The Divine Couth of Barcelona Vermouth
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fortified wines are so … fortifying.
By Kevin Brass
“This is an old place,” Matt Goulding says, as he leads me down a narrow stone street in El Born, Barcelona’s labyrinth of old churches and modernista tapas bars. The only sign for the bar is a piece of wood with “bodega” painted on it.
“We just call it the bodega,” says Goulding, a writer who is, it is fair to say, obsessed with Spain’s food traditions. He wrote a book called Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, described as “a deeply personal exploration of Spain, a country where eating and living are inextricably linked.”
Today Goulding is showing me places to drink vermouth, which is one of those things that is much cooler than it sounds. Most Americans see vermouth as the cheap wine you pour into a crappy sauce or the least necessary ingredient in a martini. Typical vermouth dis: In an episode of Mad Men, Peggy asks erudite alcoholic ad man Roger if he would be willing to drink vermouth, since there was nothing else available. “Yes, I’m afraid I would,” he replies.
Sales of vermouth are sluggish in most parts of the world, except in southern Europe, where there has been a resurgence in recent years, says Daniel Mettyear, senior analyst at IWSR, a research firm that tracks the industry. “A lot of younger people who wouldn’t have been caught dead drinking vermouth are really starting to get interested in vermouth and enjoying the whole kind of vibe,” he says.
In Barcelona, drinking vermut is entangled in the roots of the city, representing generations of culture and social discourse. Most older neighborhoods have at least one or two vermuterías, gathering spots and places to sample the local blends and eat salty snacks.
We walk into the bodega at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, which Goulding assures me is the perfect time to drink vermouth. The bar is a dark cave with a low ceiling of wood beams, with metal stools placed around old barrels. “I’m a sucker for barrels,” he tells me. “A real barrel-driven bodega.”
He orders two vermouths, the restaurant’s own brew, drawn from a barrel sitting on the counter.
The vermouth is served with an orange slice and olives. The drink is cold, sweet and fruity, a fruit punch with a little kick. “When you go to a classic bodega, it will be sweet,” Goulding says.
In the rhythms of Barcelona, vermouth is the afternoon drink, part of the tradition of merienda, a light afternoon meal to tide you over during the slow siesta hours. “There is something about the ritual of it that is really attractive,” Goulding says, as he squirts seltzer from a green plastic bottle into his glass.
Goulding was no fan of vermouth when he first came to Spain, before he married a Barcelona girl. “You grow a palate for it, eventually,” he says. Vermouth is fundamentally a social drink, he adds. “I like the idea that something as simple as a drink is reason to get together and hang out. Here, the drink is just the vehicle.” And there are other advantages. “You can drink quite a few,” he says, heading to the bar for another.
After the bodega, Goulding leads me around the corner to El Chigre, a new restaurant, open for only a couple of months, across from the Gothic cathedral Santa Maria del Mar, which was built in the 14th century. The Chigre’s decor is rustic-cafe chic, with sawdust covering the wood floors. The small room is crowded on a Sunday afternoon, a mix of locals and tourists thumbing through their guidebooks.
El Chigre offers a carefully curated vermouth menu, including the aromatic Medusa Blac and Roxmut, made with apples. I choose the Cori, described as facil u ligero, or “light and easy.”
Goulding knows the chef, Francisco Heras, who is well known in Barcelona for his restaurants celebrating basic Catalan dishes. As we speak, Heras takes a blow torch to a slice of mackerel that he adorns with pureed cauliflower and dollops of caviar.
“I have a soft spot for places that are better than they need to be,” says Goulding, who says things like that.
He scoffs at the idea that the recent rise of interest in vermouth is a craft-beer-like fad. There is a sense of history to vermouth, a culture bonding hipsters and their grandparents, which is also helping to revive other food traditions, he says.
As the vermouth flows, we sample thinly sliced anchovies and fresh pa amb tomàquet. People are laughing, enjoying the Sunday afternoon. And soon, in the Catalan tradition, it will be time for a nap.