On Pessoa, Portuguese Cuisine and Hidden Tastes: a Food Tour with Taste of Lisboa

The prolific Portuguese philosopher and writer Fernando Pessoa had no less than 80 heteronyms, facets of his personality re-imagined as thinkers and poets in his most notable works. And from his home in Campo de Ourique, where he lived on the last decade-and-a-half of his life, he explored the many sides of human life.

lisbon poets

And for someone who knew very little of Portuguese food outside of pasteis de Belem and mil manheras of serving cod, a historical food tour with Taste of Lisboa introduced me not only to Pessoa and his neighborhood, but of the multi-faceted nature of Portuguese cuisine from the very district where food trends are born.

Warning: no bachalau or custard tarts were consumed on this tour.

Climbing the historic Tram 28’s route that snakes through Graça, Alfama, Chaido and Estrela, we left Tourist Lisbon on six of the city’s seven hills and climbed higher on Colina Saõ Roque towards Campo de Ourique and the Prazeres Cemetery. Aptly named the Cemetery of Pleasures, our three-hour tour would begin here and wind us around to taste some of Lisbon’s most pleasurable treats.

Historic Tram 28 Lisbon

Lisbon and I have had a complicated relationship since 2007, when I struggled to understand the city’s vibe, its colorful history and why everyone seemed to love it so much. My country list then could be counted on two hands, and I had yet to learn how to be a savvy traveler. This meant far too many pastries and far too much money spent at mediocre touristic restaurants near Baixa. A second trip in 2011 was plagued by rain and that too-long-to-look-up-its-name volcanic eruption. Tiled homes, an empty hillside castle and Sagres imperiales were my biggest takeaways from Spain’s westernly neighbor.

Campo de Ourique was sleepy on a Tuesday morning as shops opened a few minutes past the hour and locals crowded into cafes for an espresso to accompany their flaky pastries. We got off a stop too early, giving us time to wander the parish’s main thoroughfares before meeting Filipa, a Lisboner and lifelong foodie who began Taste of Lisboa two years ago.

portuguese tiles

Like all food tours, there is an exchange of pleasantries. Where are you from? How did you hear about the tour? Oh, you blog and we have friends in common? I’d been told of the friendliness of the Portuguese, and with a wink and a few jabs at Spanish cuisine and culture, Filipa became a foodie friend.

The location for a food tour was no accident, though we’d picked it for its minimal walking – Campo de Ourique, a historically upper-middle class district considered a city within a city, bustles with concept restaurants, budding chefs and a part-market, part-international food haven sat squarely in the middle. From the start, I was surprised to find that cod had been left (mostly) off of the menu, anda sweet treat was up first.

“Unlike the Spaniards, we are quite humble when it comes to our cuisine,” Filipa stated, looking squarely at me. “But this is not something we claim for our sweets. Our chocolate cake is the best in the world.”

Where to find the best chocolate cake in Lisbon

The small pastry shop, imaginatively named O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo, had just two round tables and eight chairs for our group of 11. I am one of those foodie anomalies – gasp! I don’t like chocolate! – but as the creator of the world’s best chocolate cake, Carlos Braz Lopes, turned up in the shop, I eagerly shoveled it into my mouth.

With a espresso cup of port wine on the house, we toasted what could be the best slice of cake I’ve ever had, layered with bitter chocolate and meringue. Portuguese custard and egg sweets may be known worldwide, but I was astonished at the complexity of a simple cake made from six ingredients that had been created by a former businessman with a killer sweet tooth (psst! There’s a shop in Madrid!).

Enjoying a food tour in Lisbon

Just across the street is the newly remodeled Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a fusion of traditional Portuguese cookery and fare with a fish and vegetable market. Tile-lined food stalls ring the perimeter, with high tables and stools occupying the center, much like Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel. For someone who shops in a market regularly, I was drawn to the food more than the googly-eyed fish near the entrance.

Filipa brought us right to the salads stand. As Catholics and a people whose history is rich with seafaring explorers and far-flung colonies, Portuguese food combines ingredients from all over the world, making Spanish stews and legumes seem rudimentary and almost convoluted. Even the octopus salad I ordered brought out new flavors from one of my go-to summer dishes, flavored with a touch of cilantro and sweet red pepper instead of tomatoes.

marinated octopus salad

We ordered several dishes, all with a legume and fish base, like black eyed peas with flaky cod and tuna. As the food cooked, we sampled fried pork skin laced with black pepper, leitão à bairrada, and learned the origin of convent sweets – an abundance of eggs and flour plus sugar-hungry, bored nuns.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the peixinhos da horta, or the small fish of the garden, green beans fried in tempura, another Portuguese invention born out of the Lenten tradition to abstain from meat. Tempura itself was created here, though perfected in Asia.

