Wednesday, May 12, 2004

A sample of meats to be served at Hawaii Uncorked includes three types of chorizo and strips of serrano ham.

Spain reigns

An isle fiesta celebrates
the region's cuisine

Baby eels are like slivers of pasta with eyeballs. A small pile of them can even be twirled around a fork, spaghetti-like.

The tiny, tinned critters are a delicacy of Spain, called angulas, and by tradition served simply -- in hot, garlic-tinged olive oil with a chili pepper for bite. It's a Basque thing, unlike anything American. Sardines might be closest, but next to a delicate angula, a sardine is a clumsy, oily log. And anyway, sardines are cheap. A 4-ounce tin of angula, if you could even find one, would cost something like $40.

Hawaii Uncorked

"Rapsodie Espagnole" is the theme of this year's HPR fund-raiser:

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 23

Place: Ko'olau Golf Club, Kaneohe

Grand Tasting/Silent Auction: Noon to 3 p.m.

Live Auction: 3 to 5 p.m.

Tickets: $100; $85 for HPR members or when purchasing with American Express card

Call: 955-8821 or visit

But let us not obsess about eels. Not when the wines and cuisine of Spain present so much more to discover.

Hawaii Public Radio celebrates Spain at Hawaii Uncorked, its annual fund-raiser, May 23. The event is subtitled "Rapsodie Espagnole," after the French composer Maurice Ravel's orchestral piece.

As always, the event will feature a huge tasting of wines from around the world, with food prepared by chefs Randall Ishizu of the Ihilani Resort & Spa, Mariano Lalica of Meritage, and Khamtan Tanhchaleun of Ko'olau Catering Partners. This year's highlight, though, will be Spanish wines, offered alongside Spanish-style cured meats and cheeses -- and a taste of eels.

Spanish cuisine has become the hot thing among food sophisticates. Tributes in such publications as Wine Spectator speak of how Spain has captivated Europe, both with its heartfelt respect for tradition and the innovation of its young chefs. In U.S. food capitals such as Manhattan, the desire for Spanish food products takes on the nature of a quest, made more Don Quixote-like because import restrictions make the real thing quite rare.

Far have we come since the days when customers would approach Juana Faraone in her Southern California deli and ask, "Which part of Mexico is Spain in?"

Faraone's son-in-law, Alex Montamedi, swears this was true, but not anymore. The company Faraone founded in 1982, La Española Meats in Harbor City, Calif., now has no recognition problems with the 30 types of cured meats it produces in the styles of the various regions of Spain.

"Everyone wants to have paella, everyone wants to have tapas ... they're wondering where was this before? It's always been here."

Tiny baby eels are a Spanish delicacy.

While there is a world of food to discover when considering Spain, Hawaii Uncorked will focus on the very traditional cured meats, to be supplied by La Española.

Tasting sessions

Hawaii Uncorked offers these additional tastings. Attendance is limited, so call for reservations, 955-8821:

California's Silver Lining: winemaker Tim Duncan leads a tasting of Silver Oak's 1991 to 2000 vintages; 11 a.m. Cost is $150.

The All-American Drink: a rare tasting of eight vintage Madeiras dating to 1875; noon. Cost is $75.

The Spanish Wine Renaissance: master sommelier Sara Floyd, of importer Fine Estates of Spain, explores the wine regions of Spain; 1 p.m. Cost is $50 (this session is nearly sold out).

Jordan Winery: a vertical tasting of wines spanning 16 years, led by David Fischer; 2 p.m. Cost is $100.

"For the Spanish, having a plate of dried, cured sausages, cheese and olives is second nature," says Montamedi, vice president of La Española. The platter is comparable to Italian antipasto, but in Spain is even more important to the table, he says. "You nibble before your meal."

First up on that plate likely would be chorizo, the Spanish word for all sausage. Chorizo is traditionally made of pure pork and flavored with salt, garlic and pimenton -- Spanish paprika.

The most common chorizo found in the United States is Mexican -- hard, thin and uncooked. Spanish chorizo is made in dozens of styles, reflecting regional traditions. It comes finger-thin or as thick as a baseball bat -- fresh, cured, semi-cured or cooked. Chorizo is eaten plain, pupu-style, or in stewed or fried dishes and in sandwiches.

Also prominent would be serrano ham, or jamon serrano -- slightly sweet and nutty with less saltiness than American hams. Serrano ham is made from the hog's back leg, packed in sea salt and aged up to two years.

Spain's most revered ham, though, is called Ibérico, which comes from an Ibérian breed of pig that is allowed to roam free and feed on acorns. It is often cited as the best ham in the world, firm in texture with an intense flavor. That said, Ibérico ham cannot be imported into the United States until 2005, when the first hams will be produced in accordance with USDA standards.

Montamedi can think of no American comparison to the omnipresence of curados, or cured meats, in Spain. "Maybe peanut butter -- that's the closest I can figure."

Finally, not to be obsessive, but back to baby eels, because they're fascinating.

"Culinaria Spain" (Konemann Publishing, 1999) provides this account: Eel larvae are spawned in the Sargasso Sea, in the western Atlantic far from Spain. The gulf stream pushes them toward Europe in a journey that takes up to three years. They arrive "young and tender, and transparent, and just about the size of a matchstick."

Many are harvested at this point, but the females that escape swim up river, where they live for 10 years, feeding and growing up to 5 feet long. To complete the life cycle, they swim back to the Sagasso Sea, mate and reproduce.

Pollution has depleted the eel population to the point where artificial eel has become common. The fake version is made from surimi, or fish meal, just like artificial crab. Baby eels are used in many traditional dishes, even in pastries in northern Spain.

Kevin Toyama of R. Field Wine Co., who made the arrangements for the food and wine for Hawaii Uncorked, describes the baby eels as similar to enoki mushrooms in texture -- "like a fat rubber band."

Spanish delicacies in Hawaii are elusive, but R. Field will be carrying many of the cured meats and eels. They are also available via mail order from

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