Friday, October 29, 2010

On Your Marks & Spencer, Go!

Food in ridiculously plentiful quantities is undoubtedly the most important thing to The Rock. Take many of its inhabitants to a three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in New York, and I guarantee that (irrespective of the deliciousness and creativity of their meal) most of them will complain about the itsy bitsy, teenie weenie servings. The problem is Cypriots are spoiled; for twenty Euros a person, they walk into a tavern, gorge themselves with enough meat to feed a destitute village of fifty in the Andes, and two hours later need a gurney (rental not included) to carry their bulging bellies back home. Tavern meals, locally known as meze, include anywhere from twenty to forty dishes ranging from yummy dips and salads to a boiled lamb's head and grilled gonads. So in honor of the island's sinful relationship with all things edible, I present my Top Five Culinary Moments (in no particular order) since the day I set my previously tight booty on The Rock.

1. The discovery of grilled halloumi. Gotta eat it to believe it. As I tell everyone, The Rock's greatest contribution to humanity after The Wife, Ph.D., and (maybe) Cat Stevens.

2. The day I found babaco (I bought three) and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (I bought two cases for, gulp, nearly $100). I am keeping my fingers crossed that one day not too far from today these items will be as abundant and cheap as the feral cats that hump into the night and overpopulate our city's streets.

3. My first tavern experience. I had just landed. I was a novice. No one warned me that eating on The Rock is not unlike a marathon, a steady, slowish pace is preferable to an uncontrolled dash for the finish line. I ate lamb testicles and chicken livers. I needed a few bottles of Perrier to digest it all. Bloody memorable.

4. Plantains are fundamental to my existence. I first tracked them down in a small African shop where the owner, a plump African woman who seemingly focused most of her business on hair braiding, kept boxes of them hidden behind the counter for select customers. Funnily enough, she said most of her plantain-purchasing clients were Latinos.

5. I am obsessed with Mexico and its food. So when I came across jars upon jars of salsa verde at Marks & Spencer, I felt relieved I wouldn't have to give up my career (whatever that is), return to school to get a degree in agronomy and find the best possible way of growing tomatillos on The Rock.

Of course, I usually opt to wash all of this food down with a good bottle of island wine.

Marks & Spencer Nerello Mascalese (Sicily) 2008 - Nice bouquet with hints of licorice, chocolate, sour cherries and mint. Medium length, starts off with the fruity flavor of sour cherries but leaves you with a strong alcohol aftertaste. A tad too acidic. The first time I drank this wine I served it chilled and I could feel an explosion of cherries inside my mouth. This bottle (served at room temperature and consumed with The Wife, Ph.D., and My Zolpidem Supplier) was not as memorable as the first. 84/100.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wedding Wines Among Enemies

A few weeks ago, The Boy Who's Marrying The Enemy and his future wife, The Enemy, invited us over to their place to sample the red and white wines they intend on serving at their upcoming wedding dinner. Obviously, since I am their main "whino" friend, I offered to buy two of the three bottles we would taste, a 2009 Kolios Persefoni (Xynisteri) and Tsangarides Agios Efrem (Mataro, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend). The Boy Who's Marrying The Enemy provided a bottle of 2006 Shoufas Red Dry Wine (Maratheftiko, Oftalmo, Mavro and Cabernet Sauvignon blend), a wine of legendary proportions among our group of fancy friends. You see, not too long ago, I received a bottle of Shoufas as a Christmas gift and, well aware of its mediocrity, opted to re-gift it and give it to The French Connoisseur as a token of my gratitude for his connoisseurship. Of course, he caught up with the joke, re-wrapped the bottle himself and gave it to the Disney-obsessed man-child one night we all went over to his and Minnie Mouse's apartment to partake in a drunken dart tournament. A few days later, the man-child, probably worried about Nemo's fate or pretending to be Ratatouille with a set of skewers and a lit grill, dropped the bottle on the kitchen floor. That night we all said a silent prayer for our fallen Shoufas comrade, who if still with us would have been bravely changing domicile every few weeks.

City weddings on The Rock are of epic proportions. Almost like an autograph signing by your [enter favorite celebrity crush] and (occasionally) followed by an invitation to a V.I.P. dinner party. Thousands of people (yes, you read correctly) are invited to a cocktail in which the married couple (many times bored to death) stands on a short stage for two-to-three hours shaking their guests' hands and receiving small envelopes jam-packed with $$$ as gifts. Sometimes the wedding is open to the public; an invitation is placed as an ad in the local newspaper just to make sure one does not bruise people's feelings by somehow forgetting to personally invite them. Finger food is served, average champagne is drank, the line to greet the merry marriage stretches for a couple hundred meters. Invitees hang around for a bit and then head on out forty-to-sixty Euros poorer to the next cocktail. Given the size of such events, it is quite common for a family to be invited to three or four of these on the same day. To be honest with you, if "wedding hopping" and "wedding crashing" were an Olympic sport, The Rock would have a boatload of gold medals by now and Marcos Baghdatis would feel less guilty about downing his fair share of souvla and halloumopittes.

