This month: time was when we fortified ourselves with delicious and ridiculously inexpensive local sherries — and some step-by-step delights for your May table.
The Heyday of Cyprus Sherry
Memory often romanticises events of the past. As an instance I remember the production of a vast range of spirits and liqueurs by Cyprus companies with great affection. Sparkling wine? Cherry and raspberry liqueur? Apricot brandy? Dessert wines? No problem! Companies large and small made them all and sold most of them here and in many overseas markets. All pre-EU, of course. And here we had two million tourists a year with all that foreign currency. Plenty of friendly young women for our local lads. A Mezze for a Pound. No traffic jams. Ah, they were the Good Old Days! This week I recall some of them… and add four deliciously easy recipes for your enjoyment.
For many years the KEO wines and spirits “factory”, hard-by Limassol harbour was a great attraction for visitors; to individual devotees of the products of the grape, which included me, and for bus-loads of tourists who came from the big hotels. There was good reason. Or several good reasons. KEO Cyprus brandy was made in a gleaming copper-bound distilling plant, made in France about 1870, whilst just a short distance away KEO Fino Cyprus sherry happily matured away in a real bodega. Brilliant!
An artist’s impression of the KEO brandy distillery, c.1992.
But then both were done away with. Not because they didn’t make good stuff (on the contrary it was superb) The management said there was no demand for a “proper” brandy or sherry. What they didn’t say was that they had insufficient marketing skills.
I did my best to help. Knowing of the popularity of fortified wines in the Nordic countries, I suggested export promotion there. Not the least advantage was that the Cyprus wines and brandies were inexpensive. My suggestions fell on deaf ears. At that time I was writing for the Cyprus Mail and I re-print below what I said then (note the price: One Cyprus Pound and 60 cents per bottle or about €2.30).
Note: You can get an approximation of the flavour by trying a true Spanish Fino. Tio Pepe is the most famous, and driest. Slightly less dry are La Ina, Lustau and Harvey’s Fino.
The KEO fortified wine bodega in Limassol, c.1992
Sherry, like Port and Madeira is a wine made in the normal way, and then “fortified" with brandy or pure alcohol at a later stage in production, and many countries, especially Cyprus, have made a lot of money making cheap fortified wines.
But real sherry is made by a unique method. The grape juice is allowed first and secondary fermentations in wood and at the end of the second, a fermenting scum of yeasts forms on the top of the wine, virtually sealing it from the air. The barrel does not have to be made air-tight to avoid oxidisation and instead of a bung, a piece of cotton waste is used. In this way a wine of totally individual character develops.
A sherry ‘Bodega" comprises rows of 100-gallon oak barrels, four or more deep. Young wine enters the top barrels and eventually, is racked slowly downwards as the wine for “fortification” with alcohol, further barrelling and bottling, is taken off at the bottom. The cellar-master controls the whole process, checking daily on the condition of the "Flor" in every single barrel.
This essentially Spanish process may be seen at KEO. And the result is a genuine "FINO" – a nutty, dry, light-golden wine that you may buy in the shops here for around £1.60 (VAT included). KEO "FINO" is not an imitation, it is a genuine Cyprus wine, as Cyprus Brandy is a digestif in its own right.
At its price, for me it ranks as the greatest bargain in Cyprus. By any standards it is a good wine and can hold its head up in some distinguished (and expensive) sherry company. If you are one of those who says, "Oh, I don’t like sherry", but who likes a glass of dry white wine as an aperitif, do as the Spanish do, have two-thirds of a wine glass of KEO Fino and I defy you to say you haven’t enjoyed it. (Two-thirds, because of the higher alcohol content)
Apart from pre-lunch or pre-dinner, you can drink a fine dry sherry like this on many other occasions. Mid-morning with a dry biscuit and some cheese for example. In company with the dry Madeira, "Sercial", it is one of the few wines that sits well with cold or hot soup, or have enough bite to drink with smoked salmon. It is good with liver, fish or meat pates and it is marvellous with. "Mezedes" — it ought to be: the great pre-prandial rounds of "Tapes" (those many and varied ‘little dishes’ served in bars) are part of Spain’s gastronomic heritage.
So you have several bottles of KEO "Fino" in your fridge and a small crowd suddenly descends on you — what do you fish out to make a meat?
Olives, green or Mack; gherkins and capers; hiromeri; lounza; salami; halloumi (dry fried ff you have the time): warmed bread or strips of Pitta lightly oiled and grilled; salted, smoked or canned fish; cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes; "Frionor" frozen calamarl or battered prawns, quickly fried In oil; leaves of lettuce, cabbage, radishes and spring onions with a bowl of mayonnaise.
And the FINO will complement everything. There’s one other good reason for buying it, too. Being slightly fortified (it’s alcohol-by-vol-ume is 17.5%, as opposed to white table wine’s 11-12%), it does not go "off" when stored in a shop or home for a few weeks, like so much wine does in the summer. It will also keeps for quite a few days once opened.
The good people at KEO think I’m slightly nutty in my devotion to their FINO. Try it and tell me if I am! (2016 Note: THEY were the nutty ones!)
A drop of "FINO" can be used to advantage in the kitchen. It stimulates a tomato-onion-garlic sauce – especially if a dash of red pepper and a teaspoon of sugar are added – and it lifts a chicken liver paté to great heights