Portuguese craft beer

Mussels were next on the list, and Filipa led us to a concept bar where there’s little else on the menu but the clams and craft beer. Like Spain’s recent craft beer explosion, small batch breweries are elbowing into Sagres’s cornered market while producing not only great flavors but sexy marketing and names that poke fun at gluttony and excess.

Mussels (Moules) in Lisbon

And then there were the mussels themselves, cooked in butter and full cloves of garlic and seasoned with cilantro and a bit of lemon. Normally one to pass up the mollusks in favor of altramuces or boiled shrimp at a cervecería, I bravely took the first two bites to remind my family that half the fun of traveling is trying new foods.

The buttery flavor against the salty squish of the orange flesh added a different dimension to the mejillones I’d tried and quickly dismissed in my early days in Spain. I dug in to the brimming buckets, happy as a clam (pun intended) to have some time to visit with the other two American families who had joined us. The three young girls between them – no older than 12 – were pulling apart the had, shiny shells and slurping the mollusks down between sips of water.

Pessoa was a man of fine wine and ginjha, a cherry liquor served in nondescript, closet-sized bars. A Brasileira, the Cafe Irún to Pessoa’s Hemingway, is one of Lisbon’s oldest and most beloved cafes, and Pessoa is rumored to have sipped bica, espresso with sugar, and absinthe here with the occasional wine.

“Life is good, but wine is better,” he said of his love of the drink.

Foodie Experiences in Lisbon

I’ve long enjoyed port wine and the vinhos verdes, or young wines, cultivated in the Minho province. Filipa took us next to taste different wines from the country’s 2700 hectares of vineyards. In true neighborhood shop fashion, locals can bring their own bottles or wine glasses, try a few varieties, and then bottle up and take home their favorites.

Paired with a strong cheese and quince paste, even my mother enjoyed them.

cod fritter and naughty rice in Lisbon

The next stop had us in front of Pessoa’s last residence, right in the heart of Campo de Ourique. Crumbling buildings covered in tiles sandwiched the small museum, housed in an apartment complex, and its award-winning restaurant, which served us cod fritters (they were, sadly, forgettable, so excuse the claim that I ate no cod on the tour) and a creamy rice with another glass of wine.

Having consumed several dishes by this point and being in the very place where Pessoa’s landmark book, Disquiet, was found after his death, I had a completely different perception of Portuguese food and its intricacies. Like a human being, its relationships as much as its evolution and environment make it what it is, and different situations call for a multitude of adaptations.

Portugal’s tangled history is perhaps the cuisine’s biggest element, but there is much more than meets the eye – and stomach, for that matter.

spongecake Lisboa style

Campo de Ourique had one more dish for us to try, this time in the city’s hospitality school and concept restaurant. Just as we’d started the day with sweets, we’d end with a spongecake, pão de lo, made with nothing more than yolks, flour and sugar.

Proving once more that I knew absolutely nothing about Portuguese food, my spoon sliced into the toasty top of the cake, cutting into a creamy, spongy substance that in no way resembled the sponge cake I’d made as a kid for summer picnics. I scraped the waxy paper holding it all together, eager for the last few sticky crumbs.

Fernando Pessoa once said, “I have no philosophy: I have senses.” And I think I just found mine when it comes to tastes and food prejudices. The tour was more than just a way to spend a few hours with my family and share my travel style with them (and making Christmas shopping a one-gift production).

Lisbon and I had finally found a common ground: good food.

Taste of Lisboa Food Tours

I paid my own way on the Taste of Lisboa Food Tour; all opinions are my own and do not reflect a collaboration between SandS and Taste of Lisboa or any of its affiliates. You can find out more about Filipa’s food tours and courses on Taste of Lisboa’s website.

The Curious Case of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil

“Passion and quality are at the heart of this venture. It’s that simple.”

I sneezed, a clear sign that spring was about to settle onto Andalucía for a brief period of time before melting into summer. The breeze picked up, and I wrinkled my nose, lest any more oliva pollen enter my system. For as andaluza as I sometimes feel and act, my allergies gave me up as an utter fraud, calling attention to me in a group of nearly 50.

Bodeguero puppy

Isaac Martín, event coordinator for Basilippo, an award-winning olive oil producer internationally recognized for its quality, kicked off a tasting event that was punctuated by my sniffles. Set at an old hacienda buried within acres of olive trees, an internet search for foodie experiences brought me to one of western Andalucía’s foremost producers of liquid gold, extra virgin olive oil.

