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A Homage to Patxaran (Pacharán): The Pretty Ruby-colored Macho Drink of Northern Spain

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Patxaran (from the Basque paitar and aran ("sloe"), called pacharán in Castilian Spanish, the red sloeberry anís made by macerating arándanos, or endrinas, (sloeberries) from the blackthorn shrub in fine anisette spirits for several months (one part fresh sloeberries to three parts anisette).   Patxaran Navarro is controlled by an official denominación de origen, or D. O., like wine, and must contain no artificial flavorings or additives.  Sometimes a few coffee beans or cinnamon sticks are added to the patxaran casero housemade styles.   The maceration period can run from one to eight months.  Some homemade patxaran leave the berries in the anís.

Patxaran would seem to be the last drink on which to base macho memories, but in northern Spain everyone from Basque woodchoppers and daredevil bullrunners at Pamplona to the star chefs of El País Vasco’s great Michelin-rated restaurants drink this stuff - - often over ice. I first tasted Patxaran in 1971, when my old friend José Ramón Jorajurría, the “printer’s devil,” as I called him (he worked in a print shop), decided to make me only the second American to be invited into the Peña Anaitasuna (the other was the famous bullrunner Matt Carney, who was featured in James A. Michener’s Iberia; Joe Distler, the great bullrunner and my dear friend was the third). 

Anaitasuna is one of Pamplona’s legendary social and drinking peñas, or clubs. During the Fiestas de San Fermín, the peñas carouse all over town behind their raucous, but accomplished, band of musicians, drinking, singing and dancing the infectious northern folk dance, the jota, and generally raising Hell for eight days. The peñas all sit in the same section in the sun at the bullfights and drink heroic quantities of alcoholic beverages, eat, sing, dance, throw flour and food all over one another, generally raising some more Hell. On the 11th of July, they have DIMASU (Día del Marido Suelto), which means Husband’s Day Out, an excuse to stay out for 24 hours straight, do even more drinking, singing, dancing, and, you guessed it, Hell raising. But, at midday on DIMASU, they retire to their clubhouse, which is like an Elk’s Club, only much bigger and with a health club, an Olympic swimming pool, plenty of rooms and facilities for family activities. There the men of Anaitasuna have a gargantuan lunch followed by cigars and equally heroic amounts of Patxaran.

Among the few things I remember about that day, aside from feeling supremely honored at having been invited, was that I didn’t like Patxaran. That was then, this is now. Like Scotch, drinking Patxaran is an acquired taste. Over the years I have acquired it; I love Patxaran. It’s nutty, sweet red fruit and anisette flavors are a great counterpoint for a good cigar (though I don't smoke cigars anymore).

One year, while touring the Basque Country with Chef Mark Miller (who then had Coyote Cafes in Santa Fe, Austin, and Las Vegas and Red Sage and Raku in Washington), on a cool misty afternoon at Kaia, a fabulous seafood restaurant in the port of Getaria near San Sebastián, I ordered a Patxaran after a stunning meal that featuring fresh house-cured anchovies, grilled sardines, and a whole wood fire-grilled turbot. Our server poured, over ice into a large brandy snifter, a very generous portion of Baines ‘Etiqueta de Oro (gold label),’ the Aston Martin of Patxaranes. A fine Montecristo completed the picture and all was well with the world by the time we finished lunch - - at 6:00 p.m.! (Some other brands of Patxaran to look for are the easier-to-find regular bottling of Baines, Basarana, Etxeko, and the brands you are more likely to find in the United States, Atxa and Zoco).

Then there was the glorious afternoon of the 14th of July, 1998, I believe, when my Palisades, California actor-novelist buddy John Ewing and I brought two liters of patxaran that we had been given by the sisters who own Restaurante Hartza.  I got the fine folks at Hotel Maissonnave in Pamplona to partially fill a garbage bag with ice, put the jug of patxaran in it and put that into a wine box.  Somewhere we procured a couple of dozen plastic copitas so we could share the patxaran with the whole tendido.  We took the box with us to our seats in Tendido 9 and after the merienda, we began distributing the iced-down, Hartza house-made patxaran to about 20 people around us.  We indeed, lit up the whole tendido.  After most of our tendido had cleared out Ewing and I lingered in our seats, telling stories and drinking more patxaran. 

Below us, Tom Gowen and "Australian George" Danick appeared in the bullring callejón in front of our tendido, so we gave them some, too.  One of them took the picture above--George, I believe.  It remains one of my favorite memories of San Fermín.

Remember the Sloe Gin Fizz? Patxaran, which once a homemade concoction, has become one of the most popular drinks in Spain, bit it has only a remote relationship with that American sloe gin sensation of decades past. Patxaran, a ruby-garnet colored, Navarrese-Basque destroyer of brave men and levitator of adventurous women, is made by macerating sloe berries (called endrinas, arandanos, or arañones in Spanish; patxarán in Basque) in a sweetened, anís-flavored aguardiente. Patxaran de Navarra (from Navarra) even has its own protected Denominación Específica (DE - - which refers to the method of production, whereas in wine, denominación de origen (DO) refers to the area). The endrina fruit grows wild throughout Europe, but 110 experimental hectares of sloe berries have been planted in Navarra to insure a continuous supply from within the denominación for some of the nearly eight million liters of Patxaran produced annually.

DE Patxaran de Navarra, which averages 25 to 30 percent alcohol by volume, is produced by infusing orujo (aguardiente or marc) or agricultural-based alcohols with the essence of anís oils, then macerating sloe berries in the anís-flavored alcohol for a minimum one month to a maximum of eight months for each liter of Patxaran produced. Old-timers back in the hills of Navarre say that eating the berries after they are macerated in the anís cause you to go loco (some of the old-timers are living proof) or develop a permanent dislike of patxaran, the latter of which I personally do want to risk, so I don’t eat the sloe berries.

Only the commercial Patxaran brands Zoco (made by Larios), Atxa and a few others are presently available in the United States. The attractively packaged Etxeko and Las Endrinas brands, found in duty-free shops in Spain, are quite good. Top Spanish wine and licores shops, such as the Club de Gourmets shops in Spain’s El Corte Inglés department store chain, stock the superb Baines Patxaran de Arañon and the top-of-the-line Baines Etiqueta Oro (Gold Label) bottling.

