A Very Sherry Girl

‘I’m a very sherry girl,’ says Consuelo, who’s showing us round the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez. ‘When I was two years old I had a nanny who was a gypsy and she taught me to dance the flamenco. Oh yes, I would dance on the table when I was two. I will still dance on the table, of course. People ask me how I can go out at night and work the next day, but I do it, dance till two, three o’clock and then in work the next morning at seven, eight o’clock. It’s not a problem.’

Gonzalez Byass are best known for producing one of Britain’s – and the world’s – favourite sherries, Tio Pepe, the name simply the Spanish for Uncle Joe. The founder of the bodega – or cellar – worked in a bank in Cadiz and his Uncle Joe used to come every day to help him out. In the early days cash was short and Uncle Joe said that instead of wages he would take a key to the cellar so he could bring his friends in to have a drink. So the friends used to say: Let’s go and have a drink of Uncle Joe’s sherry. Then when the registration of names came in, Tio Pepe it was.

But there’s much more to Jerez de la Frontera than sherry. For one thing there’s an incredible lack of British tourists, despite the fact that the Costa del Sol is little more than an hour’s drive away. Perhaps we’re just more attracted to places with names we can easily say, like Marbella, than to the two resorts near Jerez: Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. This triumvirate forms the sherry triangle, where the entire world’s production comes from, and attracts Spanish tourists drawn by the beaches and the excellent seafood.

At La Parra Vieja in Jerez, the Old Vinestalk, we turned up for lunch at 2pm only to find that the place hadn’t opened yet. When they say they eat late in Spain, they really mean it. The owner took pity and unlocked the doors, and we ordered the house speciality, some shrimp tortillas (puntillitas). Sorry, said the owner, I’ve been feeling a little whimsical today and haven’t made any. You have to be in the mood for making puntillitas. We asked him to bring us what he had felt like making, and sat back to sip on artichoke soup, eat plates of shrimps, of cheese, anchovies and the claws of some unknown sea creature which had to be smashed on a little wooden board with a mallet. I was eating things I never thought I’d be able to – sea snails pierced on a toothpick? – and drinking sherry in quantities not even a vicars’ convention would get through. In Jerez they drink sherry before, during and after meals, perhaps kicking off with a light fino, and ending with a darker oloroso.

Back at the hotel I flick the TV channels. There’s bull-fighting on one and scrambled porn on another, though I’d much prefer they scrambled the bull‑fighting and left the porn. In fact the bull was scrambled next day, when it was on sale and hanging from hooks at one of the butchers’ stalls in Jerez market at 700 pesetas a kilo. Back at the TV there was no lack of choice. Eric and Ernie in The Intelligence Men, dubbed into Spanish with a surprisingly convincing Eric Morecambe. There was soccer, there was tennis, there was a Spanish You’ve Been Framed (thankfully without El Beadle) and there was the usual ludicrous Italian game show fronted by a hostess with a cleavage the size of the Alps. It seemed better not to have a siesta after viewing that little lot, on top of sea snails and sherry, as who knew what kind of dreams would turn up?

Another day, another bodega, this time the Williams and Humbert company where I’m showed around by a London cabbie. Thomas Spencer came from a family of cabbies and met his Spanish wife through his uncle: ‘My uncle was stationed in Gibraltar during the war,’ he told me as we relaxed with a sherry after the tour, ‘and he married my wife’s aunt… though I didn’t know then that she was going to become my wife, of course. My uncle and his wife were living in Dagenham. One day my Spanish aunt said that her niece was emigrating to England and could I driver her round? I used to take her to visit her aunt in Dagenham. We couldn’t talk much because I was in front and she was in the back, with no communication between the two in those days, and in any case we had no language in common. But we started to go out and took a dictionary with us. We got by. In order to arrange a date I’d want to know when her next day off was and she’d say, ‘Mañana-mañana-mañana-mañana-mañana-mañana-mañana!’ So I knew it was in a week’s time. Then we’d sort out what time.

‘Eventually we got married, and came out here to Jerez for the wedding. It was the day after the World Cup Final in 1966 so everyone was congratulating me twice over. We used to come to Jerez for holidays and she’d come back to London and be terribly homesick. We had two children, and every year I sent them with my wife to Spain for a couple of months. When I saw them off at the airport I admit that at first I thought, “Oh good, a bit of peace and quiet for a while.” But I’d come home and look round the house and see their things, see the toys and cots, and I missed them terribly. That was when I realised that material things didn’t matter. Your family and being together and being happy, that’s what really matters. So we moved.’

Thomas’s cockney humour isn’t wasted on the bodega tours. He shows the group a small model of the bodega as it was in the 19th century, when the grape‑treading was done by foot. ‘I believe that’s still the best way,’ someone remarks. ‘Well,’ says a doubting Thomas, ‘I’ve seen old black and white film of those treading methods, with the men smoking cigarettes and dropping the butts in with the grapes. Everything went in there. And they used to tread all night long to get the job done, so do you think they bothered to get out if they wanted to go to the toilet? No, we’ll stick to the modern methods.’

We pick up lots of sherry-drinking tips, too, like discovering that oloroso will keep for up to two years once it’s opened, because the oxidation process has already taken place, but other sherries will only last for a maximum of two weeks, and even then only if kept in the fridge. I think of all the bottles of sherry I’ve seen in people’s houses, opened for a nip one Christmas and still being drunk the next year. We also use the wrong-shaped glasses, typically serving it in ones that are tiny with straight sides, when it should be poured into a larger tulip-shaped wine glass, to get the best of the aroma. ‘The cellar-master tastes with the nose,’ another bodega guide tells us, ‘and only uses his mouth when he has any doubts. The cellar-master who tastes the sherry as it is progressing, he is like a bull-fighter… it is a God-given gift.’

Did I say there was more to Jerez than just sherry? Well there is, like the Cathedral, a Moorish castle, weekly displays at the town’s renowned horse‑riding school, the nearby Coto Doñana National Park and festivals galore. But when in Rome you look round churches, in Florence you visit galleries, in India see the temples. In Jerez you drink sherry and eat seafood.

On our final night we took local advice and went to a prize-winning tapas bar, Bar Juanito. It’s easy to find from the main square – established for fifty years, it has its own road sign directing you to it. The owner specialises in artichokes, and goes all over Spain looking for the best specimens. We had four mouth‑watering green globes. Then a plate of langostinos (prawns, with a home-made mayonnaise dip), another of calamar pequeño entero (baby squid stuffed with minced-up pork and squid tentacles), lomo en caña (spicy pork sausage taken from the spine of the pig), chicharrón (little round pieces of pork crackling) and a plate of potatoes soaked in oil and vinegar and served with parsley and onion (patatas cocidas con aceite vinage, lebolla, perejil). And bread. And two glasses of sherry. And then a half-bottle of Tio Pepe. And a bottle of water. The bill? About £15 each. And, er, we’d had a bottle of fino first in the bar across the road. So where was Consuelo? I felt like dancing on the tables myself.