Teetering on winter and spring, I was willing to risk puffy eyes to learn how to properly taste olive oil and look out for its quality and properties. As a staple of the Mediterranean diet, its health properties have long been touted, but not all aceite de olivo virgen extra is created equal: supermarket buyers often have to pick between an entire shopping aisle’s worth of brands and varying quality.

Arbequina olive oil from Andalucía

And the good stuff doesn’t come cheap.

The Basilippo brand, made with the manzanilla and arbequina varieties of olives, has been my go-to brand when bringing home a nice bottle for foodie friends, but I shamefully catalogued what I used to cook with or a dress a salad with at home: whatever came cheapest and in a plastic bottle. I had a lot to learn, and creative packaging could not longer be a barometer for quality.

And for a small-batch, family-run brand, passion for the ripest fruit and top-tier production practices, only the best would do.

Inside Hacienda Merrha’s lofty tasting room, several round tables sat armed with jewel blue tasting cups, a brasero disguised underneath by heavy cloaks. Diego Vergara, responsible for the company’s marketing, held up two sherry glasses full of orange juice as we sat. 

Properly tasting olive oil

His explanation of how to distinguish extra virgin olive oil was simple: one was an orange juice squeezed from ripe oranges. The second was a bastardization of orange pulp, colorants, chemicals and mass production. In other words, it was a soft drink meant to mimic the flavor of orange juice. If the product was bruised or off, the taste and aromas would be off. Perfection is this business, amidst mass production and knocks offs, truly came down to passion for the cleanest, most natural product.

The scents naturally found in olive oil – grass, banana and traces  of fruit – laced the air as the heater next to our legs in turn heated the smooth, rounded tasting capsules for optimum olfactory pleasure.

Flavors present in EVOO

Oil exists in dozens of varieties, and olives have been picked, pressed and packaged into olive oil for nearly eight millennia. Extra virgin – considered the healthiest and ripest state of the olive – occurs when no heat treatments have been applied to the product and is made from 100% olives of the same type. All other oils wane in quality, thus driving down the price. Packaging can also make a difference, as olive oil loses its properties with exposure to light or heat.

Again, I fully admit to being ashamed of the marca blanca I have stocked at the back of my pantry.

The three blue cups sat before us. Two contained about a tablespoon of product and were covered with a plastic condiment lid. The third, sitting at 7 o’clock, was filled and quickly covered. Blue cups are typically used in blind tasting as, unlike wine, color is not a factor in determining an oil’s quality. Smell and taste take all the credit here.

como degustar aceite de oliva

Olive oil’s properties are strongest when it’s as close to harvest as possible. The generous pours came from a bottle only a few weeks old, and Diego generated a bit of heat to release its intoxicating smell by cupping the glass in his hand and rotating it back and forth as if opening a bottle of pickles for about 15 seconds. Next came a quick whiff and recapping the jar.

We’d all come for the tasting portion of course, and sloshing it around your mouth like Adolfo of Plus Vino showed me to do wouldn’t cut it:

Olive oil has different tastes on your tongue and taste buds. Sucking in air as it travels towards the back of the throat makes it taste more viscous and potent. And I wasn’t the only one who got a burn in the back of the throat – slurps were followed by gags, coughs and grunts, the sign of a quality harvest.

Moving on, we paired a vanilla-infused organic oil with both regañá crackers and a crisp, hard cheese, as well as a pineapple ice cream drizzled in olive oil. Though most of Basilippo’s bottles come with recommendations for consumption, the kitchen serves more innovative dishes.

The man immediately on my left seemed to be some sort of aficionado and asked the white elephant question: How did Basilippo feel about the “adulteration” of Spanish olive oil? 

Brought up as extended family of the Rubinellis and the Dell’Alpe dynasty – a Chicago-based import company known for its quality Italian products – olive oil has always been a staple in my family’s kitchen. And until moving to Spain, I was convinced that Italy produced the highest quality product. But European olive oil is on par with organized crime – even though Spain produces roughly 40% of the world’s olive oil, most is shipped in bulk to Italy before being bottled, giving the impression that most olive oil is coming straight from the Boot.

How to do an olive oil tasting

This has been going on since the Roman occupation of Spain, when olive oil was used in commerce and called liquid gold (and in all fairness, my Italian relatives have a soft spot for Spanish cuisine). I’ve long felt that Spain is only beginning to embrace competing on an international market with its food products, and I’d likely consumed them as they paraded as Italian. 

