Three weeks to go and eating.

Three things the Spanish get right about food:

  1. Spanish omelette, so simple yet never disappoints
  2. Sharing is caring. Variety is the spice of life and I would much prefer to have a little of everything than a huge plate all to myself of only one flavour. With the exception of sweet potato fries.

  3. Nothing beats simple seasoned tomatoes and hard cheese when consumed as close as possible to their point of origin.

The thing that immediately struck me while consuming a cup of gazpacho by the pool in my hotel was how perfect the food was for the weather. A balmy 22degrees and all I wanted was a cold, mildly garlicky, refreshing tomato soup. However I’m the first to point out that in the more dismal weather conditions in England all I want is roast chicken and an apple crumble.

It’s stating the obvious to point out that seasonality and produce should really have a higher place in our food consumption than they currently do but in the age of grab and go it is sadly not the case. I am particularly guilty of making cheap and easy the criteria for dinner.

However I am slowly moving to realise that the meat from my butcher is infinitely tastier than that from Sainsbury’s, it’s a shame in England that the price doesn’t match. In Spain it couldn’t be more different. Choosing an octopus dish when octopuses are plentiful in the surrounding area is not only cheap but delicious. Other tapas I would recommend next time you are in Jerez are; squid ink croquettes, thinly sliced Jamon with quince, marinated anchovies and of course the aforementioned Spanish omelette.

The prize for the best meal I ate in Jerez was undoubtedly the sherry and food matching menu at La Carbona. With a Michelin star and a jazzed up bodegas style interior, you could be forgiving for assuming this restaurant is hype over delivery but as the only non-local in the restaurant I beg to differ. A full 6-course sherry and food matching menu at €45 seems remarkably cheap and they could easily have cut corners on the food or wine they selected. However each course was carefully thought through and painstakingly matched not only to the style of wine, but to the individual producer style as well.

Upon arrival I was greeted with a smooth and silky chicken liver parfait with a Pedro Ximenez syrup. The sweet and savoury notes reminiscent of a Sauternes and foie gras blend but with a richer flavour. Then I moved to the first pairing. A Fino from William-Hubert with beetroot marinated salmon and guacamole. When I say this was my least favourite pairing, it’s merely because the following courses were of a particularly high standard, the salmon was melt in the mouth and the guacamole, punchy with flavour. The acidity of the Fino cut through the oily salmon like a knife.

Next up was my second favourite dish. I mentioned the proximity of Jerez to the sea makes for exquisite seafood dishes and this squid, wild mushroom and Parmesan risotto was no exception. Each component of the dish had been carefully thought out to match the Amontillado sherry by Dios Baco it was paired with. The wine was dark, savoury and caramelised on the nose whilst the palate displayed hints of a salty sea breeze. The dish was aromatic with Unami flavours of wild mushroom and Parmesan you could smell a mile off, but the taste had a hidden layer of salty squid, all stirred through a perfect al dente risotto.

The third pairing was surprising. A Palo Cortado, the smooth, lighter Oloroso wine style, with an Asian inspired dish. A pan fried sea bream with satay cream and stir fried vegetables. This turned out to be the ultimate winning combination of the lunch. The notes of sesame and peanut matched perfectly to notes of these sweeter nuts in the wine that I had barely noticed before but now will be forever synonymous with the Palo Cortado style. An explosion of flavour in the mouth and surely paving the way for a fusion style of cuisine.

Then came the classic pairing. Roast duck with pears and Oloroso. A pairing that exploits duck’s natural affinity to be accompanied by a touch of sugar and Oloroso’s ability to cut through the fattiness and match the rich dark meat of the duck breast. The Oloroso in question was a beautiful wine from bodegas Rio Viejo but unfortunately I had just tried an incredible Oloroso earlier that day (Faustino Gonzales) so unfortunately it somewhat paled in comparison.