Once looked down upon as a blue-collar regional drink from Navarra, patxaran is now popular with everyone from Pamplona bullrunners, Basque woodchoppers, and heirs apparent to Hemingway’s Lady Brett to discriminating Spanish winemakers. An incident at a private luncheon held in Madrid before a fútbol match a few years ago underscored the popularity of Patxaran. Mariano García, for 30 years the winemaker at Vega Sicilia and now a much sought-after enologist considered to be Spain’s top winemaker, invited me to lunch with a group of his friends at Mesón Txistu. They had come to the capital to root for the Valladolid soccer team, in what was thought to be a hopeless match with powerful Real Madrid (the game ended in a 2-2 tie, which under the influence of patxaran, I had correctly predicted).

After a long, laid-back luncheon that featured almost every wine García has a hand in (Mauro, Mauro Vendimia Seleccionada, Maurodos San Román, Leda, Luna Beberride), coffees were ordered and cigars were lit. The proprietor then suggested post prandials. I ordered Patxaran on the rocks in a brandy glass (as it is often served in Spanish restaurants after meals).  The owner was aghast. With a somewhat patronizing tone, suggesting that a foreigner should be properly instructed in what constitutes a proper drink to end a meal, he suggested that I couldn’t possibly want to drink Patxaran after having drunk Mariano Garcia’s superb wines, some of which are among the most expensive in Spain.

I held my ground, however, and asked him to pour my favorite, Baines Etiqueta Oro, if he had it. Garcia, who had been somewhat distracted in conversation during my exchange with the owner, chimed in, “Make that two.” Shaking his head, the poor man went off to get Patxaran for the foreigner and for Spain’s legendary winemaker.

About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

A Morning's Pleasure: Running the Bulls at Pamplona (An Excerpt from Homage to Iberia: More Spanish Travels & Reflections by Gerry Dawes)

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(All material, except for black & white photographs, copyright 2015 by Gerry Dawes.)

On July 8, 1970, I ran the bulls in Pamplona and became entangled in on of the most memorable montones, or pile-ups, in the history of the encierro (running of the bulls.)   

This is my story of what happened to me and my friends, including American Matador-artist John Fulton, that day.

Running the bulls on the Estafeta.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2010.

The first year I lived in Sevilla, to make ends meet, I began to sell paintings for John Fulton, the American Matador who lived in Sevilla for decades, made his living as an artist and was featured in James A. Michener's best-selling book on Spain, Iberia.  In early July 1970, Fulton and I found ourselves flat broke and itching to go to the Fiestas de San Fermín in Pamplona, a place I had only read about in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and in Iberia

On July 6, the day the fiesta actually begins, as I was walking through the narrow corridors of Sevilla’s Barrio de Santa Cruz, where with girlfriend (and late ex-wife,) I was renting an idyllic apartment, I encountered an affluent-looking group of American college students. As they filed by me in the narrow street, I couldn’t help thinking that many of them had undoubtedly read Iberia and, if only there were a way to introduce them to Fulton, I was sure they would at least buy some lithographs and books and we could possibly finance our trip to Pamplona.

 Gerry Dawes (circled, left center) & American Matador John Fulton (arrow, center)
in the famous montón, the pileup, on July 8, 1970.

Fulton had printed some little cards with a picture of him in his traje de luces (suit of lights). It had some “propaganda” inside about being the American matador-artist featured in Iberia. As the one of the last students in the line passed me, I handed him several of the cards and told him if the group was interested in meeting John to call me. Within the hour, they called, asking if they could meet John Fulton. I bought some cheese, chorizo, olives, and bread and several bottles of red wine for 10 pesetas a liter, made sangría, and got Fulton and the students together for a party in the open-air patio at my house in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, where I kept a display of Fulton’s art. The students were thrilled to meet the famous matador. They purchased so many of his lithographs and books that we earned enough money to leave for Pamplona the next afternoon, July 6, the day before the first of the eight San Fermín encierros was to be run.

Fulton, Bill Cimino (an aspiring young American bullfighter Fulton was tutoring), and I piled into John’s little green Seat sports car and left Sevilla in the afternoon, intending to drive all night and arrive in Pamplona in time to run the bulls on the morning of the seventh. We drove across the scorching plains of La Mancha and into the highlands of Castile. Fulton took the mountain roads via Soria to Logroño in the darkest hours of the night and the predawn of July 7 found us racing around curvy roads that followed trout streams rushing through tall woods. On bicycles, fishermen in hip boots with fly rods and wicker creels slung across their chests pedaled out to fish them. A family of bright-eyed foxes scurried across the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods.

It was just past six as we drove through Romanesque Estella. The sun was rising from the direction of Pamplona and it came up over the hills in a bright ball. A few clouds drifted over the sun. At first Fulton and I teased them into cloud sculptures with our imaginations, then they began to take on shapes of their own.

“Christ, would you look at that one?” I said to John Fulton, “I don’t believe it!”

“How about the one in front of it?” Fulton pointed out another shape and the images grew more lifelike for a few brief moments and then began to break up, but not before they had been engraved in my mind. First we had seen a runner in the sky, then the cloud behind him become a bull, his head down, his horns searching. I told Fulton this would make a fantastic lead for a story on San Fermín.

“Don’t ever try to write about it,” he told me, “No one would ever believe you.”

The elation I felt at having what bordered on a mystical encounter faded in the face of the experienced matador’s logic. After all, I had never even set foot in Pamplona, and I was ready to let a trick of my imagination lure me into conclusions about an event I had never even seen. It was still half an hour before the bulls for the encierro would be released from the corrals at the bottom of Santo Domingo hill in Pamplona.

We wanted to reach Pamplona in time to run, but we were behind schedule. Even so, I urged Fulton to make a quick stop at the first open bar we saw.  I had already figured out that one must be very brave, very crazy, or very drunk to get into the streets with a string of fighting bulls. I also calculated that, not only was I lacking in the first category, I was not far enough along in the second, so I decided a bottle of brandy might help me emulate some of both qualities.

We drove on through Puente la Reina, Legarda, and Astrain without seeing a bar open. My nerves were rapidly failing, when Fulton announced that it would be impossible to reach Pamplona in time to run in the encierro. Suddenly, I felt I could run with the bulls. Now I lamented our being late.