But Basilippo’s product was meant to stay with the connoisseurs, a thead that runs thorughout its four generations of olivareros. International consumption is definitely on the table – they’ve won numerous awards worldwide and run a quality assurance program attended by visitors abroad – and they’ve got a strong local following. I thought back to Isaac’s powerful speech in which his love for his business reach my consciousness despite the sneezing and nose blowing. Passion isn’t so much an ingredient, but a habit at Merrha.

Diego explained that close to 10 pounds of olives are necessary to produce a single liter of olive oil of any quality, hence the small batches coming out of Basilippo (the production comes from just 20 hectacres of olivos). By the time our group of nearly 50 hit the gift shop, we’d depleted a large portion of stock. I introduced myself to Isaac, chuffed that so many phenomenal gastronomic treats now formed an important base in my diet.

fried olives from Andalucía

Unsatisfied with a few morsels of bread for mopping up oil in the gift shop, I sneezed my way back to the car and we struck out towards El Viso del Alcor. Craddled between Mairena and El Viso, this privileged land was believed to have been inhabited as Tartessos. It’s also home to one of the zone’s most innovative tapas bars, MasQueTapas.

All of the dishes on the two-paged menu are made with products from down the road at Basilippo and the place was packed on a rainy Saturday. As the waiter brought out drinks, he laid down a small dish of fried olives.

“But heating the olives changes their properties,” Kelly said, popping one into her mouth. “So these are probably the rejects.”

Low quality or not, they were exquisite, proof that a small sliver of land in my backyard, with its rolling groves of olive trees (and toxins for my system) is producing what could be the world’s most perfect crop.

a tasting at Basilippo

I’m on a mission to do something new every week of 2016 – from visiting a new village to trying a new bar or restaurant. Have suggestions for in or around Andalucía? Please share them, and take a tour of Basilippo‘s immaculate grounds, just 30 minutes from Seville (they’ll even pick you up if you use public transportation!). You can buy their products in small gourmet shops like Oleo-lé in central Seville.

Have you ever attended a strange food tasting?

How to Eat Like a Dane at Christmas

“There is no word in any other language for hygge,” Maria says quite matter-of-factly. “The closest we can do is ‘cozy.'” The rain was coming down outside Copenhagen’s new Torvehallern food hall, and hygge, pronounced hyu-guh, was definitely not what I was feeling.

In the 24 hours I’d been in the Danish capital, I had become convinced at once that the Danes do everything better, from architecture to mulled wine. And, hell, they even did coziness the correct way (because the sun sets at 3:30pm and they have little choice but to hole up at home). I looked longingly at a gløgg stand just a few paces away.

Typical foods from Copenhagen Food Tour

For the first weekend in December, the lack of snow on the ground didn’t detract from my heart swelling for Christmas time. Everything seemed to have an extra sheen, from the glossy windows of Scandinavian design shops to the pop-up Yule markets. And there were evergreens. Real, prickly evergreens for purchase. Enough to make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes in one day.

So, knowing nothing about Danish cuisine but pickled herring and a thing for open-faced sandwiches, I hopped onto a Christmas cuisine market tour with Food Tours Copenhagen

Torrehallerne Food Market in Denmark

Inside Torvehallern, the marketing wasn’t just humming; shoppers popped between shops selling everything from Scandanavia’s one fresh winter crop, kale, to organic wine and exotic spices. One of the glass and steel buildings held a full-on food hall; the other promoted products in small shops. Maria led us to a corner shop peddling food from the island of Bornholmer, a far-flung island south of Sweden.

“These are the inventors of our hygge,” Maria says, passing out paper plates with several small treats on them. “They had no choice but to become self-sufficient and make most of their goods at home, many of which we eat at Christmastime. Don’t be shy; grab a plate or the food will be nabbed by someone else in the market!” Starting at the top, we tried ground mustard spread over a flaky rye cracker, a sweet toffee and black licorice, followed by a lingonberry jam and a berry liquor. 

Typical food from Bornholmer Island

All this in under 90 seconds, lest a market-goer get a free sample. Maria followed up with a 40-proof grain liquor called Acqua Vit and a shout of skål! Oh, so that’s how the Danes stay warm in winter, I thought to myself as I shuddered from the taste.

Gløgg, an even more potent version of mulled wine, was ladled out for us at a nearby stand that faced a courtyard between the market’s two main buildings. The Scandi sort also includes vodka-infused raisins and almonds at the bottom of the glass, and I could feel four liquid ounces of hygge give me a boost of warmth as we tackled an outdoor stand.

traditional gløgg mulled wine in Copenhagen

Kanuts Kitchen, a free-standing food truck bridging the food hall and market by way of Viking-insprised dishes. The owners use only ingredients that existed in the first millennia – think pork sandwiches and root vegetables. We sampled aebleskiver, an apple dumpling made over a naked flame. Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar brought them into the 21st Century (and the food truck, which is a thing of its own on Copenhagen’s Paper Island).

