Tag Archives: Andalucía

The Sherry Triangle

The most important thing I learnt from my recent trip to Andalucía:

– if it swims, drink fino
– if it flies, drink amontillado
– if it walks or runs, drink oloroso

Basically, there’s always an occasion to drink sherry!

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I’ve delayed writing this blog, nervous that one of my more knowledgeable trip companions will laugh at the doubtless errors. But here’s my attempt to describe a relaxing weekend in Spain’s sherry triangle… Actually, that’s the first mistake already. The ‘triangle’ (or denominación de Jerez, to use its proper name) comprises the three towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, but we only visited the first two in that list. The third, being smaller and less attractive, was dropped from our itinerary in favour of sight-seeing trips to the small white-washed hilltop villages of Vejer de la Frontera and Medina-Sidonia.

IMG_9409We stayed in the small coastal town of Cádiz, right at the bottom of Spain. It’s a pretty place; one of the oldest towns in Europe, with an impressive cathedral plaza and nice seafront promenade. Notable eateries include the interesting Spanish-Asian fusion bar La Candela, where we ate delicious pork bao and boquerones, and the traditional tapas bar Atxuri, one of the many places to indulge in large plates of delicious jamón ibérico. We spent some time there, wandering the narrow streets, visiting the small art gallery and sitting in cool garden squares. Some of us even dipped our toes in the sea. But most of the time, we journeyed out to the aforementioned sherry hotspots and rural villages.

In Jerez, we visited a couple of the well-established and most famous bodegas. First up was Lustau, founded in 1896 by José Ruiz-Berdejo. It started exporting sherry in the 1940s and has continued to expand ever since. In 2000, the company bought and renovated six 19th century winemaking buildings in the centre of Jerez, covering a total area of over 20,000m2, and it was around these buildings that we toured, learning about the process and methods of sherry production.

Sherry is made almost exclusively from the Palomino grape. The key difference between wine and sherry production is the layer of yeast known as ‘flor’ that prevents oxidation in the barrel. Fino, the main type of sherry produced in Jerez, is kept fresh, pale and dry by the flor, while amontillado and oloroso are exposed to oxygen during the ageing process, which makes them richer and darker. All sherries are aged using the ‘solera’ method, where rows of barrels are stacked on top of each other, the youngest (criadera) on top and the oldest (solera) on the bottom. As the sherry from the bottom is removed for bottling, the wine stored on top is moved down to the next layer, eventually making its way to the bottom.

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After taking the tour, we took the opportunity to taste eight different sherries, including a very nice pala cortado, a rarer variety somewhere half-way between an amontillado and an oloroso, and two varieties of pedro ximénez, the dark, sweet dessert sherry. We then had a long and very tasty lunch at La Cruz Blanca – the arroz negro with cuttlefish was amazing! – before joining the Gonzalez Byass tour. Byass is one of the oldest and most established family-run bodegas and their most famous fino, Tio Pepe (Uncle Joe), is known all over the world. It’s not a great sherry, but their buildings are vast, their tasting room elegant, and it was worth the visit for the little tractor-train alone.

Our trip to Spain coincided – and not by accident – with Feria de Caballo, the Jerez horse fair, an event whose history goes back five hundred years to the time of Alfonso X El Sabio. Parque González Hontoria, a vast area on the outskirts of the town, is filled for a week with hundreds of casetas (little ‘pop-up’ restaurants and bars). Horses are paraded in their finery during the day and the evening is given over to drinking, eating and flamenco, with fireworks and impressive light displays. The only shame was that we hadn’t managed to find accommodation in Jerez itself, and the last train to Cádiz saw us leaving the festival before midnight, sullenly suspecting that the locals were only just warming up.

IMG_9430In Sanlúcar de Barrameda we visited La Cigarrera, a much smaller bodega that gets its grapes from local co-operatives rather than keeping its own vineyards. The sherry in Sanlúcar is manufactured using the same methods as for fino, but the cooler temperature and higher humidity creates a thicker layer of flor yeast than in Jerez, resulting in a fresher, more delicate flavour. The sherry is called manzanilla and has a slightly salty flavour due to its proximity to the sea and Guadalquivir river estuary. It turned out that our guide book was out of date and we arrived late for the once-daily tour, but we were happily shown around anyway by an informative woman on the front desk and actually learned more about sherry making than at any of the bigger bodegas.

After a ‘light’ lunch at Casa Balbino, which turned out to be anything but by the time we’d had second helpings of Galician pulpo, prawn tortilla, croquettas and jamon, we took a boat trip up the river into Doñana National Park. This turned out to be disappointing. Despite boasting a wide range of fauna (red deer, wild boar, mongoose, badger, lynx), as well as a variety of bird, including the imperial eagle, we failed to spot anything and only got a far-off glimpse of the highly-anticipated flamingo. Furthermore, the temperature had risen to around 34°C, resulting in some burned shoulders. I’d recommend skipping the boat and devoting more time to tapas!