Just minutes before seven o’clock, the hour the bulls were turned loose in those days (before national live television coverage required an eight o’clock start for more light), we reached the area near the legendary teléfonos dogleg, parked the car, and ran toward the encierro route. We were able to climb up on a truck just in time to watch the tail end of an uneventful run. A mass of runners, bulls, and steers swept past our vantage point and it was all over in a few seconds. The whole thing looked simple, but I was far from convinced that anything involving hundreds of alcohol-fortified runners being pursued by a pack of fighting bulls could be that easy.

After the encierro, we walked over to the Plaza del Castillo and within five minutes I found myself sitting at the same table at the Bar Txoko with the legendary Matt Carney. Carney was as handsome as Michener had described and he was in fine spirits. I was excited to meet Carney after all I had read about him in Iberia, but I was a little apprehensive about his reputation as a brawler. When Fulton introduced me to him, Carney flashed his famous Irish grin and something about him made me feel I belonged, that I was no newcomer, no outsider, at his table. Over the years, I would subsequently observe Matt welcome other people to the fiesta in much the same way. Carney had a big heart and his idea of San Fermín was a fiesta of sharing, not of exclusion. 

But, today, my first day at San Fermín, I was going to see both sides of the coin. Within ten minutes after we had pulled up chairs around Matt’s table, his demeanor suddenly changed. “That’s a lie,” I heard him say. Then he shouted, “You’re a goddamn liar. Take that back, I said, take it back!” He jumped up and hit the spectacle-wearing man sitting beside him.

“Wow,” I thought, “Carney sure lives up to his reputation. Michener was right; Hemingway, Basque woodchoppers. . . and now, right in front of me, he’s slapping the hell out of someone named David Black. I’m going to be damned careful what I say in front of this guy.”

I was sure that Carney regularly blew up like Old Faithful and that after Iberia was published, he must have thought it was his duty to keep up his brawling since, along with his bull-running, broad Irish smile and gravelly jota singing, his whole persona now bordered on a
conjunto artistico-folklorico, an artistic-folkloric ensemble on the verge of being declared of touristic merit.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. I subsequently knew Matt Carney for another 18 years and spent parts of ten sanfermines with him. Other than the slapping around of David Black, known far and wide as “The Dirty Old Man” and a man so contemptible, obnoxious, and purposely provocative that there are few regulars at Pamplona who had not hit him, I saw Matt Carney in just one other fight—during the legendary night of the giant Angelino at the Bar Txoko about which we will hear more later. But first I had my date with the encierro.

Hemingway wrote about Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the encierro, in the Toronto Star Weekly in 1923: “Then they came in sight. Eight bulls galloping along, full tilt, heavy set, black, glistening, sinister, their horns bare, tossing their heads . . . They ran in a solid mass, and ahead of them sprinted, tore, ran, and bolted the rearguard of the men and boys of Pamplona who had allowed themselves to be chased through the streets for a morning’s pleasure.”

Unlike Hemingway’s “men and boys of Pamplona,” I was not out for “a morning’s pleasure” when I ran the bulls. And unlike most of the foreigners—many of them American college students who read The Sun Also Rises in American literature classes or Iberia in Spanish classes—who had come to Pamplona on a lark to run the bulls, I had seen enough corridas de toros, more than one hundred at the time, to have developed a very healthy respect for the Spanish fighting bull.

But, since every man who goes to Pamplona—except for the very crippled and very old (and even some of them run)—is expected to run the bulls at least once, I felt I had to, especially since I had come to Pamplona with John Fulton and Bill Cimino, who called himself León Camino.  He was as brave as a lion—in fact, maniacally brave.

After we had missed running in the encierro that first morning, I felt like a kid whose dental appointment had been canceled. Yet the inevitable had merely been postponed. Still, I kidded John Fulton all morning in the Bar Txoko, claiming the brave matador had caused us to arrive late so he wouldn’t have to run the bulls.  Fulton reminded me that the bulls to be fought in each afternoon’s corrida were run each morning of the fiesta.  He would have several more opportunities to prove himself, he said, and so would I.

Early on the morning of the eighth of July, Fulton aroused me from a restless sleep. Bill Cimino was having no part of the encierro. He groggily informed us that if he were to die on the horns of bull, it would be in the glory of the bullring, not in the anonymity of the street. He rolled over and went back to sleep.

Shortly before seven a.m., we crawled through the double row of heavy timbers, that are put up each morning to barricade the citizenry from the mayhem, and clustered at the traditional gathering place in front of Pamplona’s storybook ayuntamiento (city hall).  We were six: Fulton, the late writer Toby Williams, Ron Vavra (the twin brother of Iberia photographer Robert Vavra), U.S. Navy Commander Dennis Fish from Rota, a Marine captain, and me. Only Fulton and Williams had ever run the bulls.

I entertained no illusions of glory. I wanted to run far enough ahead of the bulls to say out of danger, but close enough to get a glimpse of them behind me, then sprint into the bullring at the end of the course and vault over the fence to safety. This little romp would earn me my imaginary bull runner’s merit badge, lend credence to my claims to manhood, add a few lines to my dinner party repertoire, and gain me acceptance with the Pamplona regulars, that international group of Hemingway’s spiritual descendants who return to San Fermín each July to revel in the light of a sun that for them always still rises.

Hundreds of runners and thousands of spectators were converging along the 850-yard course that runs uphill from a corral at the bottom of Santo Domingo hill through the barricaded streets of Pamplona’s old town. At the bullring every morning, a packed house awaits the exciting entrance of bulls and men as they come pouring through a narrow passageway.

The plaza in front of city hall was filling with runners—men and boys, not just from Pamplona, but from all over the world. Many appeared to have been drinking all night; their white fiesta costumes were soiled from sleeping, and often wallowing, in the streets and from poorly aimed botas, the ubiquitous wineskins that fuel the fiesta. Even at this hour they staged impromptu drinking contests, seeing who could take the longest draughts of Navarra wine arched from botas held at arm’s length. Others danced the jota and the riau-riau, the infectious folk music of Navarra, which blared from poorly wired loudspeakers.

From behind polished brass lions gracing the balconies of the fairy-tale façade of Pamplona’s city hall, the city fathers surveyed the bacchanalia with an air of paternalistic tolerance. Wives, daughters, and nuns watched with demure amusement from their privileged perches. Pretty Basque girls looking for their favorites leaned out from the balconies of the houses lining the narrow streets. Tourist and native alike strained for a better view or camera angle from the timbered barricades surrounding the plaza.