Apple turnovers at Torrehalvern Copenhagen

aebleskiver Danish pastry

At this point in time, I’d figured savory treats would not be included on the tour, so I let my sweet tooth have a field day. Back inside the market, Maria led us to Grød, the Danish word for porridge. Smells of leeks and carrots wafted in our direction every time a frazzled shopper opened the heavy glass doors behind us, bringing in a gust of chilled air.

Rice porridge typical Danish food

She handed us a cardboard cup of rice laden with cinnamon, sugar and a hunk of butter. Legend has it that Danish children once believed that gnomes helped clean the house and look after the livestock, and grateful parents asked their children to leave them a small bowl of rice porridge, risengrød. It was probably my favorite dish of the day, even though my blood sugar was through the roof!

It seemed that everything I’d heard about the new Scandi food movement was wrong – we’d eaten porridges, enough butter to put a cow into retirement and had heaps of grain liquor. What happened to the fresh, inventive cuisine I’d been expecting?

Scandanavian food is having its moment of glory, thanks to the NoMa revelation in the early 2000s. What was once known as a butter-heavy, bleak gastronomic landscape was transformed thanks to local products, a focus on what’s fresh (again, just kale in December, often paired with – what else – herring) and the mastermind of René Redzepi. A restaurant of the same name – the hybrid of Nordic Food, or Nordisk Mad – is consistently among the world’s best.

Nørrebro Bryghus Brewery in central Copenhagen

After a quick stop for more chocolate and a spicy chai tea at an exotic spice market, we braved the cold once more to head to the Nørrebro brewery. As it turns out, the Danes begin their Christmas season a month earlier than Spaniards with the annual J-Day, or Julebryg beer day. 

Only on the market for 10 weeks, the special Christmas brew kicks off the first Friday in November with bars offering the first few rounds on the house. Nørrebro treated us to their version.

Dios, these daneses even have the Christmas spirits market cornered.

After two more rounds, I left the brewery and started back for the market, determined to find some food souvenirs and maybe another snack. Unlike most food tours, I wasn’t ready to roll home but had snacked enough to be comfortable. I did as Maria suggested – a hot dog on the street, mustard and fried onions dripping all over my hands.

Danish hot dogs typical lunch in Copenhagen

It would still be another few days before I got an open faced sandwich, called smorbrød, and I justified more than one pastry a day on account that a snegl was cheaper than a burger. After four days in Copenhagen, I’ve got little idea what the Danes eat but have pulled out Christmas cookie recipes for my family’s upcoming visit for a very Spanish navidad.

My Christmas memories as a kid tasted decidedly more Scandinavian than Spanish – gingerbread, warm drinks and a few sips of schnapps when I reached my teenaged years. Two hours and probably more alcohol than I needed at that time of the day, I was ready to hole up for hygge and feel nostalgic for my homeland, where snow falls for Christmas and it’s dark before dinner on a stark winter night.

Food Tours Copenhagen kindly offered me a discounted tour, though I was under no obligation to write a review for them. That said, I learned that Danes ALSO do Christmas better than we do, and that is an opinion Maria shares. Find out more about their tours in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo on their website.

How to

Torvehallern is located at Frederiksborggade 21, close to the Norreport transportation depot and only steps from Rosenborg Castle. You can find the Nørrebor Brewery at Ryesgade 3 across the canal, and buy candy in bulk at Somods Bolcher at Norregade 36, just around the corner from the market.

Have you ever been on a food tour on your travels? Do you eat any typically Danish Christmas foods n your family?

Wine Tasting for Dummies: An Afternoon with With Locals in Spain

“Wine snobbery is ruining the pure pleasure of a nice glass of wine,” Adolfo remarked as he poured us a young Verdejo from Northern Spain. “You like what you like, period.”

We studied the color of the pale yellow liquid before sloshing it around a tasting glass and lifting it to our noses. I don’t pretend to be a wine snob or even to know much about it, but after spending the afternoon sampling wine in Adolfo’s living room, I was convinced that I never would be nor need to be a wine snob.

Wine Tasting for Dummies

Adolfo’s three-hour introduction to wine paired with tapas – plus a short tour around the center of quaint Utrera – was part of the WithLocals experience I was invited to attend. An initiative that began in Asian countries before expanding to Spain and now Italy, WithLocals connects travelers with locals in tourist destinations with the aim of providing organic experiences, from cooking lessons to hikes to excursions from big cities.