The final course was once again surprising but less for the wine-matching than the dish itself. The sommelier explained that she had chosen a boutique cream sherry with a blend of Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez which would’ve gone wonderfully with any sweet ice cream and the delicious perfumed Fino tuile that accompanied the dish. The sugar in the dish mellowed the sugar in the wine, minimising your perception of it but retaining a caramelised flavour. However the astounding part was the ice cream, a cheese ice cream, that was surprisingly tasty. It was like eating a vanilla ice cream with a final afterthought of Unami Parmesan, subtle but with a lingering aftertaste. The strawberry syrup was not necessary on the dish as the ice cream spoke for itself and the syrup slightly overwhelmed it, but I would gladly eat a bowl of the extraordinary confection again.

It seems a shame that recreating the food in England probably won’t taste quite as good or authentic, but come the highs of 22degrees that we’ll inevitable get in the great British summer, I’ll certainly try.

Three weeks to go and drinking

Three things I learnt in Jerez:

  1. Sherry isn’t just a drink, it’s a way of life, particularly as you can get it for €1.50 a glass in most places. Long sit down meals are for the French and it is much cheaper and authentic to bar crawl and grab a fresh glass of sherry and tapas as you go.
  2. Every style of sherry has it’s place and can be drunk at any time in the day, depending on the time of year and your mood. Except breakfast. At breakfast you drink cava.

  3. The Spanish couldn’t care less whether we’re in the EU or not provided we get on and leave, then they can see the impact on exports and adjust accordingly.

It is clear when visiting the various bodegas around the city the impact that the British made on the sherry industry and that the residents of Jerez regard it with the fondness of an eccentric grandparent. The British have always had a certain taste for fortified wine and have made a huge impact on all of the major historic varieties. The majority of Port producers and Madeira producers have surprisingly English names owing to the family owners roots in the 19th century or so being British, partly due to colonisation. Travelling to Madeira last year I got the impression that whilst the wine is drunk throughout the area copiously at all times of the day, part of its longevity and success as a product was the British fondness for post-prandial fortified drinks. They were more alcoholic than wine but didn’t carry the lower-class connotations or burn that many spirits did.

The difference with sherry is that whilst they acknowledge that a fondness for the drink by the British not only supported the development of some of the major producers, (Tio Pepe springs to mind) it is very much a drink by the Spanish for the Spanish. The British butchered the nuances of the traditional dry varieties by insisting on the addition of sugar, particularly getting a taste for the cream style. The cream style (usually a blend of Oloroso/Palo Cortado/Amontillado and the naturally intensely sweet Pedro Ximenez wine, made from dried grapes) is a style of sherry that certainly has it’s place in the original line up, however the fino cream sherry, sweetened with grape juice and normally seen at Christmas of the Bristol cream variety, does not.

Recently we are seeing a renaissance in the British taste for sherry as a younger generation is introduced to the nuances of the dry styles and the development of the wine. Smaller producers that would never have made it across the waters to Britain in the past are now more common and the concentration of flavour and unique craftmanship is beginning to appeal to the market as oppose to the bulk production and continuity that used to be the required criteria.

 Whilst in sherry I was lucky enough to be able to get a better understanding of the development of the wine by visiting three very different bodegas. The first was Lustau, widely regarded as the benchmark for premium sherry nowadays and of course by no great coincidence, stocked at Berry Bros. & Rudd. Their approach is fairly technical. The humid weather is crucial to the creation of the magical flor/yeast layer that covers the Fino sherry in the ageing process, protecting the wine from oxidation and giving it its characteristic bitter notes, hence the floor is wetted in the hotter months to maintain this perfect humidity. Tasting through the range means you start to understand the importance of the location of the barrels, those aged near the sea take on the characteristic of the flor from that area, a saltier quality if you like. Compare a wine aged near the harbour and you can almost taste the seaweed, marginally rougher than the more marine and mineral notes of those aged on the cliff sides. The Oloroso, fortified to a cool 20%, killing the flor and allowing the wine to oxidise, is carefully monitored and each of the marginally different varieties are named for friends of the family and aged in separate solera systems. An east India cream sherry, a blend of their Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez, is aged once blended to give it a softer characteristic rather than bottling immediately. The one exception to this military precision at Lustau is the enigmatic Palo Cortado wine, but more on that later.

