Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Your First Time

You always remember your first time. It marks a rite of passage. For some it's a pleasant memory. For others it's a little harsh. You can imagine my surprise today when I was walking home from shopping the Rastro (Madrid's 500-year-old flea market) and turned a corner to find myself in front of the very spot it occurred: La Taberna Real

It was almost startling and definitely emotional. All the details of the event came flooding in. . . . I was with my mom at the time. Wait. . . What?! . . . What did you think I was talking about? . . . I don't know where your mind is, but I was referring to the first time I tasted orujo de hierbas!  

It was 2005 and my first trip to Spain. It was actually my first day in Spain. It was a gloriously sunny and warm June day. My mom and I had just landed and were embarking upon a 2 week gastronomic tour. We were a little bleary-eyed but too excited to rest. Our friend and guide, Genevieve of Cellar Tours, took us for a little walking tour of Madrid near the Palacio Real. We did need a little liquid sustenance, so upon Genevieve's suggestion we popped into the Taberna Real. The first thing you notice when you walk in is this beautiful candelabra hanging from the ceiling. Not exactly your typical bar decor. 

Genevieve took the liberty of ordering for us. You can image our surprise when tiny shot glasses of neon yellow liquid appeared. 

We toasted to our gluttonous trip ahead (with countless wineries and Michelin-starred restaurants on the agenda) and sipped on our orujo de hierbas, which is affectionately translated as "firewater from herbs." Being from the South, I've had my share of grain alcohol so was skeptical at first. But I really didn't think a luxury tour company would be pushing the Spanish equivalent of moonshine down our throats. 

Orujo de hierbas is a Spanish liqueur made from the solid remains of grapes after pressing. It's quite high in alcohol (100 proof), so a little goes a long way. It has a distinct herbal bouquet to it, which I know sounds like potpourri but thankfully doesn't taste like that. I can still recall that very first sip. It is typically served cold but with the high alcohol content you get both a refreshing and enkindling effect on the way down. It has a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity from the herbs, with a slight undertone of anise. You're left with this amazing soothing after-effect, which you can feel all the way down in your toes. You can literally feel it moving through your body. I can see why it's such a popular digestif. 

In many ways, it felt like a little initiation. We'd crossed some threshold and were now a little closer to the spirit of Spain. It was a wonderful start to an amazing trip, and also began a ritual of una copita de orujo at the end of each day. No matter how much we ate or drank, we always felt like a million bucks the next day. I'm giving all the credit to the orujo

So today when I happened upon the Taberna Real, I couldn't help but wander in, take a seat at the bar under the beautiful candelabra, and order a little shot of orujo. I took a sip, and the memories of my first time came pouring in. For me, orujo encapsulates Spain. It's colorful, energetic, and warm, but leaves you relaxed and with a smile on your face. It does something good to your soul. And that is exactly how I felt as the fiery liquid ran through my body.  


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