Monday, October 8, 2018

Rappie Pie & Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado: A Comfort Pairing

Rappie Pie, a traditional Arcadian dish. Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado, produced by a bodega where embraces tradition. Together, they produce a compelling pairing that works on multiple levels, satisfying the mind, heart and soul.

International Sherry Weekwhich begins today and runs through October 14, is a celebration of the wonders of Sherry, a fortified wine made in a specific demarcated region in southern Spain. It is a time for the ardent promotion of this fascinating and delicious wine, to expose more people to this wine, hoping some will become Sherry converts. This year, about 2,500 Sherry events will be held worldwide, including several in the Boston area. One of these events is a blogger competition, where 20 chosen bloggers received a bottle of Sherry and had to create a perfect food pairing for it. I was one of those fortunate 20 people and ultimately, after careful deliberation, decided to pair my Sherry with Rappie Pie.

I was sent a bottle of the Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado ($25-$30). The history of this bodega extends back to the 13th century, during a time when the Moors, Muslims from North Africa, controlled most of Southern Spain, including Jerez. On October 9, 1264, King Alphonse X, also known as El Sabio, the “Wise,” successfully conquered Jerez, seizing control back from the Moors. As a reward for their bravery and loyalty, King Alphonse awarded land and vineyards to some of his best knights, including Alonso Valdespino, the start of the Valdespino's involvement in the wine business, making it one of the oldest Sherry bodegas in the region.

During the Modern era, in 1999, Valdespino was purchased by Bodegas Grupo Estevez, a family-owned group that was established in 1974 and owns other bodegas as well. They have allowed Valdespino to remain true to their traditions and old winemaking methods, as well as maintaining their concern for the importance of terroir. Grupo Estévez owns about 800 hectares of vineyards, with 256 hectares in the famed Macharnudo Pago with its valued albariza soils, considered the best place to grow the Palomino grape. There is also a sub-area within this Pago known as the Macharnudo Alto, situated at the highest elevation of the vineyard.

The Palomino grapes for the Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado are all sourced from the Macharnudo Alto, making it a single-vineyard Sherry, which is rare in the Sherry industry. Uniquely, it is also one of the few Sherries that is still fermented in cask, in American oak, with nearly all other Sherries fermented in stainless steel. This Amontillado begins its life by spending from eight to twelve years under flor, like a Fino Sherry, and then spends another five to eight years without flor, aging oxidatively, averaging about 16-18 years in total.

This Sherry has a special place in my heart as I first tasted it back in September 2010, while visiting  Bodegas Grupo Estevez.  My time in the Jerez region, exploring various bodegas, was a fascinating and wondrous trip, with many great memories, helping to solidify my deep passion for Sherry. I previously described the Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado as: "It had a compelling aroma, and the complex taste was nutty with rich caramel, vanilla and spice, as well as lots of acidity. It also possessed a long and pleasing finish, another sherry I would strongly recommend." When I think of this Sherry, I think of it as delicious and comforting, fueling my belly and soul.

As for Rappie Pie, we need to delve once again into history, back to the 17th century, when the Acadians were the earliest European settlers of Canada, having originated in France, and primarily settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Unfortunately, the English expelled most of them in the 18th century, with numerous Acadians relocating to Louisiana. When Acadians were allowed to return to Nova Scotia, they found that most of the best land was already claimed by others, so they were left with land that was hard to grow much else except potatoes, making it a central ingredient of their diets. Though there are unsubstantiated legends that rappie pie was first created in the 16th century, there is much more evidence of its origins beginning around 1755, when potatoes became so important to Acadians.

Rappie pie is a made from grated potatoes or in French, "patates râpées." Once the potatoes are grated, most of the water and starch is removed. This used to be done by squeezing the potatoes in a cheese cloth, a laborious process, so that it would take two to three days to make rappie pie. It is thought that the starch that was removed from the potatoes would later be used for their clothing, wasting nothing in the preparation of rappie pie.

Later during the preparation, a hot broth would be added, replacing the lost water, along with meat (such as chicken or pork), onions and pork fat to make a hearty, casserole-type dish. The amount of added broth was usually judged by the consistency of the mixture, and some people prefer a wetter texture while other prefer less. There are also a number of variations on the basic ingredients, some people using different types of meats, from rabbit to beef, or even seafood like clams. Much depended on what ingredients were readily available to the people at that time.

Considering the length of time it took to prepare and cook rappie pie, it primarily was for special occasions. Preparation was also a joint effort, with both the men and women taking on specific roles, the men engaged in the laborious task of removing the water and starch from the potatoes while the women would prepare the both and pick the chickens clean of meat. The men and women continued working together on the rest of the tasks, a true family project, and the rappie pie would commonly be made and served in large rectangular pans. Recipes generally weren't written down, instead being passed down from person to person, generation to generation.

Once you have a plate of rappie pie in front of you, you might top it with butter or molasses, and there is an old adage that the English use butter and the French molasses. Some people may even top their rappie pie with other items, such as even ketchup, but that is much less common. My personal preference is butter, though some of my family like molasses.

My wife and her family, the Babins/Babines, are originally from Nova Scotia and they introduced me to Rappie Pie. The family didn't write down their recipe, but passed it down from generation to generation. As making rappie pie was a special occasion, we decided to transform it into an annual family event, a time for everyone to gather together outside of the usual marriages, christenings and other formal family functions. In fact, we ended up holding these gatherings two to three times a year, inviting all of the family, from great-grand children to cousins, and many friends as well. They were informal gatherings, with plenty of delicious food and drink, and brought our family closer.

