Sunday, February 26, 2017

Vermouth: a Delicious Doorway to Discovery

A glass of Vermouth at Bar Fidel, Barcelona

When people think of Spain, one of the first thoughts that come to mind is its vibrant food culture. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, the largest tenant of the Iberian peninsula is quickly gaining a reputation as a culinary powerhouse, with staples such as tapas, paella, pintxos, backing a succulent surge in culinary fusion.

Of course, none of this gastronomic growth would be possible without Spain's ample farmlands, that are ripe with fresh fruits and vegetables, world-class olive oil production, and a near-endless supply of vineyards, making the country one of the world's largest wine producers.

That said, here in Barcelona, there is often a divergence between what is Spanish culture and what is Catalan. Without stepping into a delicate geopolitical debate, subtle, oft-overlooked differences abound between the northeastern-most region and the rest of the country. Perhaps, it's no surprise then that, unlike in the majority of Spain where sangria is king, the Catalans' alcoholic refreshment of choice is vermouth.

Surprisingly, this bitter-sweet fortified wine is widely overlooked by those outside the region. In my eight months here in the Catalan capital, I've developed an intimate relationship with this delicious and refreshing drink, and I want to share why.

When people think vermouth, they associate it with cocktails. It's the primary ingredient in such barroom stalwarts as the Manhattan and the Martini. Few people, then, consider having a vermouth "as is." Up until last summer, I wouldn't have thought twice about skipping over the spirit while out for a drink.

However, by luck (aka a severe lack of understanding of Spanish and an attempt to save face), I ordered my first vermouth while dining on a pork loin and cheese bocadillo (a type of sandwich). I was hooked.

Served with a slice of lemon over ice and often with a speared olive, the drink provides a near-perfect blend of sweetness, bitter flavor, a and a dash of citrus. Few beverages are so refreshing on a hot summer's day, a fall evening, or mid-winter lunch than vermouth.

Sadly, many tourists tend to miss out on this delightful treat when visiting Barcelona. Instead, when taking a break from exploring the winding alleys of the old town or traversing the kitsch barrio of Gracia, they stop for sangria. While bars are happy to serve the beverage (money is money, after all), you would be hard-pressed to find a local choosing sangria over vermouth.

Indeed, a common theme at my office is Friday afternoon vermouth; where my Spanish colleagues and myself like to unwind after a long week (note: we work traditional Spanish business hours meaning that we finish the week around 2:30-3:00 p.m. on Fridays). Going out on the town, bars on practically every corner advertise their "home-made" vermouth (spelled "vermut" in Catalan), enticing parched passersby to stop in for a 2-euro glass.

In my quest to discover more about the drink, I've begun ascending the supply chain. Through conversations with a coworker, I learned about a beverage wholesaler just across the city limits in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat that sold vermouth and wine by the liter under a "BYOJ" (bring your own jug) system. I cleared my Saturday afternoon schedule, and with a skip in my step and an eagerness to discover more, I headed out to the far end of a metro line, Nathalie in tow.

Bodega Casa Bou
Arriving near FC Barcelona's stomping grounds of Camp Nou, we set out to find our beverage Eldorado. Within two minutes of exiting the metro station in the working-class neighborhood of Collblanc, we found what will arguably become one of our most essential shops in the city. Bodega Casa Bou is a slender storehouse selling bottles of liquor on one side of the wall and steel wine barrels on the other.

With a nervous rush of curiosity, we started a conversation with the proprietor in our basic-to-intermediate Spanish. After explaining the concept, we ordered a two-liter jug of the "house vermouth." While we could have gone for a five-liter "Jerrycan," we felt it was more prudent to sample the goods before investing further. After tasting a couple of wines on tap, we took a two-liter container of Falset - a semi-dry red wine - and headed back home to sample the goods.

What can I say? This pick was one of the tastier vermouths I've had since moving here last summer. Not overly sweet like its store-bought counterparts, our wholesale vermouth held the perfect blend of bitterness, herbs, and just the right amount of sweetness. And at half the cost of some of the store brands (4.20 EUR a liter instead of 9.00 EUR in the supermarket), the 30-minute trek across town was well worth it.

However, the vermouth was only half the experience. More interesting, though, was the journey to go beneath the surface of the drink. What started off as a pleasant after work or weekend-afternoon drink opened the door to discover a widely under-appreciated cultural hallmark of the region I'm now living in. I am a firm believer that to fully discover a place means taking the time to get to know it, and there is perhaps a no better path to this goal than to break out of the plastic touristy stereotypes and live the day-to-day.

For me, vermouth is shining a burgundy-orange-colored light on a trail to more in-depth knowledge about my new home. Thankfully, there's a perfect drink to keep my refreshed on my way.

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