The crowd of runners grew larger. Our group waited, close-knit and nervous. We mangled the rolled-up newspapers Fulton had advised us to bring. Tradition has it that one is supposed to be able to ward off an imminent goring by whacking a bull on the nose with a newspaper. As we waited Fulton told us about the runners down on Santo Domingo hill—the “crazies” who run toward the bulls. They work up their courage by singing to a statue of San Fermín which occupies a special niche overlooking the street. As they sing, they thrust their rolled newspapers skyward to the image, invoking the saint’s protection. San Fermín is said to intervene on behalf of fallen runners, suddenly appearing with a cape to distract a bull about to spike an endangered mozo, as the Navarrese affectionately call those who run. It was of no solace to me that San Fermín was unable to intervene in time in 1969, just a year earlier, and two runners were killed at Jim Michener’s feet as he stood in a doorway on Santo Domingo.

Fulton, professional matador and veteran runner, had volunteered to initiate us into this time-honored fraternity. Scared, but trusting as Boy Scouts on our first hike, we listened intently as Fulton explained how he runs the bulls for maximum effect and minimum risk. He encouraged us to pace ourselves and stay with him. We were to arrive at Teléfonos, the telephone office corner, at the top of the hill where the street doglegs left into the bullring. We would stop there and wait for the bulls to come up the famous canyon-like street, calle Estafeta. Each of us could then decide just how close he wanted the bulls to get before running for the bullring.

The hands on the city hall clock inched inexorably toward what the Spaniards call la hora de verdad, the moment of truth. The crowd of runners was straining against the line of police who were keeping them from moving into Doña Blanca de Navarra (now named Mercaderes) and Estafeta.  Shortly before seven, they allowed the mass of runners to move into the empty streets ahead of them and many began running.  I stayed close to Fulton, as did most of the rest of our group.  We walked and half-jogged along the cobble-stoned Estafeta, which is the long uphill straightaway on the course.

At 7:00 a.m. sharp, a rocket streaked into the sky above the old quarter and a loud report signaled the release of the bulls. At that moment, several steers and seven fighting bulls were pouring into Santo Domingo, some 500 yards down course from our position and out of sight because of turns in the street. When I heard the rocket, I was ready to streak for the bullring, but Fulton encouraged me to wait. By the time we reached Teléfonos, runners were flying by us like proverbial bats out of hell. We looked back down the Estafeta, but we still couldn’t see the bulls. The confusion of noise, motion, and dust from the rush of runners caused a further drain on my rapidly diminishing supply of machismo. I decided I was quite ready to follow the last of Fulton’s instructions: Run like crazy into the bullring, break off to the left, and vault over the bullring fence to safety.

I started to take off. A familiar voice—Fulton?  Williams?—shouted, “Hey, don’t you even want to see them?” In the confusion, I actually paused to consider the question—a big mistake. It was like being on the way to an air raid shelter and having some fool ask you for the time. I actually turned to say, “No!” As I looked back, I saw a mass of runners stampeding toward me. Behind them was an ominous space, a swath being cleared by the bulls. I raced for the tunnel leading into the bullring. I intended to get into the ring and over the fence—fast.

The rest was a nightmare.  Reaching the tunnel, I found a montón, a pileup. Several runners had fallen and others had tripped over them as they frantically tried to get through. The pile was building; the entrance to the bullring was blocked.  The bulls would be on us in seconds.

My first impulse was panic.  I tried to climb over the pile like everyone else, but it was futile, so I chose the only alternative: I would have to take my chances in the pit with the bulls. I withdrew from the pile with the irrational idea of spreading myself along the wall of the tunnel like a coat of paint.  Unfortunately, other people had similar thoughts, they were already making like coats of paint two and three deep along the wall. We pressed against one another hoping that we could somehow fuse and become indistinguishable from the concrete.

Matt Carney at Bar Txoko, San Fermín, early 1970s. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2010.

The bulls charged into the tunnel and ran into the pileup. They were stopped by the human barricade and began to mill about in the confusion. I found myself being jammed against the runners behind me by a huge brown fighting bull from the ranch of Juan Pedro Domecq, one of the most respected ranches in Spain.  Luckily, I was left standing along his flank when he stopped.  For now, at least, his horns could not reach me and his body was shielding me from other bulls.  For some reason, I thought I might be able to push the half-ton plus animal aside so I could get out. I put my hands on his massive sides and shoved. He didn’t budge an inch. I remained trapped for several moments.  It seemed an eternity.

El encierro, Pamplona, July 8, 1970.  I (circled) am looking towards a toro suelto (a bull separated from the herd and thus, very dangerous, since he will often attack anything that moves or go along the fence hooking anything in his path with his horn--called "limpiando la pared" ("cleaning the wall").   The animal in the picture is a steer (there is a cowbell around his neck), not a toro bravo.  Luckily, the loose bull did not hook everything he saw along the fence.

The lead bulls struggled like floundering swimmers through the pileup.  Fortunately, they were so disoriented that they were not trying to gore anyone, but they were trampling the fallen. When the first bulls broke through into the plaza, they attacked and several people were gored. 

Finally, the big brown bull moved. I freed myself and followed a group of runners heading back down the course to escape the bulls. We knew that if the remaining bulls were frustrated in their attempt to go forward, they might turn and wander back into the street. I got out of the tunnel and ran for the nearest fence, but dozens of people were already up on the barricades. They climbed just high enough to save themselves. Once out of danger, they stopped to enjoy the spectacle. 

Since I couldn’t get up the fence, I positioned myself against it. There was an animal in front of me, but I saw the bell around its neck and realized it was one of the steers that run with the bulls to help keep them in a pack. Then I saw the most frightening thing a runner can experience outside of a pileup: A toro suelto, a bull that has become separated from the herd. Such loose bulls often take the offensive, attacking anything that moves, sometimes “cleaning the wall,” going along a wall or barricade hooking everything they encounter.

I froze, peering out from the line of men along the fence, hoping the bull wouldn’t go for us. He turned and glared at us for a long moment, but no one moved enough to provoke a charge. He suddenly wheeled and ran toward the bullring in search of his brothers.