In the spirit of full discolsure: I was skeptical about paying someone to spend a few hours with me, especially having been approached as a potential host. But peer-to-peer platforms like AirBnB, BlaBla Car and Couchsurfing have become some of my go-tos for saving money while traveling as well as a way to forge connections with locals, plus learning about wine is something I’d spring to experience (and pay for!) in another country. I have become increasingly disillusioned with tours and operators, but wanted to give wine (and a company in its infant stages in Spain) its fair chance.

how to open a wine bottle correctly

Adolfo called to us from his balcony, which looked over a street appropriately named for a type of regional wine. Part of the WithLocals philosophy dictates that events be held in hosts’ homes whenever possible, so a table was set with three tasting glasses, a few tapas and the tools of the trade were set in his living room. I brought along my friend Hayley, a wine drinker far more experienced than myself in the grape and its magical properties (magic, as in, turning sugar into alcohol, of course).

I’ve been to a few tastings – in family-run bodegas that sell al granel in DO Jumilla, in world famous wineries in La Rioja and even in a fancy wine shop in Seville, but I’d rarely learned much past the three-step tasting process. See, smell, sip and repeat until your brain’s a bit hazy and it’s time for a tapa.

verdejo wines Spain

Adolfo changed all of that: as an apasionado for wine whose hobby has become a lifestyle and job, Hayley and I fired off questions about soil conditions, favorite denominaciones de origen and how to find a decent bottle in a supermarket without knowing about that year’s harvest. Our host knew more than the number of ‘sommeliers’ and winemakers I’d drank wine with, but was quick to tell us his dismay for people using wine as a status symbol (to which I snuff, ponme otra cervecita, por favor). 

The Verdejo was crisp and, though I couldn’t snuff out the banana peel undertones in the smell, refreshing. We snacked on salty anchovies with avocado and onion puree between sips. What struck me was that we could have a normal conversation as friends once we’d sipped the first glass and discussed the mechanics of the fermentation process, how to tell when wine has lost its quality and why some bottles slope and others don’t. We were one glass in, and I’d already learned more than my brain could hold. 

tasting wine with locals in Spain

Spain still pits Rioja against Ribera as far as favorites, much in the way it does with fútbol, so Adolfo skipped the vino heavyweights in favor of a crianza from a little-known region tucked between Alicante and La Mancha, Utiel-Requeña. I’d never even heard of it, much less tried it.

Plates of chorizo, cheese and salchichón appeared as the cork was popped, revealing a faded crimson ring. The glug, glug and slight ring of the liquid against the glass preceded a sip and slosh around our palates, and I went so far as to try and gargle like the sommeliers do (it sounds weird, but the bubbling reveals even more tastes buried deep in the mouthful!).

Typical Spanish Charcuterie

We’d then try a grandaddy Rioja and compare the two tintos in color, smell and taste. I began to smell the earthy wood undertones and hint of black pepper as my sinus cavity cleared up and reminded my brain of the properties of a strong wine that had been aged for two years and then bottled for two more before entering the market. 

In the wake of turning 30, my mom reminded me that age is like fine wine, and Adolfo had saved the best for us to drink with duck paté and strawberry jam: a wine he’d inherited from his uncle from 2002. Even though wines depreciate depending on their aging process, the murky brown liquid still tasted amazing.

Three hours later, we sipped a sweet Pedro Ximénez from nearby Jerez, brains as full as our bellies.

How to Taste Wine:

Most everyone knows that wine tastings have three parts: first you check out the color, then provide a preview for your tastebuds by sniffing inside the glass before finally tasting the wine. But I’ll go further:

tasting wine with With Locals in Spain

Open the bottle correctly. Some restaurants will cut the aluminum cap that protects the cork right near the top, but you should do so under the lip of the bottle. Better yet, press firmly on the cap to pull the aluminum upwards in one piece.

Pour less than one fluid ounce into a proper tasting glass. Glasses should grow thinner at the top to help aromas reach your nose, and while stemless glasses are gorgeous, your hand can heat the wine and distorte its properties slightly.

Remember that red wines have varying properties, so know the differences between joven, crianza, and reserva when tasting Spanish varieties. Everything from the color to the depreciation and especially the taste will vary. Joven wines are very rarely aged in oak barrels, whereas crianzas will have spent 6 months in barrel of its two years aging. Reserva are aged longer in both bottle and barrel. So, the 2010 reserva we tried had spent two years in barrel and two more in bottle before being labelled for sale, but the joven we tried wasn’t half bad because it came from a reputable bodega.

