves
20 whole allspice berries
3 bay leaves
200 grams (1 cup) granulated white sugar

Instructions:

1. In cold running water, scrub the outsides of the rinds to remove any dirt. (Better yet, scrub the oranges before juicing them.)

2. In a large pot, cover the rinds with cold water, bring the pot to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat the process two more times. Drain and rinse in cold water. You may want to place a heatproof-dish directly on top of the rinds as they cook to keep them under the surface of the water.)

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3. On a clean cutting board, use a paring knife to gently remove the remaining pulp and most of the pith from the rinds. I find it helpful to first halve each half, then halve those pieces again lengthwise, so you are left working with 1/8-orange segments. Then run the blade of the knife lengthwise through the pith layer, between the skin and the leftover pulp.

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Left to right: 1/4-orange rind section with flesh; 1/8-orange rind section with flesh and some pith removed; sliced peels ready for candying

4. Slice the cleaned peels into strips and reserve.

5. Combine the sugar, water, spices and bay leaves in a large, clean pot and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

6. Add the sliced peels to the syrup, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and maintain at a low, steady simmer for about 2 hours. Stir occasionally and watch carefully toward the end of the process. If the syrup starts getting too thick, add a small amount of water and stir to incorporate. The peels are finished cooking when they are extremely tender and the pith is translucent.

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8. Let the peels cool slightly in the syrup, then remove them with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a rack (over a tray lined with foil or parchment paper). Allow them to dry for about 12 hours. (You can cool and save the syrup for pancakes or other recipes!)

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9. At this point the peels should be somewhat moist and sticky but not difficult to handle. Roll them one by one in granulated sugar. Work in small batches with a small bit of sugar at a time, as the sugar will start to get clumpy and humid if too many peels roll through it. Allow the peels to dry again on a rack for at least 12 hours.

10. At this point, they can be dipped into melted chocolate (and allowed to dry again), incorporated into recipes, or simply sent on their merry way, just as they are, sweet little things.

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Enjoy! Happy Holidays! On Egin!