The next style of bodegas I saw was the commercial bodegas. Tio Pepe is probably the most well known brand of sherry in the world and one of the largest scale productions. Unlike the other two places I visited they can proudly claim age on their side that led to the scale of the property as it is now. They place a great emphasis on their history, from the original Tio Pepe advising his nephew starting the project in the early 19th century, to the investment from the sherry-loving British banker, Mr Byass, that kickstarted the exportation of the product. They have two huge bodegas dedicated to a visit from the queen of Spain in the 19th century and other notable figures. They range from Churchill to Bobby Charlton, their signatures all preserved in chalk on the barrels, still containing a portion of the liquor that was held in it when they were embossed. They have become synonymous with consistency to be able to provide for the 150 markets they cater to across the world and they can achieve this with a solera system old enough to guarantee this consistency. The solera system is at the heart of the sherry production. The final wine to be bottled is drawn from a set of casks that can contain wine from when the solera first started. This barrel is topped up with wine from the next level up, which is topped up with wine from the next level up, which is topped up with the new wine, fresh from fermentation. In the case of Tio Pepe, despite the wine not having a vintage, some of the soleras can claim to contain wine that is 200years old. It is impressive on both a commercial level and to show the development of the sherry wine to its global popularity today.

The final bodegas I visited gave a sense of the community and passion of the sherry wine. I visited a small producer, Faustino Gonzalez, with a single large ageing house. Despite the family having been making sherry for a few decades, they had only started to sell the product four years ago as Spanish laws prohibited commercial sale of production under a certain amount. The change in law meant that a winemaking family with history, passion and experience were able to bring their expertise and craftsmanship over the years on to the open market. I was treated to a one on one chat with the winemaker and a unique chance to taste the development of a wine through the solera system. Starting with the original white wine, pre fortification, I tasted a standard inoffensive table wine. Then I tasted a single year-aged Fino with the flor just formed, ready to fill the next part of the system when required. Straight from the barrel we tasted the next stage of the system, the colour intensifying and the bitter notes starting to appear. Then the next stage, now at least 4 years in barrel and savoury and salty. Finally we tasted the solera, a minimum of 6 years old, almost golden, ready to be bottled and perfumed with salty almond and deep with concentration. The common thread running through Faustino Gonzales’s wines is the concentration of flavour. Achieved by the very fact that the wine was originally made for pleasure rather than commerciality. Jaime explained to me that the ethos here was to wait, and let the wines create themselves. There was no rush. For example their Amontillado, usually made by ageing a Fino sherry oxidatively to make it a halfway point between the Oloroso and Fino, is not fortified to 20% immediately. Rather the alcohol percentage is gently raised by 1-2% every years letting the flor die slowly and allowing the flavour to intensify over time. A nod should also be made to their extraordinarily good Oloroso. It has a nose of intense sweetness, reminding you of a candied Christmas cake, rich with dried fruit, orange peel and walnut, but the palate is dry, the flavours lingering but the acidity refreshing the palate at the same time. The best wine I tried on my trip. However there was one mystery that Jaime couldn’t explain to me, and that was the Palo Cortado wine. A wine traditionally baffling, originally classified as a fino sherry for its characteristics once fermented but then when re-tasted a year later, deemed to be better aged oxidatively as an oloroso. The wine is never quite as rich as an Oloroso but is smoother than any of the other wines in the line up. The only way Jaime could explain it was that it was a wine that had to be found, it couldn’t be made.

It was Jaime who clarified my impression of the Spanish attitude to Brexit. He asked me my thoughts and upon hearing a tirade of comments on the insanity of leaving a group that our modern institutions are so intertwined with, merely shrugged and said that the Spanish would adjust accordingly but they just needed a definitive stance from the British. He is of course correct. In a town with a heritage of food and wine that is much much older than any treaty agreement, they hardly need to worry about the British but it is always nice to know what’s going on.