Those of us close enough to the couple are then invited to a "private" dinner that can reach up to six hundred guests. The decor is classy and people are dressed appropriately. The buffet is generous and scrumptious; salads, cold cuts, pastas, rices, roasted meats, vegetables, stews and a large assortment of desserts crowd several long tables. The whiskey-fueled dancing can be entertaining and even include that of the table variety (no, not of the Spearmint Rhino kind, you perverts). But the wine, oh, the wine. Generally local, generally average, generally not served at the right temperatures. Many people do not care about the wine but I do, so it is quite depressing to pair a plate stacked to the brink with tasty foods with a mediocre wine. Olympus (Etko) Salera, you've been warned. I am just kidding...kind of.

The Boy Who's Marrying The Enemy had six wine choices (three red and three white) provided to him by the hotel in Agia Napa that will host the party. Considering my pseudo-expertise in The Rock's wines, I told him to pick either Aes Ambelis (Xynisteri-Semillon blend) or Persefoni as his white and Tsangarides Agios Efrem as his red. Since he had previously drank the Aes Ambelis White, he chose to go with something new just like his marital status. As for the reds, he found a bottle of the oh-so-ever-elusive Shoufas and included it in the tasting. The Enemy contributed to the evening by preparing a luscious zucchini soup and red lentil kisir, a Turkish dish based on bulgur wheat and tomato paste.

2009 Kolios Persefoni (Xynisteri) - Bouquet of fresh-cut apples, lemons, roses and grass. Soft, very pale yellow color, almost like hay. Medium-bodied wine, quite short and simple, but thoroughly enjoyable. According to The Boy Who's Marrying The Enemy, "not too innocent." 85/100.

2006 Shoufas Red Dry Wine (Maratheftiko, Oftalmo, Mavro and Cabernet Sauvignon blend) - The Boy Who's Marrying The Enemy said this is a "classic Cyprus wine." Not classic in a positive sense but in the "this-is-your-typical-Cyprus-table-wine" sense. Bouquet of coffee beans, red berries, plums, some smokiness. Very short, light-bodied, basic wine. Nothing outstanding about it but neither undrinkable. 80/100.

Tsangarides Agios Efrem (Mataro, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend) - Much more complex and with a fuller body than the Shoufas. This should have been expected given the varietals involved. Pleasant nose of berries, coffee and lots of pepper. 84/100.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Vaynerchuk Takes On Tsangarides

Just came across this oldish video. Gary sometimes sounds like a constipated hen but he does a great job of analyzing (with very mixed results) three Tsangarides wines. Nevertheless, The Rock gladly accepts the publicity.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Of Grapes, Open Doors and Dwarf Ponies

I will always have a soft spot for Aes Ambelis Winery in Agios Ioannis; The Wife, Ph.D., and I served its lovely white Xynisteri-Semillion blend at our wedding three years ago. To be honest with you, it seems like centuries have passed since that fateful afternoon I foraged down the aisle decked in an Hugo Boss suit that no longer fits my frame. I guess all of the "excitement" provided by The Rock makes time supersonic. In any case, when the Brother-in-Law (who works at an establishment where (purportedly) employees look like blond versions of France's First Lady) mentioned that he knew the winery's head honcho, Giorgos Tripatsas, I jumped at the opportunity of meeting him and learning a bit more about Cyprus wine.

I arrived at the winery around ten-thirty a sunny (when is it ever gloomy on The Rock?) Wednesday morning. Giorgos met me in his tasting room, a modern and tastefully-decorated space flanked on the left by a long bar with stools and on the right by a passageway into the room storing the winery's stainless steel fermentation tanks. The tasting area includes several shelves exhibiting the winery's multiple awards in local and international wine competitions and literature on oenology, and a few white chairs and tables where customers can relax and sample the wines. The highlight, however, is the view of the Pitsilia mountains from the tasting room's glassed entrance. Once you go past the winery's beautiful, meticulously kept gardens, all you see are rolling hills, sparsely covered by trees and plantations, conglomerations of houses like pops of brightness here and there. I could very easily see myself composing this post while sitting on one of those tables, sipping on a glass of white, finding inspiration among all the shapes and shades of color clustered before me.

Giorgos was busy when I first walked in. A local grape farmer who supplies Shiraz to the winery had stopped by for a visit. The men chatted about the skewed wine pricing policy on the island, a practice by which many restaurants quadruple instead of double or triple the wholesale price of basic Cypriot wines to the detriment of the local wine industry. Later, Giorgos told me that the man is also a maitre d' at an important Nicosia hotel and that he greatly admires him for both understanding and enjoying wines and carefully tending for his grapes. "Many times," Giorgos said, "one comes across grape growers who do not care about the wine or, worse yet, winemakers who do not care about the grapes."

