Captains of the armada

The food and wine of Spain has cast a spell over Melbourne in recent years. Justine Costigan profiles some of the key players in the cuisine's rise in popularity.

The food and wine of Spain has cast a spell over Melbourne in recent years. Justine Costigan profiles some of the key players in the cuisine's rise in popularity.

The restaurateursIn 2002, when relatively unknown chef Frank Camorra took over the kitchen at a pub in West Melbourne, the seeds were sown for an explosion of interest in Spanish food.

In 2003, when Camorra and his business partners opened MoVida in Hosier Lane, Melbourne went wild for his take on his native cuisine. Since then the list of notable Spanish bars and restaurants has grown: Matt McConnell's Bar Lourinha in 2007 Jesse and Vanessa Gerner's Anada in 2008, followed by the Aylesbury this year MoVida Next Door, MoVida Aqui and Terraza in quick succession from 2007 and Garcia & Son in 2010.

This year, the Robert Burns Hotel, a stalwart of Spanish food since 1982, reopened with a revitalised grill and tapas bar and a Spanish chef, Ivan Saiz. In early 2012 you can expect another Matt McConnell venture in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. And little Spanish-influenced bars and restaurants seem to be popping up in the suburbs, too.

For many of these chefs and restaurateurs, it was a trip to Spain that sparked a passion for the local food. McConnell says his visit to Spain in 1997 ''totally transformed what I wanted to do''. He's been back five or six times. ''I started to understand the regionality - the different produce and ways of cooking and eating. In Seville I could smell Moorish spices in the streets - it makes you wonder if you're actually still in Europe.''

Melbourne now has a better understanding of the way the Spanish eat and drink, although most chefs and expat Spaniards suggest we still have a way to go.

''In Spain, people are eating and drinking at midnight or 1am. It's not about getting drunk,'' Jesse Gerner says. His desire to re-create the southern Spanish tapas bars he loves led to the opening of Anada in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, after a stint working for Camorra at MoVida. ''Gertrude Street felt right I could walk to Casa Iberica,'' he says.

Garcia & Son's John Garcia says Sundays were dedicated to Spanish food when he was a child. His father, Spanish-born Pepe Garcia, a co-owner of the renowned Maxim's restaurant, would go down to the beach to fish and collect cockles, and cook them for lunch. John followed his father into the restaurant business but it wasn't until he travelled to Spain with his grown son Nick that he considered opening a Spanish restaurant. ''Nick had to have a jamon fix every afternoon,'' he says.

Nick Garcia says Melbourne still needs to understand good tapas. ''It's not just something fried or oily. Good tapas can be a simple piece of crusty bread with a beautiful piece of tinned fish on top. It's the simplicity of it. In Spain it is affordable - you can go and have a drink with a friend, a good conversation and something to eat. It doesn't matter whether you are poor or rich.''

Most chefs agree the interest in Spanish food encouraged the trend for share-plates dining. Scott Wasley, from Spanish wine importer Spanish Acquisition, calls the devotion to ordering a single-serve plate a form of food ''feudalism''. He credits the rise of Spanish food with the new appreciation for shared dishes.

Melbourne still has plenty to learn about Spanish food and some experiences can't be replicated here. ''No one's tasted real chorizo yet,'' Camorra says. ''It needs to be made from quality pork, with a firm texture like a pork sausage and the fragrance of really good paprika.'' The closest Camorra gets to authentic chorizo is to make his own.

Saiz misses real jamon, carved from the leg in wafer-thin slices. It's an experience that can't be re-created here, due to import restrictions. ''I would love to have sobrasada, an Iberian pork sausage, and fresh piquillo peppers are hard to get.'' Expat Spaniards say they miss pintxos (or pinchos), the Basque version of tapas. At Fitzroy's Naked for Satan you can pick morsels of meat, cheese and fish on slices of crusty bread from a bar, saving the toothpicks to record how many you've eaten. Priced incredibly cheaply, this comes as close to the real thing we have in Melbourne.

Spanish food has also encouraged focus on the produce. A plate of superb jamon or Manchego cheese with membrillo (quince paste) needs no embellishment. ''Spanish food is all ingredient-based, so it really stands out whether the produce is good or bad,'' Camorra says.