We are fortunate that making rappie pie has gotten easier to prepare, as you can now purchase frozen, pre-grated potato blocks, so we don't need to spend all the laborious time removing the water and starch. However, it still remains an all-day task, though that is better than two or three days. We do have family that still makes it in a traditional manner. We have also written down the recipe, so future generations will be able to continue the tradition, to ensure it endures. We are not alone, with numerous other families with Nova Scotian connections making their own rappie pie. There is even a Facebook group Rappie Pie Rules, with over 3500 members, from all over the world, sharing a love for making rappie pie. 

So, does Rappie Pie pair well with an Amontillado Sherry? 

Let's first consider the geeky science behind Sherry and food pairings. As Sherry contains approximately 307 volatile compounds, far more than most others wines, it is extremely versatile and good friendly. Because of all these volatile compounds, Sherry has an affinity for many different foods, which share the same aromatic family. No other single wine has an affinity as many different aromatic families. Unlike other wines, Sherry also contain a group of compounds, called diketopiperazines, which enhance the flavor of umami-rich foods. As Amontillado is an oxidative style, its dominant phenols include benzoic acid (almond aroma), cinnamic acid (cinnamon aroma), phenolic aldehyde (walnut aroma), and coumarin (vanillin, tonka bean and cut hay aromas).

In summary, and at its simplest, all of this scientific information means that Sherry is a killer pairing for a wide variety of foods. That is all many consumers want to know.

The Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado is a silky, elegant wine, with an alluring aroma and pleasant, complex and primary flavors of nuts, caramel, and vanilla. There is also a hint of salinity, beautiful acidity, and a lengthy, soothing finish. Its flavors complemented and enhanced the mild flavors of the chicken and pork, touched by the herbs and seasoning, we added to the rappie pie, as well as the slightly smoky bacon atop it. Chicken and pork are traditional ingredients for my family, and they are also traditional pairings for Amontillado Sherry. The sweet onions and glutinous potatoes also meshed well with the slightly, almost sweet flavors of the Amontillado. When you also consider how numerous people enjoy molasses, with its sweet and strong flavors, atop their rappie pie, then it's very easy to see how this Amontillado, certainly milder than molasses, would be even more pleasing. Everyone at dinner was impressed with this pairing. 

Let's now consider a different rationale for wine pairing, one which seems especially fitting for this pairing. Rappie pie is hearty comfort food, filling your belly with joy, especially during the Fall and Winter. It's not an intellectual dish, but one which appeals to your soul. When you enjoy such a dish, you probably don't want to think much about the wine pairing, preferring to revel in the simple joy of the food. Thus, you desire a "comfort wine," something which you don't have to think much about but which will give you much pleasure.

The Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado fits that description, its elegant smoothness and pleasing flavors easy to love. Each sip makes you smile, and you feel it in your heart and soul. You certainly can intellectualize this Sherry and food pairings, but you can ignore that aspect as well and simply enjoy it as a comfort wine, one which would pair well with many different comfort foods. Most consumers don't understand the science behind food pairings, but they can easily understand the idea of pairing a comfort wine with a comfort food. Maybe that is the best, and easiest, path to getting more people to enjoy Sherry.

The next night, we ate leftover rappie pie, fried up in a pan, and sipped the rest of the Valdespino "Tio Diego" Amontillado. It still felt like a delicious pairing, a cozy duo that continued to bring me comfort and joy.

Here is a Recipe for Rappie Pie:

20 lbs  Potatoes
2          3-4 lb chickens
2 lbs     Pork chops or boneless pork chops
6           Medium onions
1 tsp     Ground thyme
1/2 tsp  Ground bay leaves
1/2 tsp   Poultry seasoning
2 tbsp    Salt
1 tbsp    Pepper
20          Strips of bacon

1) Place the cleaned chickens, pork chops and seasonings into a large pot covered with cold water. Simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours until the meat falls easily off the bones.
2) Remove the meat and cut into small pieces, placing them into a large bowl. Return the bones to the pot and continue cooking until the stock is required.
3) Peel the potatoes, soaking in cold water to retain color until needed. Finely grate about 10 potatoes at a time with a hand grater or in a food processor. Place the grated potatoes into a cheesecloth bag and squeeze until all the water and starch is removed and the potatoes are quite dry. Repeat for the rest of the potatoes. Measure the liquid removed from the potatoes as equal amounts of stock will be added later.
4) Finely dice the onions and then caramelize them in a pan.
5) Put all of the dried potatoes into a large bowl and gradually add the hot stock in the amount equal to the liquid removed from the potatoes. Stir slowly to scald the potatoes until they have a jelly-like consistency, making sure there are no lumps.
6) Cover the bottom of a well-greased 20 x 12 x 3.5 inch pan with half of the potatoes. Place a layer of the chicken and pork mixture atop the potatoes. Then, place a layer of onions atop the chicken and pork. Cover all of this with the rest of the potatoes. Place the bacon slices atop the potatoes.
7) Bake in a preheated over at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 3.5-4 hours, or until a golden crust forms on top.

Serves about 20 people though you can easily cut the ingredients in half to make a smaller portion. Instead of chicken and pork, you could also substitute rabbit, lamb, beef, clams, scallops or some other protein.

(For more background and information about Sherry, please check out my 40+ articles on All About Sherry.)

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