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My Sherry Amour

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom for travel in Europe are: food, wine, architecture, art, music, landscape and experimental alcoholic concoctions. Overflowing in all of the above, it’s no wonder that Jerez is my latest crush.

After a dalliance with Córdoba and a brief fling with Úbeda, I didn’t expect to be swept off my feet so completely by Jerez, which by all accounts is a shrinking violet compared to Andalucia’s more brazen and well-known sites. However, if I describe a recent day getting to know the eponymous heartland of sherry, you’ll see why I fell so hard.

10:00 am, heading into town, we realise the stock of fino in the fridge is dangerously low, and pop into a warehouse in a quiet old neighbourhood of Santiago along the way, to fill an empty litre bottle straight from the barrel, for just a few cents. This was not an unpicturesque episode, I might add. As a general rule, I’ll drink anything straight from the barrel, but fino, the lightest of the different varieties of sherry, with its slightly bitter resinous taste, is now my go-to plonk. Score.

11:00 am, after a coffee, we hit the fish market—hands down the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. There are mountains of fresh fish, of a hundred different varieties, with gleaming eyes and a bright sheen to their scales. I’m impressed by the throng of people buying it by the kilo, but I’m bowled over by the knife skills of the fishmongers, who adopt a series of matador poses and sing out in flamenco-esque shrieks as they sell their wares. I wonder if this is just my lively imagination, until my host points to one man selling mussels, and identifies him as one of the town’s leading palmeros—or flamenco clapper. Fishmonger by day; flamenco gypsy by night. Cool.

12:30 pm, after another coffee and a toast scraped with garlic (for breakfast), it’s time to go tasting so we head to Beam’s Bodega de Jerez, to meet Eugenia Herrera García, visit the cellars, and try to learn the difference between Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Cream and Pedro Jimenez. I’m amazed to learn about the solera system in which each brew passes through a system of interconnecting barrels (as pictured) over a period of decades, mixing with older wines along the way, and ageing beautifully and uniformly. We taste in Bodega Fundador’s La Mezquita cellar (pictured) which must be the world’s most impressive cellar, built to resemble Córdoba’s La Mezquita mosque, and containing an ocean of sherry. Wow.

2:45 pm By now we’re starving, so we drive to nearby town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the coast—a paradise of tapas joints serving the same fish we saw in the market. It’s also where a different kind of sherry—Manzanilla—comes from. Nothing to do with apples or camomile despite the name, Manzanilla is supposed to capture the taste of the sea winds that cool the barrels and blow across the vineyards. Whatever. All I know is that it makes a particularly happy marriage with the local prawns, snails, sea-urchins and other fantastic tapas we ordered. Mmmm.

Sanlúcar is where Magellan sailed from in 1519, never to return. One ship returned from that expedition, with 18 of the original 265 sailors who left—and that ship was the first ever to circumnavigate the world. A plaque on the wall commemorates their names. 22 years earlier, Christopher Columbus had left from here on his third expedition to the New World. It looks like just a small fishing town, but it’s really on the map. I like a nice digestif of history to go with my seafood lunch.

In the afternoon, we wander around. It’s an attractive town, and I buy some locally woven baskets and we visit an old palacio. It’s siesta time and the town is mostly asleep. La Cigarrera is open for drinks though, and a finer collection of hanging jamónes I’ve never seen. We have a slow beer, to while away some time. And because we’ll need all the force we can get to take on the evening’s flamenco hunting in Jerez’s peñas. What a truly great place this is.

Jack Dancy lives in Paris in an apartment that’s now full of sherry and ringing to the sound of flamenco music. He runs our Euro Bureau from where we manage all our European Trip Planning. 

I'm bowled over by the knife skills of the fishmongers, who adopt a series of matador poses and sing out in flamenco-esque shrieks.

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