Usually lost in any historical discussion of our area, is the fact that in the early 1500’s, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to discover our region when Panfilo de Narváez discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River.
This was followed in 1541 with Hernando DeSoto’s expedition that crossed our region, identifying significant points but establishing no settlement. Evidently they found nothing of interest around here because it was over 100 years later when the first settlement in the vast Louisiana territory was founded near, what is today, Ocean Springs, Mississippi by….the French.
Okay, so let’s give the Spanish another chance to play a role in our history. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the Seven Years War, a mostly European affair that did little to change the political landscape of that area, but it ended France’s colonial empire days and Louisiana was awarded to Spain.
There, now we’re Spanish, and during that time the architecture of the French Quarter was mostly set in a Spanish theme. Several fires in this period caused the re-building of almost the entire Vieux Carre, which resembles Barcelona as much as Paris. Our incredible wrought-iron balconies, a Spanish decoration, are more elaborate than any in France.
So at our heart, we actually owe more to the Iberian Peninsula than to Louis’ monarchy or Napoleon’s era.
That is why it is astounding that it has taken so long for Spanish restaurants to become an important part of our dining scene. Just in case you were not aware, they have finally arrived.
Lola’s on Esplanade serves full plates, and some of the most incredible paella this side of Madrid. Speaking of Madrid, a restaurant of that name just opened in Lakeview. Las Ramblas graces the CBD, with the new Galvez in the former Bella Luna site in the French Market, providing the grandest view of the river of any restaurant in town.
Vegas Tapas Café on Metairie Road has hit a stride, making that neighborhood proud, and Laurentino’s has been enjoying success in their corner of Metairie.
The point is, the Spanish have finally established themselves in the area and it is the restaurateurs, not the conquistadores, who are the heroes.
Spanish food, particularly tapas-style, is perfect for the new dining style many Americans are adopting, which translates to smaller portions, smaller plates, more plates on the table, each as flavorful as the one next to it, and sharing among all dining companions is the order of the day.
Pairing wines, emphasizing the interplay of the wine and the cuisine, is particularly challenged, however, by this phenomenon.
People are setting dishes on the table at the same time that combine vegetables, fish, meat, sausage, rice, different sauces, and to complicate matters, none of the dishes is the centerpiece of the meal. All are small potions and all quite tasty in their own way.
Sangria, either red or white, seems to be a good solution because it’s not really just one wine, but many wines combined with fruit, eradicating the tannins and biting acidity, delivering chilled refreshment and sweetness. (Please see the Happy Hour column of June 8 for some thoughts on Sangria, and a good recipe, http://www.myneworleans.com/Blogs/Happy-Hour/June-2009/Tropical-Summers-DEMAND-Cool-and-Refreshing/)
I really don’t see any reason to abandon a standard wine/food-enjoyment-dining-arc, one that you probably follow with most meals.
Begin with something light and flavorful. In keeping with the Spanish theme, maybe a cool cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne, although never even close to the high price-point of the French beverage. Freixenet and Segura Viudas are two excellent choices to start the meal with a festive start.
Move into the white range with a wine made from the albariño grape, which is centered in the furthest north and furthest west area you can travel to and still be in Spain, Rias Baixas. Bodegas de Vilarino-Cambados makes a lovely wine, Martin Codax, named after a 12th century poet from the area; and then there’s Condes de Albarei from Bodegas Salnesur.
Finding lighter reds from Spain to move along our arc is challenging. Many that could fit the category are not particularly well-made, lacking structure, which brings a certain flabbiness to the experience. That won’t work with some of the tapas that are bound to be on the table.
Look for wines from the Torres family. They work with a lot of different grapes, but one that should perform well at this point in the meal is the Garnacha, actually the precursor of the French Grenache, so well-established in the Rhone region of southeastern France. We note here, again, the lack of follow-through commitment by the Spanish, which has cost them a beachhead for a fine reputation in the wine world as far as Grenache is concerned.
Next course, the major wines to consider are Tempranillo grape-based. These are the heavy hitters of the Spanish wine industry, emanating from the areas of Rioja and the Ribera Del Duero.
Ribero Del Duero wines also make extensive use of the tinto fino grape, which is thought to be a genetic variation of the tempranillo grape. From Ribero, consider wines like Abadia Retuerta and Pesquera.
From Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine region, Marques de Murrieta Ygay, Muga, Marques de Riscal, and R. Lopez de Heredia all create amazing wines that reflect a passion for quality and a commitment to make wines reflective of this storied region.
To end the meal, and the food and wine tour of Spain, what else? Enjoy the Sherry from the area that gave the wine its name, Jerez. The area of Jerez is also given credit for the creation of the dishes you have been enjoying all night long, tapas.
Sherry is to be savored, sipped slowly, and the houses of Hidalgo, Pedro Domecq, Osborne, and from Montilla, Alvear all provide the perfect touch to end on a high note.
Even though it seemed to take a long time for the Spanish to pay attention to our dining scene, they are here now, and how.