The provedoresCAMORRA remembers driving to Melbourne with his dad from their Geelong home every two weeks when he was growing up. These trips had a single purpose: to stock up on Spanish food from Casa Iberica. This tiny, crowded Fitzroy grocery store was the only place to buy tinned Spanish seafood, pimenton, Manchego cheese, jamon, paella pans and rice, preserved piquillo peppers, Spanish olives, quince paste, terracotta cooking pots or Spanish chocolate and sweets.

When it opened in 1975, Casa Iberica delicatessen was a focal point for the local Spanish and Portuguese communities. Then the Latin Americans discovered the store and, finally, the rest of us, who now comprise the majority of Casa Iberica's customers - a reflection of the shrinking local Spanish community and Melbourne's growing interest in all things Spanish.

Jose de Sousa, who opened the deli with his wife Alice, says the business took a while to take off. ''When we first started it was difficult to get people to buy [Spanish products], but more people started to travel and after they got a taste for Spanish food, it really helped our shop,'' he says.

The couple sold the deli to their younger cousins, Paulo and Mericia de Sousa, three years ago. Jose, now 61, still runs the Casa Iberica importing business, bringing in a range of products including olive oil, paella pans and pimenton from Spain and Portugal, and seafood from all over the world.

Casa Iberica will always have a place in the hearts of local Hispanophiles but it was inevitable that other importers would catch on to the growing interest in Spanish cuisine. Andrew Gray, from Raw Materials, says Spanish products comprise about 20 per cent of the company's stock. He says he only chooses products he loves, often focusing on small, specialist producers.

Sharing a small tin of Lolin manzanillo olives stuffed with anchovies, Gray waits for the reaction. The green olives are sweet with a mild hit of salt and are perfectly plump and juicy. He says his wife likes to keeps a couple of the small tins in her handbag for those times when, you know, you just have to eat an olive.

While Casa Iberica remains loyal to many of its original suppliers - its customers wouldn't let it do anything else - many of the newer of provedores are looking for culinary thrills.

''There's no point bringing in anchovies that are terrible,'' Gray says. That's why he stocks bomba rice, jamon that has been aged for 16 months and Cudie Catanies, addictive marcona almond-centred chocolates rolled in cocoa. It was the Spanish who brought back and perfected chocolate from the New World, and Raw Materials' blocks of Blanxart bars prove they haven't lost their touch.

''Don't buy the cheapest paprika, rice or anchovies if you want to eat good [Spanish] food,'' he says.

Even small operators without a street presence have capitalised on the growing interest. Linda Martinez started Melbourne-based Savour Spain, an online retailer and wholesaler of Spanish products, three years ago after a holiday in Spain with her Spanish husband Juan, a food-loving lawyer. Martinez left her HR role and jumped into the venture, starting with a limited range of Spanish brands that were new to Australia. Business has expanded each year and the company's range now includes saffron, extra-virgin olive oil, drinking chocolate, pimenton, olives, vinegar, nougat and paella pans. Customers order from as far away as Perth.

The Spanish obsession has also spread to food stores such as Simon Johnson, Leo's Fine Food & Wine and King and Godfree.

At Simon Johnson, Pons Primum Oleum from arbequina olives is priced like aged whisky and the cheese room proves there are Spanish cheeses to rival the best Italian and French varieties. Oliveria in Prahran has included Spanish olive oils, vinegar, bomba rice, turron, paprika, peppers and high-end tinned seafood in its gourmet range.

Camorra says it's not only the specialist food stores getting in on the act. ''I recently saw piquillo peppers in Coles. That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago.''

Jane de Sousa, daughter of Alice and Jose and a manager at Casa Iberica imports, says the interest in the food is a consequence of Australians' love of travel. ''They want to re-create what they have experienced overseas,'' she says.

Just hearing spoken Spanish and Portuguese is enough to entice many customers into Casa Iberica.That sense of Spanish soul is something the retired Alice de Sousa herself enjoyed. ''Of all the things about Casa Iberica Mum loved,'' Jane says, ''it's talking to the ladies and exchanging recipes she misses the most.''

The wine expertsWHEN Scott Wasley first drank Spanish wine in Australia he wasn't impressed. It was sweet and oaky and he thought there had to be something better coming out of a country that had more area under vines than anywhere else in the world. ''It struck me as suspicious that there was so little [in Australia] and not much of it of any interest. So I became really curious.''

