"The Man from Chert"
Had a líttle fleld tríp to Chert to vísít Julian Segarra with Gennanandy. This is the middle of nowhere in Spain, but the nicest family one could ever imagine, or hope to vísit when no one speaks the language. But here are a few quick points, since I lea ve tomorrow agaín and don't have much time.
Segarra Absenta ís distilled using grape spirits, and two plants. Grand absinthe and green anis. That's it. Oh, and it is colored naturaUy with another plant, that being an American oak tree. The color Is left clear after distilling and then it ís aged in oak barreIs (well, I only saw one ) and that ís where the color and the butterscotch or caramel taste comes from and there is no sugar added.
So, I would saya very authentic product along with the 20 or so other things he distills ( his gin is spectacular, I told him it was smooth as water and he poured some on his wood table and set it on fire ). A great experience altogether, but I would have loved to have had a translator with uso Next time ...
When visiting European cities, to avoíd depression it is best to be blindfolded until you reach the city's historical district.
Tarragona was not what we thought it would be (at least not me). It is a bustling port city, fuI! of crappy outskirts, kind of líke Marseille, but smaller, with more class and less a feeling of dread. It has a very small old town (the part we saw) wíth a couple of antique stores. I knew that we were screwed when it was obvious that neíther Andy, my friend Owayne or myself could bluff our way with Spanish.
When you are in Spaín, people speak Spanish, and we, did not. The guy al the antique sto re thought 1 was asking about buying absinthe from him and seemed distressed. The girl at the tourist information desk didn't know anything about Pernod, but helped Andy find the number for the Segarra distillery and called for him to find out if we could come by.
It was late, 5:45pm, as we had started all our days late since showing up at Andy's beach-side doorstep a couple of days before (again, 1 must wam against mixing absinthe and red wine, whether in the same glass or in your stomach) and we were not close to Chert (about another 150 kilometers). I was guarding the rental car as we had overstayed our meter by visítíng the ímpressive 11th - 13th century church, hopelessly looking for Absinthe-related items whife the town slept from 1 to 5 pm and eating lunch, one of my favoñte pastimes.
"Ifwe don't go now, 1'11 never do it aqain,"! whined 10 my friend Dwayne.
He was not enthused, nor does he really like the taste of anís. "Oíd you see the map? Ifs more than 200 kilometers from here!"
He joined Andy at the tourist info booth while the girl was speaking to Julian Segarra, apparently having great difficulty understanding him, due to his accent. They retumed to the car.
"We can go, it's in somebody's house"
"What do you mean? A tasting room?"
"No they live at the distillery"
"When do they close?"
"They don't, it's their house"
It was 6:30pm when we left Tarragona. Chert is in the middle of nowhere. We arrived at a dusty sida road many kilometers from the maín highway at about 8:00pm. There was construction on the main road leading to town, so we had to take a detour. The sign said CHERT but someone (a Catalonlan independent, presumab!y) had spray-painted an X over the CH and the Michelin map had spelled it Xert, but it is spelled CHERT on the bottle (more about this later).
I slowly drove into town, expecting the distillery to be like a vineyard or ranch on the outskirts of town. It was a very small, dusty place, with people sitting outside their homes and we were greeted with the smell of manure. Thís was a "real" country town, almost like dríving into a western set, and everyone watched as we came in. I had no idea where the distillery was and it was starting to get dark. ! took the firsl major turn and started looking for signs. An old Land Rover blocked the letters at first, but then I saw the big green S, then E, G, A and the land rover had SEGARRA painted on the side and over the front windshield. There were a few people outside talking and I parked the car in front. Grandma Segarra came out of the group, and asked (please note, alllanguage spoken by the Segarra's is in Spanish but translated as we assumed was what they saíd, much hand waving and noises weré used in the place of a shared formallanguage) "English?"
"No, Americans and a German"
"Ah, you called us!"
Julian Segarra rushes up to us, welcoming us, "This way, this way" There is a young couple who had just finished their tour, the woman clutching a bottle of brandy, "!t's ltke going back in to the 1930's in there!"
"Oh, you speak English, can you translate fOI" US?"
"No, we were just leaving"
"We'lI pay you! For 20 minutes, even?"
"No, we ha ve a child that is waiting for us, have fun!"
Damn, it was so close, if we had arrived 15 minutes earlier. There was another land rover in the building, which was like and old, large garage, On the left was a door way that lead to a dark kitchen. "Here is our bottling machine, it can do up to 1200 bottles an hour".
From the síze of the place, 1 was thínking that was more like a month's productíon. Big barreis of brandy lined the wall and one was set apart and marked GRAN MAESTRE which is theír top of the line, 60+years old and costs $2200 (yes, two thousand) for a 70c! bottle. We can only cal! it brandy, because we are not allowed to call it cognac, sínce that ís a legal French name.
"Can we take pictures?"
"Go ahead, do you want to pose in front of the GRAN MAESTRE? Here is the still"
A single still (I need to get photos from Dwayne or Andy, on reflection, I took surprisingly few, what with the hand waving, and all) sat en top of a brick e/osed fireplace, wood branches stieking out of a small opening.
"What kind of wood?"
''when was it made?"