Wine Tasting with Plus Vino Sevilla

The olfactory phase is the most important, Adolfo tells us, because our tastebuds can only perceive sweet, sour, salty and acidic. The nose can sense the nuances of flavors are snuffed out at this phase, and this is why you’re encouraged to move the liquid around in the glass. Take your time.

When you’re ready to taste, don’t swallow right away. Slosh the wine around in your mouth the get the full sensory experience.

If you’re trying more than one wine, pour 15-20 milliliters of the next wine you’ll be trying into the used glass, swirl it around and dump into a recipient.

Most importantly – don’t get snobby about wine. Everything about wine – from the soil from which the grapes grow to the content of the cork – is a science, so just open a bottle you like and enjoy it!

With Locals invited Hayley and me to be guests for the WithLocals wine experience in Utrera. All opinions expressed are my own – I like my opinions as pure as my vinate. Be sure to check out With Locals’s page for more inspiration, as well as Adolfo’s YouTube channel about everything in the Mundo de Vino.

What’s your favorite Spanish wine, and where do you buy it? Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll get down to the task.

Tapa Thursday: Tasting Jerez de la Frontera

I’ll admit it – I have a big ol’ crush on Jerez de la Frontera.

While Seville swoons, Jerez pokes and teases, yet always entices. It moves slower. It seems to stay for just one more round of ‘la penúltima.’ Jerez knows how to party, but it also knows how to stop and smell the sherry.

And at just an hour car ride south of La Hispalense, it’s easy to cheat on Seville with Jeré.


No stranger to Spanish wine culture, Jerez – along with El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – make up the Sherry Triangle and produce white wine of the same name. I discovered the Feria de la Vendimia thanks to Devour Spain‘s monthly newsletter, and though we’d missed the grape stomping and the sherry cooking classes, there was still one lingering activity on a sunny Saturday late in the summer: the Feria Gastronómica.

Feria de la Vendimia Jerez

Set in a shady plaza sandwiched between the Alcázar fortress and world-famous González Byass Wineries, nearly two dozen tents offered special tapas and a drink for 3.50€ under caseta tents. Rather than do a lap, we beelined straight to a brightly colored bar at the west end of the square. Being hangry is a good enough excuse for me to follow my nose and tummy into a tent.

Jerezano cuisine is similar to that of Seville, but because the province of Cádiz boasts both sea and fertile terrain, there is more fresh fish and seafood, plus heartier meats. The Bahía de Cádiz is famed for Almendraba tuna and bull meat, called retinto. While it would have been easy to choose croquetas and solomillo, I was determined to choose tapas that were more regional.

Here’s what we devoured:

Pepe Limon Sherry Spritzer

While I’ve become a sherry convert thanks to the Feria de Sevilla, my friends find it too bitter. Pepelimón is the newest product from the makers of a fino variety called Tío Pepe that is half fino, half 100% lemon juice. Like rebujito, it’s sweet and potent (and don’t fret, I had a glass of sherry after we’d eaten).

Destraperlo beer Jerez

Craft beer is on the rise in Spain (admit you just did a fist pump), and Jerez has a new kid on the block, Destraperlo. Irene invited us in for free samples of their pilsner and red brands. La birra más burra es muy buena – it’s got more body than local favorite Cruzcampo, but with less bite than an IPA, making it just right for the Spanish palate. 

Ensaladilla de Pulpo

Thirst quenched, we stuck around in the Guardia de Ángel tent for ensaladilla del pulpo. Octopus is one of those Spanish foods that I would have never thought I’d like, but mixed with mayonnaise and paprika, the salty taste was too overwhelming.

Albondigas de Atun

Sticking with seafood, I nabbed some albóndigas de atún con queso payoyo with homemade tomato sauce. Both alemndraba tuna and Payoyo cheese are native to Cádiz, and this was indeed the star dish of the day.

eggplant tapa in Spain

The berenjena con queso de cabra carmelizada en Pedro Ximénez came recommended at Bar Papanata’s tent. Washed down with sherry, of course!

Sampling sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

Realizing we’d only been on one side of the food fair, we got one more drink at Restaurante Bar Gula. I wanted to try the hamburguesa de retinto, a bull’s meat burger, but we opted for croquetas de tomate y albahaca con jamón and a chicken satay (hey, when you find international food in Andalucía, you order it!). 

After five tapas a piece, we were stuffed!

Croquetas in Jerez

That day was one of those typical Andalusian Saturdays where you look at your watch and ask, wait! Where did the time go? Between catching up on our summers, sampling tapas and ordering another round, it was suddenly after 5pm and time for merienda.