Wasley knew that the changes to the wine industry in France and Italy throughout the 1980s and '90s were bound to affect Spain, too. Improved viticulture and technologies meant Spain was likely to be producing ''better, authentic and more elegant wine''. Wasley visited Spain in 2000 to find out, meeting the new generation destined to become Spain's wine elite. ''It was all there, it was all happening,'' he says.

Returning to Melbourne, Wasley started Spanish Acquisition and has become the go-to guy for Spanish and Portuguese wine, beer and spirits in Australia, supplying restaurants and retailers. ''I import the 50 most interesting producers in Iberia,'' he says proudly. It seems many of Australia's best Spanish restaurants and bars agree with him - his clients include MoVida, Anada and Bar Lourinha.

While the brands Wasley imports may be relatively new to Melbourne, Spanish grape varieties certainly aren't. The state viticulturist, Francois de Castella, first brought graciano to Australia in 1907. Hailing from Rioja, in mountainous north-west Spain, it seemed a good match for Victoria's north-east, where it was originally grown to be blended with other red varieties. In 1970, John Brown of Brown Brothers produced a 100 per cent graciano. Tempranillo plantings followed in the region in the late 1980s.

Crittenden Estate's Garry Crittenden says the local interest in Spanish varieties can be likened to the story of the little Dutch boy holding back the dyke, with strong growth held back only by lack of supply.

''We've seen the rise and rise of Spanish imports, especially in places where they are poured by the glass. People like to experiment and that's how Spanish wine has made inroads. So we also have gone to the on-premise wine trade and asked them to pour ours by the glass, too. We just can't believe the interest.''

Crittenden says his winery is committed to making four wine styles with Spanish origins. The Los Hermanos brand includes a tempranillo, the Tributo and the Homenaje a Cataluna. Txakoli, a dry white with a touch of fizz, has just been released and Crittenden believes it may be the only version made outside Spain's Basque region.

Sangria may have been Melbourne's first introduction to Spanish-style drinking (although insiders say in Spain it's strictly for tourists) but kalimotxo, the surprisingly zingy combination of Coca-Cola and red wine, may become Melbourne's next drinking craze. Garcia & Son's Nick Garcia is a fan and says it's the perfect drink for hot weather. Basque bar Naked for Satan also offers a version, served by the glass or the carafe.

Given that sherry was once solely the domain of the ladies' lounge in Australian pubs, the makeover of its image may have played the biggest role in our appreciation of Spanish wines. Now, we expect to drink it with tapas, as an aperitif, a table wine, or simply on its own. We've learned the words fino, amontillado and oloroso and are starting to appreciate regional differences and individual winemakers. Pedro ximinez, once the preserve of after-dinner drinkers, now turns up on the ingredients list of plenty of dessert menus.

''It's just now taking its rightful place in the mix,'' Wasley says of sherry. ''It belongs in the fridge. You should always have a bottle of it. You can drink it and cook with it, and it's a lot of fun to do both.''

For the real thing ...RiceMATT McConnell says paella rice is ideal for making rice pudding. In winter, Bar Lourinha serves a rice pudding made from sugar, milk, vanilla, cinnamon and egg yolks. Topped with stewed fruit, it's hugely popular.

Bacalao/bacalhauBACALAO is the one Spanish-Portuguese dish everyone should try, Jane de Sousa says, but many are intimidated by the work involved in

resoaking and softening the salt-cured fish. ''There are more than 1000 recipes for bacalao, so you will never get bored,'' she says. De Sousa recommends slow baking large, pre-soaked pieces of fish with sliced onions, potato, black olives and extra-virgin olive oil until golden and cooked through.

GarlicGARLIC is essential in Spanish food but shouldn't dominate the dish. McConnell says it's important to use mild garlic, not the highly astringent garlic from China. Australian garlic, although hard to source year-round, is suitable for Spanish cooking.

Spanish breakfastTHE perfect Spanish breakfast for Ivan Saiz, of the Robert Burns, consists of toasted crusty bread drizzled with olive oil and layered with jamon. Follow with a milky hot chocolate.

PimentonSCOTT Wasley says pimenton changed his life. ''Everything I do gets a teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika,'' he says. Add a sprinkling to grilled bread drizzled with olive oil or to steamed baby potatoes, also drizzled with oil.

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