Now, my thoughts turned to my friends. I saw Fulton on a barricade across the street.  After the bull passed, he climbed down and ran back into the tunnel.  I foolishly followed him. As I caught up with him in the bullring, he ordered me to stop in my tracks. The last bull, the toro suelto, was still loose in the ring. We stayed still until one of the official ring attendants lured the bull into the corrals with a cape. A rocket signaled the end of the encierro.

The normal run lasts from 2 ½ to 3 minutes from the time the bulls are released from the Santo Domingo pens until they are herded into the bullring corrals a half-mile away. We would find from reading the local newspapers, that today’s encierro had taken 6 minutes, 41 seconds (they are officially timed), one of the longest in history. One reporter wrote that the only other pileup to rival ours occurred in 1947 (another legendary pileup happened a few years later and that I will touch on it with a humorous story about Noel Chandler).

Our group had been lucky. None of us wound up in the hospital. Later, we read that nearly 50 runners had required medical attention and that one man, first reported dead, was critically injured. We found Ron Vavra bleeding from a long scrape on his nose. A bull had shoved him face-first against the concrete wall of the tunnel. Fulton and Vavra had been trapped on the opposite side of the tunnel from my position fighting off horns and hooves for several minutes. At one point, Vavra had looked at Fulton, a yard away through the common frame of a pair of horns, and said, “Man, we are in trouble.” Fulton had a long, painful bruise along his thigh, where a huge steer had mauled him with its hooves.

The other members of the group were unaccounted for, but I had seen the Marine captain go up the fence, so I was sure he was all right.  Dennis Fish soon joined us; he had avoided the pileup. Later, we found a slightly battered Toby Williams sitting in the Bar Txoko, drinking a double brandy.

I remained in the bullring with Fulton for the morning capea, or amateur bullfight. To the delight of a capacity crowd, cows with leather caps over their horn tips are turned loose to wreak havoc on a mob of daredevils.  The cows, vacas bravas of fighting stock, are two to three years old; they are strong and charge ferociously.

Before the toril (gate to the bull pens) is opened to let one of these cows into the arena, a group of demented young men gathers in front of the gate to take the first fresh charges of the animal with their bodies. After the cow tears into the pile, she races around the ring smashing “the men and boys of Pamplona” (and not a few foreigners) like figurines in a china shop.  Fulton unfurled his newspaper and managed to get off a nice pass to one of the cows. When they let out a particularly large animal with no protective leather on its horns, I decided enough was enough and vaulted over the fence to safety.

When the capea was over, we strolled over to the Plaza del Castillo, where Williams was holding a table for us at the Bar Txoko. The cheap, coarse brandy we ordered was bracing; it steadied nerves and loosened tongues as we recounted our adventure and basked in the glory of having been in the breach.

As I listened to the retelling of the morning’s events and added my own embellishments to this colorful tapestry of personal legend that we were all weaving, I sensed that something very important was missing from our descriptions: It was the powerful animal smell in the close air of the tunnel that was the most realistic element in the dreamlike sequence of events. That detail had been lost amid the surreal mix of noise, dust, fear, confusion, and excitement in the tunnel. But the smell of the big brown juanpedro bull was still on my jacket and on my hands.

As the others ordered fresh croissants for breakfast, I went down to the lavatory in the basement of the Bar Txoko and, in the cold water of Pamplona, I washed my hands of “a morning’s pleasure.”

As the years went by, I would claim that I had made a deal with that bull in the tunnel, “If you let me out of here alive, I will never came back to molest your brothers,” I told listeners when the subject came up.  The legendary English bullfight aficionado Michael Wigram says that I also made another declaration, “If I am going to die on the horns of a bull, I would prefer it to be in an Andalucian bullring with several thousand Spaniards clapping palmas por bulerias, not after being trampled by some sophomore from the University of Nebraska.”

I never ran with the bulls again.
The End


About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

In December, 2009, Dawes was the subject of the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Pilot for a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


Pamplona: Memories of Alicia Hall in Sanfermines (An Excerpt from Homage to Iberia: More Spanish Travels & Reflections by Gerry Dawes) With Insights by Pamplona author Ray Mouton & 50-year+ San Fermín veteran Rolf von Essen

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 (All photographs copyright 2017 by Gerry Dawes.)

Alicia Hall, Sanfermines, early 1970s.
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

My late ex-wife Diana Valenti Dawes and I  spent many wonderful sanfermines with Alicia Hall from 1970 through 1975 and in 1977 and 1978. Some years we began in Burguete before fiesta, staying at Hostal Burguete, which was Ernest Hemingway's inspiration for Jake Barnes' hotel during his trout fishing expeditions in The Sun Also Rises.  We would drive Alicia up there and spend a quiet relaxing time - - reading, walking out on the road to Roncesvalles to pick tiny wild strawberries to put on our ice cream after dinner at the Hostal Burguete and having long discussions about Spain over dinner with plenty of vino tinto.

Trout fishing in the Pyrenees.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

One time we were on our way with Alicia to Pamplona (via Rioja and Burguete).  To avoid the maniacs driving southbound Hellbent for the North African-bound ferries in far off Algeciras on NR1, which was then just a two-lane highway, which with homeward bound cars passing in the face of oncoming traffic, causing us to often head for the highway shoulder (or a ditch).  After a few of these close calls, I opted for a back country road in the direction of Burgo de Osma in Soria in northern Castile.  After a few kilometers, Alicia spotted a bar at the entrance to a village. "Stop the car!" she said, "Let's go in there and have some fun." We went in, ordered some vino tinto and had some fun.

It was in the pass of Roncesvalles where we had a series of now legendary picnics that delighted Alicia. There is a splendid Brigadoon-like glade with an icy little stream up there that only the initiated can find (American Matador-artist John Fulton, who had been there with James Michener, had introduced me to it).  About halfway through the fiestas, for several memorable years in the early 70s , Diana and I gathered up Alicia, Hemingway's "double" Kenneth Vanderford, sculptor Lindsay Daen, and a crazy assortment of believers and made the pilgrimage to this historic little valley that is haunted by the ghost of brave Roland and by generations of pilgrims who passed this way over the centuries on the Camino de Santiago.