Spanish desserts and I broke up a long time ago, and Jerez’s dessert game seemed a little off (we were so desperate we hiked to a Foster’s Hollywood, the most jankity Friday’s you can imagine, to find it closed). We settled on cakes from a pastelería.

oreo cake

While Jerez’s food culture isn’t terribly different from Seville’s, I can never resist a decent food festival, especially when all of the bars are clumped together.

While Jerez may not be the food mecca, I have a feeling that Sevill’s kid brother might soon have its swan song.

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I visited Jerez’s Feria de la Vendimia with Caser Expat Insurance’s Typical NonSpanish project. All opinions and extra calories are my own.

Have you ever been to a Food Festival in Spain?

Tapa Thursdays: Five Must-Eat Canarian Dishes

I knew that my travel style had changed when H and I planned our trip to Croatia and Montenegro. After staking out a place to stay, we focused on the most important aspect of our weeklong vacation in the Balkans: what and where to eat.

From celebrated pizza joints to non-descript roadside eateries to a bar with THE BEST VIEW (according to them, and…they weren’t wrong), we spent most of our money on food and drinks. The same happened in La Rioja, India and our business meetings in Seville.

eating cevapi sandwich balkans

My name is Cat, and I’m a culinary travel addict.

I can’t say for sure when it happened, but several of my most treasured memories from travel have been around a dinner table, tucked into the corner of a grubby pub or trying new foods.

Even when I’m in Spain, cuisine becomes a central part of my travels. On recent holidays and breaks to Tenerife, my friends Julie and Forrest made sure that I saw – and tasted – the island’s highlights, starting with a local Tropical beer. And there is more to Canarian cuisine than their pygmy bananas.

Five Must-Eats on the

Mojo Picón

Pronounced moe-hoe, this red sauce is the star of Canarian cuisine and its best-loved sauce. In fact, mojo is a bastardization of the word molho, meaning sauce in Portuguese. My first meal in the Canaries included two mojo varieties on the table instead of the standard garlic and oil. 



Slather the sauce, which is made of olive oil, salt, water, garlic, peppers and many spices, on meat or wrinkly boiled jacket potatoes called papas arrugás. For a Spaniard, the sauce is spicy. For anyone else, it’s a small kick. Green mojo, however, has an earthy, minty aftertaste and is usually reserved for fish.

Flor de Guía Cheese

Julie met me at the airport and took me promptly around Santa Cruz’s main sites, ending up at a street full of typical bars. We split a cheese plate with typical varieties from around the islands, including the award-winning Flor de Guía cheese (and that’s why it was so costly!).

produce and cheese on Canary Islands

Surprisingly enough, this particular queso is made from both sheep’s and cow’s milk, and juice from thistle blooms help to curdle the milk. The cheese is semi-hard and makes an excellent dessert (or, if you’re me, an excellent anytime eat).

Ropa Vieja

When Julie and Forrest took me to a guachince, I was immediately in love with the makeshift restaurants on family-run wineries. We found our way to La Salud and ordered one of everything.

typical food at a guachinche

In the absence of ropa vieja – a mixed plate of garbanzo beans, meat, potatoes and vegetables – we had a garbanzá. Like puchero or cocido, a plate of ropa veja makes use of whatever is lying around in the kitchen, so recipes vary greatly from one household to the next. I’d liken it to a weekend paella or rice on the mainland.




Gofios are a thing of pride for the canarios, as it forms a large part of their diet and has been eaten on the islands for centuries. Gofio is the word for a flour made from roasted grans and starchy plants, most often wheat or corn plus beans. With a pinch of salt, gofios are usually turned into bread and eaten with seemingly all meals.


I learned about the wonder that is Arehucas honey rum on my first trip to Gran Canaria in 2008. While at a wedding somewhere in the foothills, I pointed at bottles, blissfully unaware of what I was consuming. A yellow-labeled rum stuck out, an entire bottle was consumed with coke as a mixer, and a short-lived love affair was born (I hated that stuff the next day).

Bodas, beach and the boy!

pre-Arehucas buzz in 2008

Spiced rum production is not native to Europe, but Arehucas is distilled in Arucas, Gran Canaria and produces the largest output of rum on the continent. There’s a touch of honey, so the rum can be drunk on the rocks or as an after dinner digestif if you’re hardcore.

Now that I’m happily at home in Chicago, eating my fill of all of my Midwestern favorites and feeling heavier than ever, my next gastronomic adventure will take me to some of America’s best-loved food cities – Memphis, Louisville and New Orleans.

What are your favorite foods from the Islas Canarias? Have you ever been to and eaten in the South? Please share your must-chows!

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