There is a particular virus that seems to attack people around Christmas time which makes them eat, drink and buy all they had not eaten, drunk or bought during the year. I don't get bitten by that bug, as I prefer to eat and drink well throughout the year (shopping is not really my thing), but we wine lovers do not let any opportunity go by to get together, break bread and pop corks.
Christmas provides plenty of these—people coming back to visit the family, old friends popping into Madrid for whatever reason and restaurants tend to be fully booked, so you may get a worse experience than at any other time of the year. But if you select the place carefully, it can work out okay. So we took one of these opportunities and decided to have lunch, as opposite to dinner; you tend to eat a lot and drink a fair amount during these get-togethers, and you'd need to walk for a couple of hours to digest before being able to go to bed. Someone had the idea of asking chef, wine lover and friend, Abraham García from Viridiana restaurant in Madrid, to cook a cocido for us. A cocido had better be for lunch! And so we did...
Abraham García is, together with Iñaki Camba of Arce (of whom I should tell you about sooner rather than later), the best classical chef in Madrid. And it's not that his cooking is classical—because it's far from that—but because he is well versed in classical cooking, he can cook all the complicated old-styled things, all the sauces, all the techniques. He really knows how to cook. But he has wide interests and is a knowledgeable guy despite having been a goat shepherd in the Montes de Toledo in his youth; he has traveled extensively and studied the cuisines from many different countries. His dishes often have Moroccan, Mexican or Indian references; he comes up with dishes, ingredients or spices you've never heard of every time. His creativity seems to have no limit!
We usually take some time to sit down, while all guests arrive and various aperitif wines can be opened at more or less the same time, so things can get a bit chaotic. One of our usual suspects has been cornering the market for old Barolo Chinato bottles (I think that, in fact, he has actually DRAINED the market!), so we've been lucky to drink these rare elixirs quite frequently. However, the Capellano Stravecchio is quite rare, and is one of the most subtle and elegant examples of the style. The wines (yes, they are wines, aromatized wines, but wines after all) don't usually have a vintage year and it's difficult to know how old the bottles are. This particular Barolo Vecchio Chinato from Capellano must have been from the 1960s and had a beautiful bright pink color and an alluring nose of balsamic herbs, cola, orange rind, decayed rose petals and an earthy, elegant aroma of red fruit. It was off-dry, bittersweet, intense and very long, with great balance and poise. By the way, a Barolo Chinato is a sweet vermouth using a red Barolo as its base wine. Yes, yes, vermouth from Piamonte, of course. And it ages as well or better than Barolo. In fact, any good vermouth will age forever, so if you find any old stray bottle, grab it and try it. Chances are—and we're not talking about the industrial stuff here, of course—it's going to surprise you; in a positive way. They tend to throw a lot of sediment in the bottle, so stand it up for a couple of days and decant it slowly to get rid of the sediment. They also improve with air, so decanting them is double-recommended.
Going back to the food, the theme today was a single dish: cocido. There are similar dishes throughout the world, bollito misto in Italy, French pot-au-feu or feijoãda in Brazil (and I'm sure many others that I don't know) where a number of different ingredients are boiled together (cocido means boiled, literally), usually meats and perhaps some kind of pulses like chickpeas or beans and vegetables. Abraham sources the best ingredients, his mix is unorthodox (he invented fusion cuisine way before the term was coined) and boils everything separately. The whole process might take a couple of days, which is both crazy and uneconomical. That's why you won’t find the dish on the menu, but if you're lucky, he might prepare it for you if you ask him well in advance (and promise to bring great wines!).
Someone popped a 2000 Cava Enoteca Gramona Finca La Plana Brut Nature, a recently-disgorged (2013) Cava from Gramona, one of my favorite Cava producers, with some liqueur d’expédition to polish the edges of the long aging in contact with the lees. It is a very good Cava, but few of the fellow diners were willing to pay the price asked for it.
There was something really unusual to close the aperitif chapter; before Marqués de Riscal and Émile Peynaud invented the new whites from Rueda in 1972, the traditional wines from the region were white, yes, and produced with the local Verdejo grape, but they were produced in a completely different style, fortified, and they resembled the oxidative styles of Sherry more than the fruity Sauvignons from anywhere. A friend had just returned from visiting the Ismael Gonzalo cellar from Ossian in Rueda, and he had filled a bottle directly from the barrel with a wine he called Solera 1970 Very Old Verdejo Family Wines, a wine that had been produced and kept by his family following the tradition. The wine fermented in clay amphorae and matured under a veil of yeast, a biological aging like the finos or manzanillas of Jerez or the jaunes from Jura and then transferred to old barrels for long aging in a solera system where the wine aged and got concentrated reaching almost 17% alcohol and very high acidity without being fortified. It was nutty (mostly hazelnut aromas), with intense acidity, slightly volatile—a very good aperitif.