Giorgos got into wine while studying in the United States. Through a friend who was studying agronomy, he became interested in the subject, partaking in a wine tasting course and attending other wine-related events. At the same time, thanks to many summers spent working in his father's olive, lemon and orange orchards, he grew an affinity for the land, the plants and harvest season. After returning from America, he began working in investment banking but never forgot about his passion for wine. At the time, Cyprus wine was produced in mass quantities, predominantly for export to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and its quality left a lot to be desired. So along with a buddy and as a pricey hobby, he started a roughshod wine operation that initially produced a basic red blend a la Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a white. As they pumped more money into their enterprise and the bank loans started to pile up, Giorgos realized it was time to turn a profit and gave up his daytime job to dedicate it all to the winery.

Today, Aes Ambelis produces a basic white and red, a Shiraz, a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rose and Omiros, a single varietal Maratheftiko. It is pretty clear to Giorgos that most future work has to be dedicated to the local varieties, Xynisteri and Maratheftiko. While he is already very pleased with the initial results of Omiros, he sees plenty of room for improvement. He does admit though that Maratheftiko has its problems. The grape, one of the world's only non-hermaphroditic varieties, has to be planted in mixed vineyards for it to pollinate and grow, which leads to bud loss and very thinly clustered bunches. According to Giorgos, Maratheftiko is a stubborn grape with a long harvest season and which requires special picking. By comparison, Shiraz, the grape I believe The Rock has been most successful with thanks to the work done by Sophocles Vlassides, is straight forward and easy to tend to.

During my visit, I also met with his main winemaker, a Moldovan man who moved to The Rock nine years ago as a result of limited work opportunities in his country's wine sector. Unfortunately, I do not recall his name; you see, all I share with an elephant is its size. He gave me a quick tour of the facilities and then handed me a glass of the 2010 Rose (a Maratheftiko/Lefkada blend) poured straight out of the stainless steel barrel. You must understand that this sort of shit does not happen to me when I go visit wineries. I know little about the subject, my nose might be big but it ain't refined or trained to pick up subtle hints of grilled eggplants with undertones of dirty laundry, and my palate is better suited for heavy, rich foods like tiramisu or Neapolitan pizza. In any case, I was thrilled to give it a try; the wine has a lovely fruity bouquet and bursts in your mouth with all sorts of citrus flavors, good acidity and a sensational crisp, tangy finish. When compared to the 2009, the new vintage is much livelier and complete.

Besides making exceptional wines across-the-board, Giorgos believes the only way to survive as a winemaker in Cyprus is to open one's doors to visitors and tourists and actively promote the winery within society. He was very keen on me stopping by whenever I wanted, either to take pictures, hang out, ask naive questions only an Ecuadorian rookie could possibly ask, or taste his wine. If all local winemakers displayed just a fraction of this agreeable and welcoming attitude, the wine industry on The Rock would be booming like Rio de Janeiro on New Years.

As part of this vision, on October 10th Giorgos held his annual wine party, chock full of wine, charcuterie (wine-soaked sausages, smoked ham and Cypriot prosciutto), local sweets made of grapes and nuts, basket-weaving artisans, and entertainment for the children. After gobbling up half a lamb for lunch, The Wife, Ph.D., and I, along with the Parents-in-Law, the Brother-in-Law and Double Trouble (soon to be Sister-in-Law), decided to stop by for a drink and dessert. The winery was crowded with people of all ages meandering around the gardens, tasting all of the delicacies and wines on display. There were also bottles for sale at discounted prices (including Magnums of Omiros) and an organized tour of the property on the hour. We had a brief chat with Giorgos, who took the time to welcome his guests and mingle, and then we stood by an old oak barrel that sat on its side and served as a makeshift high table. I tasted the 2007 Shiraz, 2008 Omiros and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and bought a few bottles to study more carefully chez moi.

Then the dwarf ponies made an appearance, both of them lugging ecstatic boys, and Double Trouble, also ecstatic at the sight of her childhood's dream pet, asked her future husband for one. Keep in mind that they live in a two-bedroom apartment and the Parents-in-Law, who own a house and have enough space to build a small stable, are reluctant to look after a dog or cat, mind you an undersized horse. Obviously, the Brother-in-Law shook his head and barked out that these are times of economic crisis, not times for spendthrifts to engage in unrestrained shopping therapy.

Yet, in my opinion, the solution is quite simple. Instead of purchasing the animal, why not just leave church after the upcoming wedding ceremony on a couple of dwarf ponies rather than in a (...quadruple yawn...) luxury sedan? Sounds to me like a good (and relatively inexpensive) way of feeding the dream...