The Cask of Amontillado: Sherry Tasting, Revenge, and Poe’s Signature Elusiveness

A little over a month ago, I did a post on eating like a hobbit with accompanying Instagram posts. This month, since it’s Halloween, All Saints, and Gothic Fiction Month here at Eftsoons Writer, I took one of the first stories I ever read by Poe and hunted down the famed Amontillado—at my local liquor store. No nitre on the walls here, no Carnival season, no treacherous narrator waiting to wall me up in an alcove (spoiler alert!). In cooking and in tasting, my appreciation for the story has only grown. 

In every wine section of the liquor store, there is a section labeled “fortified wines” these primarily come from two sources: Portugal and Spain. Portugal produces Madeira and port. Spain produces sack and sherry. Within the shelves of sherry, you will find the famed Amontillado. 

There are several kinds of sherries on the market. All proper sherry, of course, comes from the Jerez region of Spain and generally has a higher alcoholic content than your usual table wine.

Amontillado starts out life as a Fino or Manzanilla sherry and then exposed to oxygen which turns it dark. If the sherry is allowed to continue aging, you will eventually get an Oloroso and then a Cream sherry—the flavor getting sweeter as the wine gets older. 

I took four different sherries: Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Cream and made a variety of dishes to go with them, mostly Spanish in origin (Thanks to a marvelous experience I had at Jaleo earlier this year!), to compliment both Poe’s work and the flavor profile of each sherry. It was very through-provoking.

For a general rule of thumb, I consulted an article from Sherry Notes. They are a wealth of information on the various sherry types, flavor profiles, and even have links to recipes you can use to create your own tasting adventure.

I must not only punish but punish with impunity

The Cask of Amontillado

For my Fino sherry, I did a variety of tapas: marinated olives, goat cheese and toasted walnuts, and manchego and olive oil on crusty bread toasted in the oven. 

Fino sherry is very light in color and “dry” meaning that it isn’t sweet. Unlike a regular white wine, however, Fino is not something you can drink unmindfully. Sherry, as I already mentioned, has a higher alcohol content, so has to be sipped in smaller doses and savored. That is very easily done with Fino and it’s more refreshing to my taste buds and you can taste what’s to come. There are hints of the deep sherry tasting notes—almonds, vanilla, and something still deeper and more elusive. 

So it is with “The Cask of Amontillado.” For the first paragraph at least. We learn of a man named Fortunato and that he has given the narrator (who we later learn is presumably named Montresor) cause to seek revenge upon him. We don’t learn the nature of the “thousand injuries” visited upon the narrator, but we can certainly guess. Fortunato, when we meet him, is in what was known as “motley”—he was dressed as a jester. The narrator also takes pains to say that Fortunato “prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.” This, however, is shown for the farce that it is when Fortunato makes the comment “Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

Since Amontillado is sherry, Fortunato’s imbecility is revealed. That small detail is something which every great wine connoisseur would know. Were the “thousand injuries” Fortunato visited products of his braggadocio nature? And what was the “injury” Fortunato visited upon the Montresor which was so great as to warrant such an extreme reaction? These are questions which, like the tasting notes of the Fino, hint at something below the surface of the story which hint, but do not fully reveal. 

Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suite the time and opportunity…

The Cask of Amontillado

2. Amontillado

Amontillado sherry is a gloriously amber color and deeper in flavor. If you buy a Fino and an Amontillado try to buy from the same brand to really get the idea of the flavor profile. When you do, you can really appreciate the difference in the flavor profile from the Fino to the Amontillado. You can still taste notes from the Fino, but they’ve deepened, they’ve become more complex, nuttier, and warmer with the aging process. The Savory and James I bought has a slightly more hazelnut flavor—something which is the barest whisper in the Fino. 

To go with the Amontillado, one of the suggestions is a rice dish. Since I am on a low-carb diet and having already broken one rule with the crusty bread (a weakness of mine, admittedly), I decided to attempt a rice dish using cauliflower rice. I succeeded too! 

Edgar Allen Poe wrote extensively of Charleston and the Lowcountry coastline. In fact, his short story “The Gold Bug” takes place on Sullivan’s Island and has some of the earliest literary displays of the Gullah dialect. So, in tribute, I attempted to recreate Gullah Rice, also known as Charleston Red Rice to go with the Amontillado. Charleston Red Rice is thought to be a take on West African Jollof rice and to the uninitiated, is indistinguishable from jambalaya. Note the “uninitiated.” Traditional Charleston Red Rice doesn’t have nearly a much spice as jambalaya. Nor does it usually have sausage in it. Charleston Red Rice is made with bacon, bell pepper, onion, and tomato stock. The seasoning is very light by comparison but all the better for the lack of spiciness in my own opinion. 

