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Wednesday, 05 June 2013 12:00

Sniff the Cap: Making Sangria, Spanish-Style

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Deidre's tasty sangria. Deidre's tasty sangria. Ken Malcomson

It’s June, the time of year when I transport self and friends to Spain by stirring up a pot of cold, red, fruity deliciousness.

Yeah, it’s sangria time.

Sangria seems like a kids’ drink. By “kids,” I mean adults of legal drinking age between 21 and 103. Sangria can potentially be a sugary, soda-pop beverage with some fruit that appeals to people who don’t much like red wine, who drink Arbor Mist or Yellow Tail’s Sweet Red Roo.

It has no place in my life. Or does it?

A couple of years ago, Dave and I spent most of June in Spain. In Granada, I presented an academic paper that called for collective thinking by critical theorists. (Yeah, I know. Zzzzz.) More importantly, my husband and I drank some Spanish wine—dark-red Spanish wines, characterized by region or Denominación de Origen. In the United States, a couple of better-known Spanish wines are Rioja and Ruedo. We drank those in abundance. Our favorites, though, were Toro wines from grapes grown in Castile and León, northwestern Spain, along the River Duero.

In many places in Spain, a glass of wine is served with tapas. At best, the tapas might be a shellfish concoction, a Caprese salad or a slice of frittata. At least, it’s a dish of almonds or olives. If you drink enough, you never need to order dinner.

Then came a scorcher of a day in Seville, a large city that carefully observes siesta. We’d taken the train from Ronda, a pueblo blanco in the southern central part of Spain. There’d been a quick breakfast at our hotel. When we arrived in Seville, we were hungry, but the hotel pool looked cool and inviting. The city was about 41 degrees. Celsius. (106-ish Fahrenheit.) While the rest of the city was doing its afternoon dining, we were swimming.

Then we hit the road to see the sites. We walked to majestic Plaza de España with its bright tiles and brilliant fountains. I took photos—getting hungrier with each snap. At a plein air restaurant near the Plaza, waiters were cleaning up from the afternoon rush. Cerrado, they said. Closed. They could not serve us food. We walked on.

In nearby tourist central, a few souvenir shops were open. McDonald’s was serving its usual fare. Not tempting. We walked and walked, past closed cafés and restaurants. Sunburned. Stomach rumbling. A harsh wad of acid bunching up near my esophagus.

Then … glory be! The pearly gates of a small local dive bar. The door wasn’t actually open. But we saw a man walk in. The joint boasted no windows and didn’t appear to be a tourist hot spot. Pero porque no? Why not?

The bartender didn’t speak English. In my broken Spanish, I explained that we’d arrived on a train and had much hunger. Tenemos mucho hambre. Too bad, he explained; the bar didn’t have a kitchen. That said, the angel of mercy made me a plate of papas fritas. In other words, he opened a bag of potato chips and put a couple of handfuls on a plate. This was the tapas that would accompany a sangria that I fuzzily remember as the best I’d ever tasted.

Yes, I’ve read the words of travel writers who disdain sangria as cheap wine mixed with cheap booze and unwanted overripe fruit. Smarmy Spanish bartenders mock the poseurs to whom they serve sangria, charging them way too much for the privilege of drinking something that sounds Spanish. Stupid tourists.

I can see that. But amigo, that cheap slop hits the spot on a hot afternoon.

Paired with potato chips, it felt like food. I drank two and consumed two plates of potato chips. I can’t remember what Dave drank. I’m really not quite sure I can remember what we did next, where we went, or how we finally obtained “real” food.

That is to say, the sangria was potent. I had downed two tumblers on an almost-empty stomach.

I was in the mood to gamble, and the bar had two video gaming machines. I pulled out a 20-euro bill and slid it into the machine. The few people in the bar were all watching me. And at first, it was just like any game at any bar in Nevada; I think it was fish-themed. With mermaids. I was doing OK, maintaining, not winning, not losing. And then something cool happened: The machine was abuzz with lights and sound—all, in Spanish and thus incomprehensible.

The bartender was saying something to me in Spanish, and I was smiling and nodding. But I didn’t comprehend. Soon, he was flying over the bar to stop me from pushing the wrong buttons and, you know, losing it all. He did not make it in time.

Dave has a photo of me not winning a jackpot in Spain. My face is bright red with sunburn and sangria. No one will ever see this photo.

Back in the Estados Unidos, I attempted to re-create this sangria, with varied results. I’ve even done some seasonal variations. For St. Pat’s Day, I made green sangria, using apple-flavored vodka instead of Triple Sec, and adding melon, Granny Smith apples and kiwi. I’ve tried using rum, vodka, bourbon and brandy. All of these work, but I like brandy. Bourbon overwhelms the wine.

To make a party-sized vat of sangria, dump the following ingredients into a very large container:

Three bottles of red wine

A cup or so of brandy

A cup of citrus flavored liqueur (like triple sec)

Juice of two limes

Juice of two oranges

3/4 cup sugar (more or less to taste)

3-5 citrus fruits, sliced thin (oranges, lemons, grapefruit)

An apple, minus core, also sliced thin

Other seasonal fruits (berries, melon), thin slices!

Three biggish bottles of sparkling mineral water (and if you’re making this for Arbor Mist lovers, it’s OK to use Squirt)

It takes a couple of hours for the flavors to mingle. I like to mix sangria in the evening before a party the next day, minus the sparkling water, and let the fruit and wine make sweet love all night long. I add sparkling water right before I serve—two parts fruity wine to one part sparkling water, or it will taste too watered down.

Pour in a wine glass, chilled if possible, garnished with fruit wedges and mint leaves.

Add papas fritas, and you might as well be in Seville.

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