Whilst nowhere near as grand as some of Andalucia’s highlights – Seville, Granada, Córdaba – the sherry triangle is certainly a lovely area to explore and a nice change if you’re seeking a more relaxed weekend.

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Semana Santa 2014

I’ve wanted to return to Seville since visiting in 2006 and I’ve been particularly keen to see the Holy Week celebrations. So it was a lovely treat when Paul’s mum offered us the spare room in their house on Calle Levíes for Easter weekend. The salmon-coloured residence is on a quiet street, less than a five minute walk from Plaza del Triunfo and the Real Alcázar. You couldn’t have hoped for a better location.

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We arrived bright and early on Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday), collected the house keys, changed into clothing more appropriate for the 32°C heat, and then headed out for lunch at Vineria San Telmo, a local restaurant recommended by our host Maria. Sated by quails eggs on jamón ibérico, cod in Andalusian stew, and a salmon, strawberry and potato salad – delicious and inexpensive – we decided to wander down to Avenida de la Constitución and take in some sights. I’ll never tire of strolling round the centre of this city: it’s so impressive and elegant, yet so down-to-earth and welcoming. With the sun beating down, we only really managed to circumnavigate the cathedral before requiring an ice-cream stop. A well-timed pit-stop, as it turns out, since – as we dropped down to the bank of the Guadalquivir river – we bumped into our first procession of nazarenos.

IMG_4659Now, for the uninitiated, there are various terms you need to become familiar with when taking part in Semana Santa. Nazarenos are members of the different hermandades or cofradías (brotherhoods), who dress in long robes and capes, with a capirote (cone-shaped hood) to hide their identity. The colours of the robes and hoods let you know which brotherhood you are seeing. This cofradía was La Exaltación and we were lucky enough to see the cruz de guia (the cross carried at the head of the procession) and the fifty-strong brass band passing over Puente de San Telmo and past the Torre del Oro. I was very excited! The processions are very dignified, sombre affairs, but many are also family events, with little children proudly dressed in their robes and eager to keep up with their parents. We watched as hundreds of nazarenos filed past, dressed in purple and white, carrying their incense and silver staffs. Buoyed by the experience, I was keen to see more. But after our early morning flight and mindful of the long evening ahead, Paul sensibly suggested we return to the house for a short siesta, followed by a glass of wine or two on our rooftop terrace (oh, yes!).

IMG_4861Refreshed, we were all set to enjoy the Madrugá, the pinnacle of Holy Week where several processions run throughout the night and into the morning of Good Friday. But first: tapas. Our initial stop was at Bodeguita La Parihuela, a small bar on Pasaje de Vila in Barrio Santa Cruz. I started on the rum and coke, conscious of the need to stay alert, and we sampled the grilled octopus, lomo and sheep’s cheese. Nipping down to the main plaza, we managed to catch a glimpse of the El Valle brotherhood exiting the cathedral with their glorious paso. The paso is the main event of every procession: it’s the float carrying the particular sculpture of that cofradía. It might be Christ on the cross, the Virgin Mary or another representation from the Bible. The word paso is from the latin ‘passus’, meaning suffering, and the float is a very large and ornately decorated wooden structure carried by a team of costaleros, the strong (and increasingly tired) men who are hidden below. The costaleros usually wear a faja (a wide belt to protect their back) and a costal (a piece of fabric that looks like a turban, to protect their head). Rather them than me!

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Armed with a street map and procession schedule, we next weaved our way through the crowds to the corner of Calle Placentines and Calle Argote de Molina, the perfect position to see the Pasión brotherhood passing through. We literally had a front row spot as the solemn troop, all dressed in black and spattered liberally with wax from their long cirio candles, filed past. The paso – Christ carrying the cross – was beautiful. People craned from balconies to see and women in black dress with the traditional mantilla lace covering cried and made the sign of the cross as it passed by. Very dramatic! Following the paso were more nazarenos and then hundreds of penitentes, members of the procession who repent of their sins by carrying a heavy wooden cross over their shoulder. The penitentes are distinguishable because they don’t wear the stiff capirote cone, but have a drooping hood instead and usually walk barefoot.

IMG_4708After a quick tortilla and glass of wine at Bodega Santa Cruz on Calle Rodrigo Caro, we studied the schedule again. It was about 1am, so we rushed across town to try to see the El Silencio brotherhood leaving their church. This is the most grave of all the processions and, as the name suggests, onlookers are required to be silent as it passes. Unfortunately, we were too far towards the back of the huge crowd this time to see anything, so retreated to the streets around the Ayuntamiento de Sevilla (City Hall) for more rum. Not sure where best to try next, we started walking in the direction of the crowds along Avenida de la Constitución and happened upon the paso of El Gran Poder (the Great Power), then skirted around the cathedral to Plaza del Triunfo and found ourselves trapped, completely hemmed in by the crowds. Fortuitously, the gathered masses were there to see El Silencio. This time we were in a prime spot to silently watch the thousands of slow-marching nazarenos, the stunning paso and the penitentes. Crawling into bed at 3.30am, I had a huge smile on my face. What a way to start the weekend!