So, what is the Amontillado within the context of the story? I think the Amontillado is two things. First, it is the representation of Fortunato’s own folly—his blind arrogance and his need to impress at the expense of everything and anything else. He must impress Montresor with his knowledge, he must show off at all expense. Ultimately, it is the joke of all jokes—only it’s not very funny for either Montresor or Fortunato.

Second, the Amontillado is a representation of falseness. It doesn’t actually exist in the story except as bait to the trap Montresor sets for Fortunato. Also, if you notice, Montresor’s comment regarding the Italians, you would think he was speaking as someone who wasn’t himself Italian. Yet, Fortunato calls him “Montresor” and the catacombs are the hereditary ones of the Montresors. Whether this means that the narrator is a Montresor or has merely purchased a palazzo which once belonged to the Montresor, is a matter to consider. Is the narrator also false to more than just Fortunato? That is something to consider. 

“The nitre!” I said; “see, it increases, It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it’s too late. Your cough—“

The Cask of Amontillado

3. Oloroso

Oloroso, like Fino, is a lesser-known variety of sherry than either Amontillado or Cream. It’s still not as sweet as the Cream sherry, but it has a definite break with both the Fino and Amontillado. Here, like Montresor and Fortunato in the catacombs, we go into deeper vanilla and nutty tasting notes which work well with the gamier flavors of red meat. I chose lamb to pair with mine—and what a choice it was! 

Lamb is one of those flavors which takes a little getting used to if you’ve never had it. Lamb is reared quite differently from beef, and it shows in the flavor and in how you cook it. Unlike beef, lamb must be medium rare when it’s cooked, or it becomes overcooked. Beef may be able to be made “well-done” although it’s not generally recommended by foodies or chefs, but lamb absolutely cannot be made that way, or it becomes too tough and starts to become bitter. 

As Montresor and Fortunato go deeper into the catacombs, Montresor goads Fortunato into continuing but puts it in the guise of entreating Fortunato to turn back for his health. He draws our attention not only to the nitre growing on the walls—a result of the damps of the catacombs mixed with a very specific type of decay—I’ll leave that to you to discover since this is a food post. The air in the catacombs also becomes fouler with each step. All throughout, however, they return to the Amontillado—even when Fortunato is chained to the granite wall, it’s the only word he can utter in his shock. Amontillado! But as when Amontillado ages into Oloroso, there is no going back—only he doesn’t realize it yet. 

My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.

The Cask of Amontillado

4. Cream Sherry

This is probably the most common sherry on the market, Harvey’s Bristol Cream being one of the more widely available varieties. I especially like it iced. Unorthodox perhaps, but I’m in Florida and when only sherry will do on a very hot day, an iced sherry is very refreshing. 

I completed my tour of Savory and James with their Cream Sherry variety, which, again, echoes both the Fino and Amontillado from earlier. There is a finality with this sherry—it’s sweetness complimenting the drier sherries from earlier. Now, if you like especially spicey food, I’ve read this pairs very well with aromatic spices of India. I’m not one for especially spicey food, however, so I paired mine with a good old fashioned brownie with a dollop of ice cream on top. With a low-carb diet, both of these work beautifully because the sweeteners used in low carb brownie mixes and ice creams are more subtle than regular sugar. 

Revenge, they say, is sweet. And this seems to be the case of Montresor when he completes his labors in the catacombs. He said at the beginning of the story he intended to make Fortunato feel the full nature of the hurt he had suffered. This he does cruelly—by not only joining in Fortunato’s screams but “surpassed them in volume and strength” and then when Fortunato sobers up doesn’t even tell him why. Instead, he just parrots Fortunato’s words before finishing the task. 

Yet, his heart grows sick afterwards. He quickly recovers his narrative and explains that it’s the catacombs which make it sick. But, I have reason to doubt this myself. If you remember, the beginning of Hamlet there is a sickening of the heart too—from one of the guards. I think Montresor is having a prick of conscience in this moment and it shows with how quickly he ends his narrative, just has he quickly forces that last stone into place. 

Is revenge as sweet as they claim? I think, as Poe no doubt intended, the answer is no. 

Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

Ultimately, like with “The Black Cat” Poe keeps the full details just out of our reach—we have enough to see the story before us, but the more we cross-examine the details and evaluate the details the respective narrators tell us, the deeper the notes of the story become, much like the notes of the four different sherries we looked at today. It’s something to which we should all aspire as writers and as appreciators of fine literature. 

So, the next time you’re strolling the aisles looking for a new vintage to try, I hope you delve into the world of sherry and enjoy it while reading a little Poe. Of course, if movies are more your thing, then Vincent Price did quite a few based upon Poe’s stories. But that will have to wait for a different post…

Happy Halloween! 

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