I couldn't understand grandpa Segarra's response, so he wrote it wíth his fingers: 1928. Ok, that's the distillery, one still!, about 30 different products. I knew any attempt at really detailed questions would be almost impossible to undertake but the family was cheerful and happy to have us there.
"What do you like? Julian Segarra asked me. "Absenta?"
He seemed a litile surprised and then lead us ínto the tastjng room. I do not believe that most people, or, in fact, anyone, goes to Segarra to sample Absínthe. On nis price list of 27 products (he has, in fact, more) Absenta is last, As Don has mentioned, he is a brandy-maker but in my opiníon the distillery was founded more on the production of distilled anís. A product that circles the Mediterranean. Made in almost every country that touches it. The charming terra cotta sculpture which featured the distinctive traditional Spanish anis bottle was, without a doubt, a prized possession at the distiilery. Julian dusted it off, grabbed a bottle of anis and posed ... " I wasn't that interested in trying anis. I'm sure his is one of the best, but I knew what it would do to my taste buds and I had to drive back to Andy's place, which was a good 2-3 hours + north. Julian started with a brandy. Grandma Segarra brought out a tray wíth tiny plastic shot glasses stacked 4 high. Grampa Segarra sat down in a chair and observed, throwing in comments once in a while. God, they were nice people, and patient, too. I couldn't believe they could deal wíth us so late, but seemed thrilled that we were there. I hope Andy will throw so me comments in soon, since 1 do not wish this report to be one-dimensional, and l'rn sure I missed a lot, but Julian seemed to feel I was the head of the group and foeused on me, much to my discomfort, as I was shooting out Englísh, French and just a ¡¡ttle Spanish, trying to hit the right word or phrase. I can't really comment on the brandy, as I was not real! y paying attention to it enough for it to merlt a critique. What I will say is that nothing I put in my mouth was mediocre. Rum, gin ( ginebra, shit, I first thought this was something made with ginger, due to its name - pítíful) as I mentioned before the gin was great, smooth, gliding down Iike water ( 1 have sinee made a 'French martini' with it and the Absenta, it ís a natural). 1 think Julian thought I was distrustful of the alcoholie content when he drizzled it on the table and set it on fire. It was the first time I had tasted Segarra Absenta and it was served neat, it was anis- sweet with a light seent of wormwood.
"What is it made with? Absinthe and green anís, only? No star anís or other herbs?"
He started pointing to the price list explaining the alcohol content of certain products and whether they had sugar in them or not. When a farmer comes back home, he would drink a glass of Absenta and water only, then his thirst would be gone. People in the city use sugar with les ser producís. "Do you know about Deva or La Sala?" He didn't know about these producís, nor did he seem familiar with any other Spanish Absenta.
The Segarra's are photo buffs, also, and showed us pictures of a total solar eclipse they had taken with a jury figged $10 plastie camera that had been fitted with a modified lens made with what looked to be a piece of a metal pipe. The sun had melted part of the plastie aperture. Professional qualíty photos, though. Grandpa Segarra then brought out two photos of him as a child behind the wheel of a 1927 Chevrolet (1 believe) which had a crank-start. His father was standing in front of the car and looked exactly like him now. We also had show and tell, whan Julian brought out his map of the united states, pasted on a piece of cardboard. It was the kind that has little pictures of thíngs that are nativa to the regíon, ínstead of accuracy. Near San Díago was a little P-38 lightníng and Seattle, a constellation. Amongst many other fhings that weren't so obvious as to date the map from the 1940's or so. 1 poínted to Florida, then Wisconsin and Julian got excited.
"Ah, Madison! Like 'Bridges of Madison County?"
"No" Dwayne explained, "That's in lowa over here."
I still couldn't stop looking at the P-38, and then tried explain about San Francisco and how people ltke Absinthe there. It didn't really translate. He had a map of Spaín on the wal! (you can see it behínd his head in the anís photo) that dated from the 1930's, but looked like it could have been used by a conquistador. Then he pointed to the new tourist map taped to a steel tank.
"I see Chert be spelled with an 'x' like on our Michelin map?"
"NO! look at this map! look at my labe!' We do not like this" Apparently changing town signs and directions with spray-paint is a pastime of separatist Cataloníans, Basques and, as 1 discovered later, Corsícans, and Míchelin attempts to be hipo "It is spelled C-H-e-r-t!"
I don't know his politics and wasn't even going to attempt at discussing it. "Ok!, got it" He went in the back and brought baek some papers. They were pages of a faxed correspondence order from Australia for Absinthe. In lt, the person explained to Sr. Segarra that they were going to have a "Lana Turner party" and were showing a movie that featured Absinthe, or something to that effect (I was sure this had to be a friend of Midas). He also showed me hís kind res pon se, and I believe the order was filled, but late. To be in this setting and see that letterwas unbelievable. By-the-way, the Segarra's do not have a computer, their site is done by a friend, who also reeeives their e-mail, and the Absenta is the only labell sawwith the web-site address printed on it. I decided that, even though it might not be correct etiquette (after the New Orleans gathering) to bring out another absinthe, I had brought some of Andy's orange absinthe and tempted fate, out of shear curiosity about his opinion and a "you nevar know until you do it" attitude. I pulled out the topette and poured two small shot glasses for Julían and his father.
When Julian said "no, no, no" and started pouring it back in the topette. I was sure I had wom out the welcome.
© Copyright Petermarc - 2000