The basic recipe of what Abraham cooks is cocido Madrileño, Madrid's version of cocido, as there are many regional variations (almost as many as households in Spain!): cocido Montañés, cocido Lebaniego, cocido Andaluz, cocido Maragato, Escudella y Carn d'Olla (Cataluña)...all with slight variations in ingredients or how they are served. This is called "El Cocido de Abraham," as it's his personal interpretation, which might vary depending on how he feels or the ingredients he might find on the market that day. A cocido includes chickpeas, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and a number of meats (like beef, pork, chicken) and sausages (chorizo, morcilla) that boils slowly for hours. It's a hearty, winter dish. In the old times, after the Civil War, when Spain was a very poor country, people used to eat cocido almost every day, as there was not much else available, so whatever they had made it into the pot. As with other dishes (like offal), what was a dish for the poor has become a delicacy.
As we sat down and looked through the bottles people had brought, it was clear that we needed to start with a couple of whites. First in line was the 1998 Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Gruner Veltliner Smaragd (don't you love these lovely names from Austria and Germany?) from FX Pichler in Wachau and it was quite a bomb. 1998 was a powerful vintage with a lot of botrytis, the aromas of honey and dried apricots were intermixed with lots of white pepper and intense fennel notes and flavors, lots of acidity which indicate the wine might live another 20 or 30 years. Yeah, that kind of beast...
For many people the best thing about cocido is that the liquid result from hours of slow cooking the ingredients is a delicious broth that is consumed on its own as a consommé or a great base for soup if you boil some thin, short noodles (fideos) in it and you can add some bits of the carrot or chickpeas. It's the sopa de cocido. Cocido soup is the start to the day you eat cocido. (And subsequent ones if you're lucky.)
Next to the Pichler was the 2000 Meursault Les Rougeots from J.-F. Coche-Dury, which did not disappoint; it had the telltale aromas of sunflower seeds, smoke and yeasts, a little reduced, the signature of Jean-François—even less in his son Rafael's wines—still very lively and showing great for a village. It did handle the soup well, matching its power and the extra ingredients that were used, saffron and thinly-sliced bread from Mallorca. (He always comes up with some novelty every time; this is how soup is eaten in Mallorca.) We also had the option of adding some spearmint (which I found too strong for the soup), acid-sweet green peppers (piparras) and a sauce, supposedly to eat with the meats, that was so good we kept eating it long after the soup was gone and before the main dish appeared.
Old, traditional, oak-aged white Riojas are a rarity, as nobody thought they'd age so people drunk them—or dumped them!—while they kept their reds. They are scarce, and mostly magnificent, especially when they wear the name of López de Heredia or Marqués de Murrieta. Someone had secured some pristine bottles of the 1970 Rioja Blanco Reserva Marqués de Murrieta Ygay which was a perfect example of what I was telling you, that traditional, oak-aged white Rioja ages as well or even better than reds! This bottling was informally known as Etiqueta Blanca (white label), because they have a white label for both red and white versions, both well worth your attention from any vintage you might find. This had those notes of toffee and burnt sugar intermixed with aromas of white truffles and a lively palate.
The main dish was delivered to the table. Portions served at Viridiana are large, cocido is a meal on its own with plenty of ingredients, so you're going to be eating from the same dish for a long time. It needs to keep the heat, and Abraham presents it in a round, cast-iron bowl with all the ingredients neatly distributed. You'd think it is a serving tray for a whole family, but no, it's one for each!