We helped Alicia down the steep slope to the green, grassy, mossy banks of the stream, where Diana, who had recruited a group of women to collect the food at the mercado in Pamplona that morning, laid out our splendid repast, while I iced down our Navarra clarete - rosado and melons in the stream. The picnic had a formula that didn't vary until the year we stopped going - - drink some wine, eat wonderful Navarrese food, drink some more wine, get mellow, lay down on the mossy slopes and tell off-color jokes to a well-primed audience until the mystical fog drifts in and signalled that it was time for us to drift back to Pamplona in time for the corrida. A Swede once had us rolling on the ground in fits by telling a particularly dirty joke in Swedish, which only the three Swedes, including the great Rolf von Essen, understood, but the most incredible thing that ever happened at this event was the near conversion of Kenneth Vanderford, a died-in-the-wool atheist.

This particular year, a spooky mist of metaphysical caliber had drifted into the upper tier of our little valley.   And Lindsay Daen, the New Zealand-born sculptor, had still not arrived. Vanderford was telling us about the legend of Roland blowing his horn to summon his uncle Charlemagne's army as he fought for his life in this pass. He ended his tale of the famous Chanson de Roland and remarked that, like lots of other religion-laced legends, it was mostly nonsense.  At that precise moment, a bugle sounded from high in the woods.  Vanderford looked heavenward and seemed momentarily shaken by what he must have thought was a call to reckoning.  It was Lindsay blowing his bugle as he tried to locate us. Alicia always got a lot of mileage out of that story over the years.

Alicia used to have a Pobre de Mí party at Maitena overlooking the Plaza del Castillo on the last night of San Fermín. From there, after dinner, we could watch the fiesta began to wind down with the soulful lament of "Pobre de mí" followed by the joyous, self-renewing "Siete de julio, San Fermín!" One memorable year, over a dozen of us gathered around Alicia for dinner and, as I usually did, I sat next to her.  

But, to set the stage, two things must be kept in mind: 1) When I first met Alicia she did not use blue language, so I claim to have taught her how to cuss and 2) Ever since the Pablo Romero tienta during one memorable Feria de Sevilla, I had been encouraging Alicia to marry some aging bull breeder and do him in with sexual excess, so she could inherit the ranch and invite us to secret tientas. These two items were a running joke between us.

After dinner and plenty of tinto and clarete, Alicia asked me to fetch her some tobaco negro (a black tobacco cigarette), so I bummed a Ducado from Mike Kelly and gave it to her. Alicia was trying to act like a seasoned smoker, so she tried to tamp the cigarette on the table and she broke it.  I had to get her another cigarette, show her how to tamp it, and light it for her. 

"Damn, Alicia," I said, "first I had to teach you how to cuss, now I'm having to teach you how to smoke, and I guess if you marry that bull breeder, I'm going to have to teach you how to do that too."

Holding her cigarette elegantly between her fingers, this retired teacher (from a fashionable young women's school in Atlanta), looked at me with a gleam in her eye and, with total aplomb she said, "Fuck you!"

That same night, we watched from the balcony as the mad chef of Maitena went down to the Plaza and began directing traffic with a meat cleaver in one hand and an enormous raw chuletón steak in the other.

Later, we all drifted down to the Bar Txoko and I encouraged a Navarrese girl with a beautiful voice to sing a jota.  
Looking at Alicia, the young woman sang a wonderful moving jota that had the line, “Madre mia, madre de Navarra."   I looked at Tía Alicia and we both had tears running down our cheeks. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever known in 50 years of running the roads and fiestas of mystical Spain.  But when Alicia was around, magic was never that far away.

In 1985, Alicia took her namesake, my daughter, Erica Catherine Alicia, to her first and only bullfight.
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

In mid-September of 1992, I had lunch with Tía Alicia and Michael Wigram in Madrid.  Alice had been upset that I had not been able to come to her 90th birthday celebration in Salamanca on September 13 and I sensed that it might be our last lunch together in Spain, so I treated Alicia and Michael to two bottles of López de Heredia, since it had become a favorite of hers after our visit to the bodega years before. We had a wonderful time over dinner recounting many of the stories I have related here.  

Alice especially loved to hear me tell my version of the more scandalous ones, like the one I told about the time Diego Puerta agreed to come to a party at the Hotel Eslava, where Alicia always stayed in Pamplona during sanfermines.   We all gathered in a room in the basement and began the party, awaiting the arrival of Diego.  After awhile, Alicia, who was wearing a slip, decided to remove.  Later, I would claim that she took off her slip because she was getting hot and bothered over the imminent arrival of her hero, a notion that was reinforced when Diego did show up, some music was playing and Alicia, by then at least 60 years old, got up and danced on a table.

In February of 1993, when both my mother and Alicia (my birth mother and my spiritual mother) lay dying in the same week, Diana and I brought our daughters down to Southern Illinois to say goodbye to my mom, then drove on to Atlanta to say goodbye to Alicia for what we knew was the last time.  I brought her two bottles of López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia, one of which Diana and I drank at her bedside as we had our last tertulia.

There is much more to the legend of Tía Alicia, more than a few lines in this article can recount. When I originally wrote these lines, Alice Hall was being buried (she would love it that I was writing about her as she was being laid to rest) in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, the same hometown of another very original lady, Flannery O’Conner.

I vowed after she died that wherever I go in Spain, wherever there is a fiesta and a restaurant where it would have been appropriate for Alicia to have been, there will always be an empty chair and a place setting at my table with a glass of agua del grifo, the tap water, which she always drank for the 40 years she spent in Spain; a vino tinto de la casa (when it was her call, she always asked for the red wine of the house); and a cigarillo de tobaco negro. That is the least I can do in her memory.

There was no one like Alicia. To paraphrase the ditty about brave bullfighters that was written on the banner she always carried when her torero Diego Puerta was fighting, "Alicia, Alicia, . . . Como Alicia no hay ninguna."

The End

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About Gerry Dawes

Writing, Photography, & Specialized Tours of Spain & Tour Advice

For custom-designed tours of Spain, organized and lead by Gerry Dawes, and custom-planned Spanish wine, food, cultural and photographic itineraries, send inquiries to  

I have planned and led tours for such culinary stars as Chefs Thomas Keller, Mark Miller, Mark Kiffin, Michael Lomonaco and Michael Chiarello and such personalities as baseball great Keith Hernandez and led on shorter excursions and have given detailed travel advice to many other well-known chefs and personalities such as Drew Nieporent, Norman Van Aken, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, Christopher Gross, Rick Moonen, James Campbell Caruso and many others.