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We slept in on the morning of Viernes Santo (Good Friday), but I couldn’t be held back for long. A half-hour walk across town found us at Puerta de la Macarena, the monumental arch at the end of the old city walls, a choice spot to witness the end of the Esperanza Macarena procession.

IMG_4777This is the longest and most splendid of the routes, starting at midnight and finishing back at the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena (Our Lady of Hope Macarena) over 13 hours later. Of over 100 different pasos, big and small, that form part of the 58 processions over the seven days of Semana Santa, this paso is the most anticipated and celebrated. We weren’t disappointed. After waiting patiently for about half an hour, guarding our position from over-zealous locals and tourists alike, we watched in stunned awe for the next hour as the float was carried slowly around the square, through the arch and into the church. At times the procession halted, allowing the crowd to listen to the refrains of a saeta, a wailing song of sorrow and repentance performed from one of the balconies overlooking the square. And as the Virgin finally re-entered her home, the crowds threw flowers and shouted ” Guapa!” (beautiful). It was an unmissable experience.

Our feet certainly needed a rest after that, so we made our way to La Azotea on Calle Jesus del Gran Poder for some lunch. White asparagus; toast with tomato jam, burrata and anchovy; and a modern twist on paella – a restaurant I’d really recommend. We liked it so much that we returned to their branch on Mateos Gago for breakfast the next day. Feeling energised, we walked down to Plaza de España. We sat on the tiled benches for a while, marvelling at its splendour, and watch the hapless tourists attempt to row their girlfriends round the pond, then crossed into Parque de Maria Luisa for a stroll through the cool gardens.

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More wine on the terrace and more late-night tapas, this time at Las Teresas on Calle Santa Teresa, where we enjoyed cured meats and cheese surrounded by hanging hams and bull-fighting memorabilia. The second stop was a bar on the opposite bank of the river (I’ve forgotten it‘s name) where we ate oxtail with chickpeas and grilled prawns. Ideally located – as was the plan – we were then able to catch the El Cachorro brotherhood processing over Puente Isabel II bridge at midnight. We saw both the cruz and the Cristo de la Expiración paso, regarded as one of the masterpieces of Semana Santa. Splendid work! And, as a bonus, on our route home we passed the cofradía of La O, with their silken purple robes and beautiful crying Virgin surrounded by giant white candles.

IMG_4748On Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday) we took a rest from the processions and concentrated on sight-seeing. The morning was taken up with a tour of the stunning Real Alcázar, with its fusion of Spanish Christian and Moorish architecture, and the afternoon was spent in the grand cathedral. Paul was delighted to buy audio guides in both places and happily navigated us round, signalling points of interest and repeating anecdotes. For more information, check out my previous post on Andalucía. In the evening, we caught a flamenco show at the Auditorio Alcantara on Ximenez de Enciso. This was only my second ever flamenco show and I loved it. The passion and energy are fabulous and we were treated to an amazing guitarist, wonderful singer and two very accomplished dancers. As well as being a New Orleans trombone player and a ribbon acrobat worthy of Cirque du Soleil, I now also want to train to be a flamenco dancer. It’s important to set achievable goals.

IMG_4826After the show, we weaved through the crowds to get to Mechela on Calle Bailen, the only restaurant of the holiday that I’d booked in advance. We were joined by Paul’s mum, Alison, Jean and their friends, who hadn’t managed to avoid the masses quite so well, but who had caught a couple of bonus processions as a result. The food and wine at Mechela was really top notch. We shared large plates of delicious arroz negro with seafood and crispy iberican rice with pork loin, then each ordered an individual dish. I had grilled squid stuffed with black pudding and apple, and I stole tastes of Paul’s venison, Judy’s cod with beetroot and Jean’s salmon tartar. All were fantastic. And luckily we had room for some torrija for dessert. It’s a traditional dish of Semana Santa: sliced, fried bread soaked in milk, eggs, honey (and in this case sherry). Yum!

And so we came to the end of our short break: Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday). It seems slightly strange to me that after such an outpouring of grief and drama for six solid days, there is only one celebratory procession on the Sunday. I would personally have thought that the rising of the Saviour deserves a bigger billing, but it’s obviously not as much of a deal as his suffering. As it turns out, this lone parade was also the only one to be cancelled this year due to the threat of rain. No mind; it gave us the opportunity to visit Casa de Pilatos, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world. The 15th century palace has quickly leaped up my list of favourite buildings in the world, with its harmonious blend of Mudéjar, renaissance and romantic styles and floor-to-ceiling moorish tiles. The tour of the upstairs rooms by a Spanish Stepford Wife crossed with a Dr Who-style cyborg also added a good dose of humour. A great way to end the weekend!

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