We have discovered that Jura wines pair very well with food, and it's unusual if a couple of bottles don't show up in these gatherings. Today was no exception. The 1976 Château Chalon from Jean Bourdy was there because it was someone's vintage year (yes, we do have some young people in the group!) and it was good, but not great. It was really floored by the 2000 Côtes du Jura Savagnin Les Vignes de Mon Père from Jean François Ganevat, one of the young stars from the region. This is a truly exceptional, world-class wine, produced in tiny quantities and in a painstaking process: the wine is aged in topped-up, 600-liter oak foudres for 130 months. Yep, 130 months is almost 11 years! I've already been lucky enough to drink the 2002 version of this wine and I think there he's risking it too much with low sulphur and oxidation, but I feel the 2000 is much more precise, delineated and fresh. It is a very concentrated white with lots of dry extract and strong aromas of curry, apples, morels, chalk...Even if the barrels are topped-up, flor yeasts should be all over the place in the winery, so after more than 10 years, some of this flor character is obviously noticeable in the wine. It was so powerful that it could handle some of the unusual ingredients on this particular cocido, like the sweet potatoes (batata) or the oxtail.
It's always a good idea to have an aged Rioja or a young Burgundy for the transition between whites and reds. Today that role was taken by a bottle of 2005 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St Jacques 1er Cru from Domaine Fourrier, a gentle vinificator, whose wines have the elegance and perfume of a Chambolle despite being from earthy Gevrey. Don't get me wrong, they are still Gevrey, and Clos St.-Jacques is one of my favorite vineyards there. I like 2006 red Burgundies a lot more than I initially thought I would. While the whites are not really my style in that warm vintage, the reds are approachable and seem to have more depth and length than initially anticipated. They are good to drink now. This Fourrier was no exception, and showed incredible finesse.
The blood sausage (morcilla) was stuffed inside a zucchini and the bone marrow showed up separately—truly, Flintstone-sized—perfectly roasted and covered with some coarse sea salt. Pure cholesterol! Thank God we had some reds full of resveratrol, plenty of antioxidants and stuff to wash our arteries clean, like the 1999 Barolo Cascina Francia from Giacomo Conterno that does not reach the heights of the otherworldly Monfortino, but is a superb bottle of classical Barolo, or the even better 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse Riserva from Gianfranco Soldera. This is, together with the wines from Salvioni, my all time favorite Brunello, and the 2001 was fresh, with great acidity, just perfect for the dish. After the insane incident where he lost a number of vintages down the drain of the winery, this wine is even more scarce than it already was. The 2001 was young, but drinking well, with amazing balance and great length. One of those magical bottles of wine.
The 2004 Cornas from Clape showed unusually sweet and jammy after the couple of Italians, with some sweet raspberry and other more typical notes of smoked bacon and black olives. Somehow it didn't shine. It might seem like we drank a lot and ate very little, but we did not; we ate a lot, but we ate a lot of the same thing rather than many different dishes. If you let Abraham feed you, you'll never eat very little at Viridiana. In fact his tasting menu—which I'm not sure is offered in writing but it's always available—is largely dangerous. And the secret to survival is not to finish all the dishes as besides being plentiful in number they are also huge servings!
Plates were getting empty and people were getting full, but you can rarely escape Viridiana without at least three desserts. Yes, we drink wines, but sometimes we complement them with other drinks (how open-minded we are!), as was the case with the 2009 Malus Mama, a sweet cider produced in the Basque Country with aromas and flavors of recently-baked sweet apple pie, boiled quince and cinnamon. The first of the desserts is always an ice cream or a refreshing sorbet, and given that it was late December, Abraham surprised us with a Roscón de Reyes ice cream, an ice cream of the classical cake eaten the morning of January 6th, the day of the Epiphany when kids (and the rest of us) traditionally get Christmas presents. This King Cake has a distinctive taste and aroma, because one of the ingredients is orange blossom water (agua de azahar), a distilled liquid obtained with an infusion of the aromatic petals of the flowers from the orange tree, which is one of the aromas found in and one of the main descriptors or giveaways for Muscat wines. We did not have any Muscat, because we had no idea what we were getting for dessert, but there was a superb bottle of 1926 Madeira Verdelho Barbeito which always does the trick, no matter what you have it with. It was razor-sharp, with aromas of mate herbs, aniseed and petrol, and it cut through the richness of a wild tiramisu and a thick and creamy coconut panna cotta.
That was it for that day. For sure you'll read more about Viridiana from me, as it is one of my favorite restaurants in Madrid, the chef is into wine and understands when a bunch of friends turn up with 20 bottles to go with his dishes.
And after all, that December lunch we only had one (very traditional) dish (but plenty of bottles!), when the norm there is more to have 10 or more (and plenty of no-nonsense fusion cooking), therefore it can be considered that it was not a representative menu of what Abraham does, so one day I'll have to give you the real Viridiana experience. I hope I'll have finished digesting this great cocido by then!