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“The American writer and town crier for all good Spanish things Gerry Dawes . . . the American connoisseur of all things Spanish . . .” Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and The World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

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"Gerry Dawes, I can't thank you enough for opening up Spain to me." -- Michael Chiarello on Twitter. 

"Chiarello embarked on a crash course by traveling to Spain for 10 days in 2011 with Food Arts
contributing authority Gerry Dawes, a noted expert on Spanish food and wine.  Coqueta's (Chiarello's new restaurant at Pier Five, San Francisco) chef de cuisine, Ryan McIlwraith, later joined Dawes for his own two week excursion, as well. Sampling both old and new, they visited wineries and marketplaces, as well as some of Spain's most revered dining establishments, including the Michelin three-star Arzak, Etxebarri, the temple to live fire-grilling; Tickets, the playful Barcelona tapas bar run by Ferran Adrià and his brother, Albert; and ABaC, where Catalan cooking goes avant-garde." - - Carolyn Jung, Food Arts, May 2013.

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"In his nearly thirty years of wandering the back roads of Spain," Gerry Dawes has built up a much stronger bank of experiences than I had to rely on when I started writing Iberia...His adventures far exceeded mine in both width and depth..." -- James A. Michener, author of Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections

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Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés. ". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
* * * * *

Trailer-pilot for a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


Noel Chandler, The Champagne Count of Pamplona's San Fermín

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“It was amazing champagne.” 
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway was a great lover of Champagne and he often referred to it in his writing.  In The Sun Also Rises, three of Hemingway’s characters - - the free-spending, Champagne-loving Count Mippipopolous, the protagonist Jake Barnes, and the unforgettable femme fatale Lady Brett - - polish off three bottles of Mumms in a single session.  

The Champagne drinking scene took place in the opening chapters just before Jake Barnes, Lady Brett, Robert Cohn, Mike Campbell, and Bill Gorton - - fictional charter members of Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation” - -  headed down to Pamplona, Spain for the Fiestas de San Fermín, sans Count Mippipopolous.   At the beginning of Fiesta, Hemingway’s characters, now minus the Count’s generous Champagne contributions, switched to cheap red wine in the peasant bars of the old quarter of Pamplona. 

The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, became a classic and spawned a cult-like devotion to San Fermín, especially among English-speaking foreigners.  It would be several decades before the modern-day incarnation of the Count surfaced at San Fermín in the person of a generous Welshman named Noel Chandler.  Chandler, like Count Mippipopolous, has drunk his share of Champagne in Paris (where he celebrates New Year’s Eve).  Although he neither holds, nor claims a title, with his rugged countenance, polished manners, and mysterious air, Chandler is clearly a worthy spiritual descendant of Hemingway’s Champagne-loving Count and his annual San Fermín Champagne party, until a few years ago when it was decided that the well-aged timbers of Chandler’s lofty walk-up apartment above the calle Estefeta could not safely support the many scores of people who were ascending each 6th of July to party with Noel.

Noel Chandler. Photo by Gerry Dawes.

Over the years, Chandler’s annual party had become one of the hottest invitations in Pamplona.  One of the great bullfight aficionados of all time, a first-rate Hispanophile, and a veteran of more than forty sanfermines and countless encierros (the running of the bulls), which pass through the famous Estafeta below the scene of the Champagne parties, Noel Chandler had indeed become Pamplona’s Conde de Champagne.

At 10:00 a.m. on the sixth of July every year for nearly fifteen years, in his apartment, you could find Chandler carefully unpacking and chilling 5-6 cases of Perrier-Jouët, Veuve Clicquot, Gossett, or Moët & Chandon Champagne.  Soon the first of nearly 200 San Fermín devotees from all over the world would begin arriving at Chandler’s place to help pop the corks and celebrate the beginning of yet another Fiesta.
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway described opening day of the Fiestas de San Fermín at Pamplona as well as anyone,  "At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the Fiesta exploded.  There is no other way to describe it."

On calle Estafeta, a legendary street where many a bullrunner, including Noel Chandler,  has made his reputation, hundreds of  people gather on their way to Pamplona's storybook city hall to await the firing by the city's politicos of the cohete, or rocket, which signals the beginning of this wild event.  During the course of the raucous eight-and-a-half day fiesta, the brave, the loco, and the inebriated (often one and the same), young and not-so-young men (and sometimes women) allow themselves to be chased by bulls through the streets of the old town for what Don Ernesto, as Hemingway is known here, called "a morning's pleasure."  But before they do, they need that first day, July 6th, to gear up for fiesta and recharge their courage batteries for the next morning’s running of the bulls by drinking everything in sight--beer, wine, hard stuff, and lots of bulk-produced sparkling wine, admittedly a poor substitute for real Champagne.
In recent years, this non-method champenoise bubbly has been the wine of choice on opening day and the San Fermín celebrants pour it on, in, and around one another in astonishing quantities. Within a few minutes after the cohete explodes above the city, the Estafeta will be a river of white-and-red clad party animals bouncing up the street to the infectious folk music of Navarra, drinking and spraying mega-hectolitres of cheap fizzy wine as they go.
Beginning about 11:00 a.m., Noel Chandler’s guests used to climb the stairs of an unprepossessing building to his large, rambling apartment on the fifth floor. Here there will be no cheap sparklers.  At Chandler’s place, real French Champagne is served and it will be poured into, not on, the guests.  The invited (and, often self-invited)--screenwriters, artists, photographers, stockbrokers, lawyers, professors, Basque bullrunners, the occasional bullfighter, etc.--arrived from points scattered across the globe: Australia, England, France, Sweden, Israel, California, New York, Florida, and all around Spain. Many would have not seen each other since sanfermines past, so there were big abrazos all around and much catching up on the past year’s happenings.
At a typical Chandler Champagne party, it common to see many of the following people:  Noel Chandler’s long time companion, Nancy Fortier of Atlanta; Jim Hollander, a crack wire photographer based in Tel Aviv; Davey Crockett, a descendant of the famous American frontiersman, a veteran at San Fermín, and survivor of many encierros (bull runs); writer Jesse Graham, a relative of the great Gerald Brenan; the fine New York artist Warren Parker; and British bullfight guru Michael Wigram, all of whom would salute each other with a clink of Champagne flutes.  The late Charles Patrick Scanlan, a long-time resident of Spain and one of the most knowledgeable aficionados would be in a corner working out the disposition of season bullfight tickets with Rex Howieson, the group’s semi-official social director.


