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

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


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 Estafeta 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, drinking Guinness, 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 turned 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.


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(Available at Amazon, Despana (NYC),, La Boca Restaurant (Santa Fe, NM) and at Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore (NYC). 
Comments are welcome and encouraged.
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  Shall deeds of Caesar or Napoleon ring
More true than Don Quixote's vapouring?
Hath winged Pegasus more nobly trod
Than Rocinante stumbling up to God?
Poem by Archer M. Huntington inscribed under the Don Quixote on his horse Rocinante bas-relief sculpture by his wife, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington,
in the courtyard of the Hispanic Society of America’s incredible museum at 613 W. 155th Street, New York City.
 Gastronomy Blogs

In 2019, again ranked in the Top 50 Gastronomy Blogs and Websites for Gastronomists & Gastronomes in 2019 by Feedspot. (Last Updated Oct 23, 2019) 

"The Best Gastronomy blogs selected from thousands of Food blogs, Culture blogs and Food Science blogs in our index using search and social metrics. We’ve carefully selected these websites because they are actively working to educate, inspire, and empower their readers with frequent updates and high-quality information."  

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

About Gerry Dawes

My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life." -- Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019

Gerry Dawes is the Producer and Program Host of Gerry Dawes & Friends, a weekly radio progam on Pawling Public Radio in Pawling, New York (streaming live and archived at and at

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. 
Pilot for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


The Importance of Being Earnest and Not Being Kurlansky: An Open Letter and Critique of Mark Kurlansky's The Importance of Not Being Ernest and His Opinions About People Who Regularly Attend Pamplona's Fiestas de San Fermín

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The Importance of Not Being Ernest, Hardback Book

The Importance of Being Earnest and Not Being Kurlansky

By Gerry Dawes

Author of Sunset in a Glass:  Adventures of Food and Wine Road Warrior in Spain

There is the new book out by Mark Kurlansky, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: my life with the uninvited Hemingway, another book that points out many of Don Ernesto’s well-known flaws, Hemingway bashing being a fashionable sport for the last couple of decades at least.  Kurlansky is the author of a wad of books, many of them best sellers and many of them very good.  Some of you (and I) have read and applauded some of his other books, especially Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and The Basque History of the World*.   *I had some reservations about his suppositions in The Basque History and the fact that he apparently never made contact with a single member of the Basque separatist group ETA before writing the book.

Many of you will find Kurlansky's observations in The Importance of Not Being Ernest interesting.  Some of you, especially those who love Pamplona, will find parts of it not to your liking, especially Kurlansky's contempt for Pamplona’s Fiestas de San Fermín* and his claim that no one goes there for the fiesta, but because they are just trying to "out Hemingway Hemingway."  Needless to say for those of us who have known and loved los sanfermines that is polemical, but there is more. Also problematic is that he seems not to have interviewed any of the people who go to San Fermín thus compounding his woeful ignorance of the history and significance of San Fermín and the reverence for the fiesta that most regulars--Navarros, Basques, Spaniards and foreigners--have.

 *I suspect that he has a general contempt for Spain itself and seems not to really know the country.  He labels the Spain chapter in Not Being Ernest, The Patent Leather Soul of Spain and claims on pp. 93-94 when he was living in France and used to go to Spain that “Spain was dark and depressing, quiet with people afraid to speak.  The last fascist country—but the food was superb.”

I lived in Franco’s Spain for eight years and while his dictatorship was a weight on the country, getting lighter every year, Spain was hardly “dark and depressing or quiet.”  

Maybe he decided it was clever to juxtapose Federico García Lorca’s poem about the patent leather souls (from the patent leather tricorn hats) of the repressive Guardia Civil (the paramilitary police that was not exclusive to the Franco regime*) and assign that moniker to all of Spain and thus Spaniards. 

*Lorca's poem Romance de la Guardia Ciivil Española was published in 1928, so it was not about Franco´s Guardia Civil and to paint Spain and Spaniards with the broad brush as having Patent Leather Souls is a disingenuous gimmick

"They ride the highways
with patent leather souls.
Hunchbacked and nocturnal,
they ride forth and command
the silences of dark rubber
and the fears like fine sand."

And, as to the food being superb, that likely was in San Sebastián, where he went, across the border from Saint Jean de Luz, but the rest of Spain in those days did not have universally good food, due in part to the widespread use and re-use of cheap and substandard olive oil in many places.  The rise in quality of Spanish cuisine in general had much to do with the rise in standards for olive oil, which is used in most dishes in Spain, then especially outside of Atlantic Spain, i. e., Mediterranean Spain, where the use olive oil as the main cooking oil was predominant.

Kurlansky, whom I have met on a few occasions, even had dinner with at Marichu restaurant in New York and with whom I thought I had a friendly relationship, two years ago published The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly-Fishing, in which he claimed that the fictional Jake Barnes (not Ernest Hemingway) and Bill Gorton had gone to Burguete fly fishing after the Fiestas de San Fermín, not before as is clearly described in The Sun Also Rises.  Since I knew Kurlanksy, in a private Facebook message to him I pointed out that this was an error that he might want to correct in a future edition.  (Hemingway and Hadley did go to Burguete both before and after San Fermín, but Jake Barnes in the book in the book went before.)

Early on in Not Being Ernest he claims he began as a kid reading Hemingway "with The Sun Also Rises, a truly awful title."  I don't think I have ever heard anyone say or write that about the title, but I guess that's his opinion, which he follows up with the following, which is not his opinion, it is a factless observation and it pisses me off because it is about me.

I also told him I had been to San Fermín seventeen times and had stayed in Burguete several times over the years, usually before the fiesta and once during the Christmas holidays.  

I got not so much as an acknowledgement for my corrections, for two years anyway, until The Importance of Not Being Ernest came out.  I was stunned to find this on page 132, a whole paragraph about me drawn from my message about the error in Fly Fishing, fortunately without mentioning me by name.

"I got a note from a reader (one he didn't bother to acknowledge) telling me that he had been to San Fermín seventeen times and stays in the auberge (I thought auberges were in France, Hostal Burguete is a hostal) that Hemingway stayed in on the Irati*.  Seventeen times.  I don´t know that Hemingway would have wanted to go seventeen times.  Out Hemingway-waying Hemingway.  I wanted to tell him that Navarra is a beautiful place, and he ought to forget about Hemingway and get to know it. But I suspect he would not have understood, so I said nothing."   

(*Burguete is not on the Irati; in fact, the Irati at its closest point is at least 12 kms. away; where Hemingway claimed to have fished as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is even farther away, some 16 kms. nearly ten miles each way on foot over sometimes mountainous terrain.)

I was under the impression that serious "journalists" like Kurlansky reached out to people* they are writing about to find out what the real story is, but not the grand Kurlansky, far be it for him to understand the importance of being earnest.  

 (*He obviously got my Facebook note about his The Sun Also Rise error, but instead of simply answering the note, he saved it use as the basis for the factless paragraph he wrote about the unnamed guy who had gone to San Fermín 17 times.)

I wrote the following on Facebook Messenger and, of course, got no answer, nor did I get a comment about the numerous instances of errata I found in the book.

"Mark, I got your Hemingway book yesterday and have already read 138 pages, underlining multiple passages. Much to my shock and annoyance, I encountered your unattributed diatribe about me, the guy who wrote about your mistake (repeated in this Not Hemingway book*) that in TSAR Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton went to Burguete AFTER San Fermin, which Hemingway did do, but not as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

*Page 95, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: “In The Sun Also Rises, Jake and Bill catch trout there after festival.  In real life, he went fishing before the festival.”

No, Kurlansky, as I tried to tell you nicely two years ago, you got it ass backwards.  In real life, Hemingway and Hadley and friends went to Burguete both before and after the fiestas in different years, but in The Sun Also Rises, as I wrote to you, again well before you published The Importance of Not Being Ernest, that “Hemingway was 130 pages into The Sun Also Rises and up in Burguete before he gets back to Pamplona for the fiesta.” And, expert that you are, you should know that Burguete is not on the Irati, as you wrote.

I also included Hemingway's Burguete & Mythical Feasts in the Mists of the Historical Pass of Roncesvalles in Navarra:  Scenes from Homage to Iberia from my blog and which is also a chapter in Sunset in a Glass:  Adventures of Food and Wine Road Warrior in Spain, so he had more than ample information about Burguete's location and my long-time (more than half a century of involvement with Navarra), yet he still went ahead and put his erroneous observations in his book. 


I went to San Fermín 17 times, not just because of Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, but more because of James A. Michener’s Iberia (unmentioned by Kurlanksky in Not Being Ernest), because Michener inspired me to meet Matador John Fulton and Iberia Photographer Robert Vavra.   I came to Pamplona for fiesta for the first time with John Fulton and yes I was thrilled to meet Juan Quintana, who was the model for Montoya in The Sun Also Rises and I subsequently become friends with him. 

American Matador John Fulton and Juanito Quintana in Pamplona during Fiesta 1970.

Devotees of the Fiesta, many of whom have gone for decades with fail, go for a variety of the reasons.  While Hemingway and TSAR may have given many of them inspiration to go in the beginning, Michener’s chapter in Iberia on Pamplona drew just as many.  And regardless of who and what first inspired them to go, sanfermineros return year after year because of the friendships they make among Basques, Navarros, the foreign contingent and the camaraderie.  Memories and oral histories from San Fermín stack up to the sky.

But your statement "I wanted to tell him that Navarra is a beautiful place, and he ought to forget about Hemingway and get to know it.   But, I expect he would not have understood, so I said nothing." is pure bullshit, Mark and shows a real lack of respect for me and a shockingly cavalier attitude to following ethical journalistic practices of verifying things you write about and especially whole paragraphs used to make some cockeyed point. 

As it my not knowing Navarra, Señor Pomposo, I published an article in The New York Times about the marvelous villages in the Navarran Pyrenees back in June 1994, in the early 1990s I wrote full chapters on most areas of Navarra for both the Berlitz Travellers Guide to Spain and Penguin Travellers Guides to Spain and have been a traveler to Navarra, outside of San Fermín, more than 50 times.