Jesse Graham.  Photo by Gerry Dawes.

Joseph Distler, then a New York restaurateur and bar owner, who now lives in Paris and has run on the horns of the fighting bulls in every Pamplona encierro for the more than forty years and has appeared on such highly rated American television programs as 20/20 and 48 Hours stopped at the top of the stairs, then stopped in the middle of greeting Noel Chandler and a circle of guests to introduce himself to a stunning Spanish woman with dazzling eyes.
“¡Holahhh! Soy José,” Distler purred in his Brooklyn-accented Spanish.
“Hi. I’m Carmen,” the woman replied in English, “Have you met my husband?”

Joe Distler in the 1970s.  Photo by Gerry Dawes.

Guests would make their way down the long hall past some exceptional taurine photographs, pictures from Fiestas past, and the Matt Carney Memorial Suite, the room where the great bullrunner and honorary son of Pamplona used to stay, complete with Carney’s old bullrunning costume and other mementos.  In Chandler’s living room, Champagne glasses were lined up on a cupboard and a television set was strategically placed so guests can watch the firing of the cohete.  The whole apartment scene was like a New Year’s Eve party, except it was held in July in the  middle of the day.

As noon approached, Chandler’s guests would have filled the living room to top up their Champagne glasses in anticipation of the firing of the cohete.  It was Chandler’s custom to stand by the television set and as the rocket was lit and shwooshed skyward and lift his glass.  The report from the cohete could be heard both from the television and from the sky above Pamplona.  Chandler would shout, “¡Viva San Fermín!” and be answered with a chorus of “¡Viva!” from his guests.  Red neckerchiefs with the image of San Fermín and emblems of various drinking and social clubs (Anaitasuna, Peña Sueca, etc.), which are dedicated to the veneration of the saint and his fiesta, were then pulled out and tied on. (The proper San Fermín etiquette is not to put on one’s scarf until the cohete signals the official beginning of fiesta.)

The Champagne flowed freely as more hearty “¡Viva San Fermín!” toasts accompanied by  big abrazos worked their way around the room.  Guests took turns standing on either of the two small balconies overlooking calle Estafeta, where the crowd who watched the firing of the cohete from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, begins to pour into the surrounding streets, singing, dancing, and drinking as they go.  The crowd surge effect is like popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne. 

All day on July 6th, more people would drift in and out of Noel Chandler’s apartment, stopping to saludar the host, sip a glass of Champagne and catch up with old friends who are attending this year’s fiesta.  In small groups, they recounted stories from their communal oral history, whose retelling over the years has ripened it into vintage nostalgia which is indelibly engraved into memories of this very close circle of friends.  For Chandler’s of friends, Hemingway’s Sun still rises each year on San Fermín. 

Over a glass of Gosset Grand Reserve in Pamplona during San Fermín this year, Chandler described how his Champagne party had evolved.  “For thirteen years through 1983, we had a fantastic Champagne breakfast at the Tres Reyes hotel.  Then in 1984, after I had purchased the apartment, I decided to have my own opening day Champagne party.  It started out fairly small. We only had about 15 people - - myself, my old Australian friend Rex Howieson, the late legendary Irish-American bullrunner Matt Carney, Joe Distler, and a few other San Fermín regulars and their ladies. 

The first year I served Veuve Clicquot Gold Label Brut.  It was a bit difficult to get Veuve Clicquot in Spain at the time, but I was still working as an executive for an international computer firm, so I was traveling a lot.  Each time I passed through an international airport I stopped at the duty-free shop and bought a couple of bottles of “the widow.”  By the time the next San Fermín came around, I would have 20-30 bottles for the party.  Sometimes I would buy another case of Champagne just for insurance.  The party grew.  I was able to procure enough Moët et Chandon by then, so I served it for four or five years.  Recently I found a local shop which could supply me with enough Taittinger, so now I poured that fine Champagne one year.” 

I figure we had about 200 people the last year during the course of the day.  We drank 60  bottles of Champagne before it was over, plus another case or two of my good red wines.     “That’s quite a lot of wine,” Chandler told me in the mid-1990s.  “The party may be getting too big and I am going to have to think about it.”

But having to think about it could wait.  Chandler still had eight more days of Fiesta to go.  And that included a Gosset Champagne supper at Pamplona’s superb San Ignacio restaurant in honor of the matador (and Chandler’s long-time favorite) Francisco Rivera Ordoñez.   Rivera Ordoñez, grandson of the great Antonio Ordoñez, is a disciplined young torero, who is seldom seen drinking anything alcoholic during the season, but not even he passed up a glass of Gosset Champagne Gran Reserve.  Chandler and the other guests agreed it was “amazing” Champagne.

Later in the week, Chandler was feted by Revue du Champagne magazine’s Tom Källene at a street breakfast.  These traditional breakfasts are one of the most endearing customs of San Fermín.  Trestle tables are lined up outside bar-restaurants in the cobblestoned streets of the old quarter for group breakfasts featuring eggs, ham, and fried potatoes accompanied by plenty of wine, singing, and laughter.  The breakfasts are often interrupted as delivery trucks try to squeeze by within inches of the guests, who in turn become good-natured traffic directors, while others applaud the progress of the truck as it crawls by the gathering. 

At the time I doubted that Chandler’s “having to think about it” would put an end to Noel Chandler’s  traditional Champagne party at San Fermín.  For a few years after I interviewed him, at noon on the sixth of July each year, the Fiesta still exploded, the corks will still popped, and “amazing” Champagne still flowed at the Conde de Champagne’s apartment high above the calle Estafeta in Pamplona, Spain.

You could count on it, that is, a few years ago when the reality that they all might soon be celebrating the fiesta at street level after Chandler learned that there was a very real possibility that the ancient floor of his vintage apartment might no longer support a couple of hundred revelers full of Champagne.   That year, he ostensibly called a halt to The Champagne Count of San Fermín's remarkable, effervescent fiesta.

Note: On October 14, my old friend Noel Chandler, passed from our midst and went on to his Estefeta piso en the sky.  He was truly one of a kind, a legend who was a dear friend of mine for some forty years.

- - The End - -

Each of Gerry Dawes’s three daughters, Erica, Elena, and Maria had drops of Pol Roger Champagne placed on their lips within minutes of their births.


About Gerry Dawes  

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 

Trailer-pilot for a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

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